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Cake or Death bakery: What makes a perfect chocolate brownie?



Katie Cross baking some brownies

What makes the perfect brownie? For Katie Cross (pictured above), the answer is lots of melted chocolate and high-quality fillings. “We usually have around 12 flavours running at any one time - we put a lot of filling in them and we don’t cut corners.”

Katie, 41, is the founder of Cake or Death, a Devon-based bakery that sells vegan brownies, delivered through your letterbox, in a pink leopard print box.

For Christmas, Katie and her team have created a mince pie brownie. “We make a dried fruit mincemeat mix and run some Christmas spices through the brownie mix so it’s like having a really chocolatey mince pie,” she says.

“We’ve also got a gingerbread kit you can use to bake gingerbread at home - it makes your kitchen smell amazing.” The brownies and baking kits are sold online and at local markets. Cake or Death has a stand at the Exeter Christmas Market, running throughout December. For her banking, Katie uses Starling.

Pivoting from wholesaler to online bakery

Cake or Death began in 2019 as a provider of wholesale vegan brownies and cakes to bakeries, cafés and restaurants. “I was living in East London at the time and I went round a bunch of cafés and asked ‘If you were going to take on a new wholesale cake supplier, what would you be looking for?’ And they all said ‘Really good vegan cake’. So that was a clear steer for me.

Cake or Death make 12 sorts of chocolate brownie
Cake or Death make 12 sorts of chocolate brownie

“Then one café said, ‘If you could make a good vegan brownie, you’d be laughing.’ I went away and developed the recipe and it hasn’t changed since.”

One year in, Katie pivoted her business model and started selling brownie boxes online, direct to consumers. “In March 2020, 90% of my wholesale customers cancelled their orders because of the pandemic shutting everything down. Luckily, I’d had an idea about sending brownies through the post and I had a rudimentary website going. So I went onto good old Instagram and asked people to order.”

Developing a subscription base

“Instagram has been the real driver of my business,” says Katie, who recently wrote a business guide, How to grow your business on Instagram, for Starling.

“In the middle of the second lockdown especially, my sales went through the roof - people were stuck at home, on their phones, desperate for a treat they could enjoy without going out. I couldn’t post on Instagram without being battered by sales.”

Each month there’s a limited edition brownie flavour
Each month there’s a limited edition brownie flavour

“I have a very high repeat customer rate, which is partly why I decided to give people an option to subscribe.” Customers can choose six or ten different flavours and arrange for a box to arrive every two, four, six or 12 weeks.

“There’s a limited edition flavour every month and I include a monthly paper newsletter for subscribers in every box. I want people to feel like they’re on the inside track with the bakery. Subscribers are people who are committing to our business.”

Growing with Starling

Katie became a Starling business customer in 2020. “I read an article about the founder of Starling and she seemed like she’d done something quite extraordinary,” she says. Starling is the first UK bank founded by a woman, Anne Boden.

“I applied to Starling and the account was set up in a day and I’ve found it incredibly easy to deal with ever since.” Katie also has a personal account with Starling. “I love the convenience of the Starling app, I check it multiple times a day to see when I last paid suppliers or to access my card details. I also find that Starling’s integration with Xero saves me time at the end of each month.”

Last year, Cake or Death won a £5,000 grant through a Starling business competition, Take Flight. “I’ve put the money towards the new website, which is coming soon.”