Dan Larkin is the man behind those seriously mouth-watering baked delights you’ve most likely been tucking into across our most popular local cafes.
The highly sought after independent baker has been dubbed both the ‘brains and the hands’ behind thriving business Man Made.
Which means if you’re anything like us, you’ve probably been enjoying Dan’s ethical, traffik-free, melt-in-the-mouth carrot cakes and salted caramel brownies in the likes of Established (Belfast); 5A (Stranmillis); General Merchants (Belfast); Haptik (Newtownards); The Coffee Yard (Holywood); and Town Square (Belfast).
In fact, Dan’s Salted Caramel Brownies are so popular, weekends can see more than 400 of his famous treats sell-out within the day.
But Dan’s furore into starting his own business isn’t your usual story. In fact as Dan reveals, he actually graduated with a Bachelors Degree in Marine Science – and openly declares “I’m definitely not a businessman!” and has found business so far simply through social media and, even more incredibly – word-of-mouth!
“Mad Made has never been planned. I never went from the outset thinking: ‘I want to start my own baking business.’
“In fact, I graduated with a degree in Marine Science from Coleraine University, but I never actually baked that much! After I graduated I started applying for jobs and there was absolutely nothing. So that’s when I started baking for my own enjoyment. My friends started taking an interest, asking if I would sell them things, like birthday cakes and stuff for parties.
“It was sheer word of mouth that led to 5A and Established – who were just opening at the time – approaching me!”
Before this, Dan had worked in Black Bear Cafe, a small coffee shop in Stranmillis. But once again – it wasn’t a pre-planned career move that got Dan the gig: “I was baking and working in there for about a year. It gave me a good bit of experience in how the catering trade works.”
“The owner had seen pictures of cakes I’d uploaded on Facebook and saw that I had a spark for baking and asked if I wanted to come in and bake for them.”
But herein lies its own problem Dan laughs: “It means that because I’ve never had to look for work, I’m rubbish at promotion because the work always just comes to me!
“I’m sure it’s something that in the future I’m sure I’ll have to work on a bit more. But it’s all happened just so naturally and it’s been such a natural steady progression.
“Established and 5A both opened around the same time and they gave me enough work to go self-employed.”
But of course like any new business, Dan struggled initially to find his own workspace.
“I had been renting a house in Belfast and I just started working from there. I then started sharing a unit in Belfast with just one oven! Then finally, just before the end of November I finally got my own unit and am fully independent now. Which is scary!”
But what’s the aim for this self-confessed ‘non’ businessman? Despite Dan’s early and unplanned success, his plans for the future are refreshingly low-key and concentrate on simply ‘giving back.’
“A bakery would be my end-goal. I don’t necessarily see myself taking over the world. It’s not what I want to do – I don’t want chains, I just want to give people employment. The Thinking Cup’s scheme working with ex-convicts is great. I’d love to go speak with them and see how they go about that. There’s a massive problem with unemployment here in Belfast and I think people need to be trained up -which is exciting. The “Steps To Succss” scheme for 18 to 22 year olds is something I’ve been approached about and actively looking into at the moment.
“I’d like the chance to focus on other things I enjoy making. In terms of supplying to cafes you have to think about what sells to the general public and concentrate on baking things with a couple of days shelf-life. Whereas other things I like to do myself include more patisserie style items – including Custard tarts, Chocolate bundt cakes, Canelés and Madeleines.”
“A lot of the smaller traditional bakeries are kind of dying out now, and there’s a few people who have kind of done the patisserie thing in Belfast now. But I want to give people the best product possible!
“I think I’ve built up enough of a reputation now that I have people who know my produce and would want to come and purchase from me. But it’s also about finding the right spot as well in Belfast.”
“I still want to supply the cafes at the same time, and then I can offer people something a little bit different at my own bakery that you can’t get elsewhere.”
“Because I’m not a ‘business man’ it’s tough trying to get a ‘business head.’ But it’s all a learning curve. I’m enjoying it. I do wish it could be easier sometimes. If I could just sit and bake all day I would happily do that! But the business side simply has to happen. But it’s all part and parcel of trying to make a living.”
Dan has already make quite the splash for his ethical stance when it comes to Man Made, with his stance synonymous with his seriously up-and-coming brand:
“I source fair-trade sugar and chocolate and whatever else I can. It might just be a drop in the ocean because I’m getting small quantities, but at the end of the day, I’m supporting an industry that’s trying to change unfair pay. That’s important for me ethically.
“Even with the likes of paying people, I want to be fair in that. It’s across the board. Giving people a decent wage. It’s just doing the little bits that are important.
“For example, I’ve found trying to source bulk fair-trade quite difficult because most mass caterers are only interested in how cheap they can get something. So I have to do a lot of pricing about. But at the end of the day, it’s about balance.”
“I think a lot of people simply don’t think about where their food comes from or what the process is. What actually goes on behind putting sugar on your table and how many different people the product has passed through. I think it’s about challenging ourselves a bit on that and getting them to think for themselves about it.
“Everyone is equal and everyone deserves the right to have good pay and not to be taken advantage of in all aspects.
“It doesn’t cost that much spending that little bit more to buy into a business that’s trying to promote fair-trade and fair wages.”