David Manbauhar, Good Brownie Co.20th June 2018
What’s it really like to start a business in hospitality? We started an interview series to find out.
This week, we talked with David Manbauhar, Founder of The Good Brownie Company, about brownies and baking, obviously, and sexual assault in Hong Kong, somewhat less obviously.
Tell us a bit about the business.
We’ve been running about 6 years now. We don’t advertise, we never have. It’s grown organically via word of mouth and personal referral to the point where we are now, with a team of 15 people.
And what’s been the hardest transition to make over that time, as the business has changed?
I wouldn’t say that anything has been that sudden. The difficulty was growing from a basic setup in my own house to a commercial kitchen, which we did 7 months ago.
We had to take the business out of home, buy new kit and pay rent…
In London no less.
Yeah, It was a difficult and expensive, but it was an important step for us. My wife is happier, my kids maybe less so!
I guess there were less brownies in the house...
And what made you start? Why brownies?
I’ve been working in food & drink for years; I had a sandwich business before. Basically, a friend of mine tried a few brownies at my house one day and asked if I could deliver them to his work.
I’d never baked before that really, I loved cooking but I’d never baked. But I made the brownies, delivered them and then got into it.
People say there is a big difference between the two. Cooking more instinctive, baking more process and detail. Head vs. Heart maybe?
I see what you mean, but