Savvy Spotlight: Stacey Ward and the Mornington Crescent Bakery
An Interview with a British Baking Entrepreneur
The story goes like this: when she was a child, Stacey Ward saw images of people celebrating hanami in Japan and thought that they were sitting under the Bramley apple trees she knew from her own backyard. This planted the seeds of a passion that would take her from art school graduate to English teacher to running her own popular bakery school and shop in central Tokyo.
Brit-born Stacey is living the dream. Her bakery business Mornington Crescent, named after a game on her favorite BBC radio channel, has risen steadily since its launch in 2013, opening Tokyoites eyes and mouths to the under-appreciated art of British baking.
Classes are booked up months in advance and her bi-monthly open bakery sees converted fans lining up round the corner, tupperware in hand, for a taste of authentic treats from scones to Victoria sponge to Battenberg to rhubarb crumble…are you drooling yet?
We sat down with Stacey, and a cup of PG Tips, to find out more.
Let’s start with the basics! Why Japan and why baking?
I’d always wanted to come to Japan ever since I was little. At university, I heard about the JET program, applied, and was placed in a school in Saitama. After three years teaching, I moved to Tokyo and worked different jobs in graphics and web design. The whole time I carried on baking, just like I would do back home, simply because I wanted to. I would bake things that I missed, like crumpets, and research for ages to find the right ingredients.
How did you get the idea to start your own business?
I’d been working in web design and SEO for a marketing company for a few years. I enjoyed it but at some point I began to realize that I wasn’t really passionate about what I was doing. I just felt it wasn’t me.
One day, I took a different route home from work and came across an empty shop close to Nishi Azabu crossing. Suddenly my head filled with all of these possibilities. I’d been baking regularly at home and getting positive reactions from friends and family. All of the ideas I’d been pushing down without realizing came to the surface; some pedestrian traffic, online sales, cooperating with other businesses, offering baking classes – it could work. I thought; “Maybe I could open my own cake shop?”
Where did you go from there?
I kept thinking about it, questioned myself, then did some more thinking. I started doing the maths and coming up with a business plan, I began to research what I needed to do and who I needed to talk to. And then I decided to write everything down in a blog as a way for me to collect my thoughts, and also to help other people who might want to start their own business in the future.
It took three years of planning, much longer than I expected, to get to the point where I was ready to open Mornington Crescent.
What were some of the initial practical steps you had to take?
I researched online to find out how much money it would cost, what licences and certificates were required, the kind of space I wanted. I saw it as a challenge and tried to stay positive through all of the form-filling and bureaucracy. Even when my first application for permanent residence was rejected, I kept trying and looked for other ways to make things work.
One place that was helpful was the Business Development Center Tokyo. They provide a free consultation service (in English and Japanese) for foreigners looking to start their own business. I met with two very friendly gentleman there who put me in touch with an Estate Agents called Wallaby Estate – they found me the shop here in Higashi-Azabu – as well as a visa and business support company called Juridique.
The information is out there, though it’s mostly in Japanese. I would find the Japanese info then put it on the blog in English. Having an outlet and an audience to answer to forced me to keep going, in a way.
What were the major challenges that you faced starting a business here?
Language is a major factor. There’s a lot of documentation that it’s your responsibility to understand. Like anywhere, people may try to take advantage of you. It’s hard to know whose opinion to trust, not only as a foreigner but as a business owner.
Plus there’s a risk of getting tied into social obligations – a give and take that is culturally expected in a way that it wouldn’t be back home.
Things are also quite expensive here. You need capital. I wanted to do it with my own partner so I wouldn’t be beholden to shareholders but this meant that the scale of my business would have to be small. Having control was more important to me than having a large company.
Was anything easier than back home?
Yes, absolutely. Lots of aspects of starting up were better in Japan than back in the UK. Business rates at home are much more expensive to begin with. Also, I really feel that there’s an openness to foreigners wanting to start something here. People want you to do well, it’s very supportive.
As a foreigner you’re automatically gifted with a unique perspective that you can bring from your home culture – this is very marketable in Japan.
Did you think that the bakery would take off in the way that it did?
I didn’t know if I could pay the rent but I’d planned enough to be able to give it a go. At least I would be doing something that I really enjoyed. The fact that it worked, that we’re in our third year and still growing, is incredible.
What’s the best part about running your own business?
Part of the reason for starting my own business was that I wanted to connect and collaborate with people that were truly passionate. Japanese people are especially heartfelt about their personal interests, and since opening the bakery I’ve discovered this wonderful community. We’re all really into baking, sourcing and sharing British ingredients. Actually, it’s been through Japanese people that I’ve been able to find rare fruits like Bramley apples and gooseberries, and I always learn a new fact or piece of knowledge from a student.
Starting this business I wanted to create a close-knit, friendly community – a little slice of an English village in Japan.
We’re always exchanging gifts, and people often make friends in class or in the queue for the open bakery.
What do you think are the keys to the success of Mornington Crescent?
There’s a small niche of people here that are really into the UK. My customers and students love British culture and often know more about it than most Brits do! Because my business is small I don’t need all of Japan to love and appreciate it. For now, I’m providing something that nowhere else is.
In this sense, the way you scale your business is important. I don’t only sell products to pay the rent. What I’m trying to do is pass on experience, teaching students to do it themselves so they can share it with their families or even start their own business – which they do. Sometimes my students say I’m too open, that I should keep my recipes to myself, this kind of thing. But I’m not worried about that, I want to spread the excitement.
I guess I’m more of a teacher than a salesperson.
If the business was a bakery everyday it would be a different scale, with different margins. If it was only a school it would be something else too. The way I’ve ended up running the business as a combination of both means that I’m able to support and be a part of a wider community.
Aside from being British, what makes Mornington Crescent different from other bakery businesses in Tokyo?
Home baking is the key. I don’t want students to have to behave like a pro baker and import stuff online. It should be easy to bake at home like it would be easy for us so most of the ingredients are sourced in Japan. Things we can’t get here, we replicate ourselves. For the Christmas Pudding class; we render our own suet with cow fat, our marzipan is homemade, and we candy our own orange peel. It’s this idea of understanding the process from start to finish that really lets people dig into the history and culture of British baking.
The lessons are always interesting since we’re in the unique and difficult position of baking British things with a Japanese supply of ingredients. If we can’t find the right ingredient, we’ll make it.
What about the future of Mornington Crescent? I think we all want to know, are you going to open a permanent bakery?!
I want to be able to grow the community, so that we can do more together. I don’t think it’s sensible to try and do everything yourself. You need to make systems and train people. I want to always be using this space. I want former students to become staff and teachers, and us all to contribute to expanding the range of things that we do.
Right now we’re working on putting more into online sales, starting with seasonal boxes that we can deliver to anywhere in the country from September. But I’m not thinking to open a branch in Singapore anytime soon!
What’s your favorite thing to bake…and eat?!
Something with Bramley cooking apples, which are much more sour than dessert apples. We just started making apple charlottes which are a bit like bread and butter pudding but without custard. Oh and apple pie is a classic. I have this love affair with Bramley apples which has enabled me to meet lots of people who feel the same way, including the wonderful people at the Bramley Apple Fan Club.
What do you love to do in Tokyo?
I love walking around old neighbourhoods.
Mita-itchome behind Nissin supermarket here in Azabu used to be called Koyama-cho and was once filled with water mills. There are all these old bridges, and buildings set in a row that look like the terraced housing back home. On a Sunday, I’ll take a stroll around and explore an area, then look up the history later.
Can you tell readers something that would surprise them about you?
Ah, that’s a difficult question. (Laughs) I play traditional Irish fiddle. My Dad’s family is Irish. I used to practice two hours every day before work but now I don’t have so much time. I’m really bad, though!
Any final advice for readers?
Starting a business is less intimidating that you might think. Do the research, learn the language (or partner with somebody who does) don’t be afraid to say no but don’t feel you have to say yes. Most importantly? Give it a go. I’ve not regretted it once.
Oh, and if you want to find the perfect milk for tea, buy “teion sakkin gyunyu,” which is milk pasteurised at a low temperature – I found this out from one of my students and it’s changed my life!
Stacey’s recommended resources:
- Business Development Center Tokyo
- Real Estate: Tanaka Tsunemasa, Wallaby Estate
- Business incorporation: Yoko Majima, Juridique
- Bramley Fan Club
Learn more about Stacey's baking school, open bakery and online shop from the official Mornington Crescent website.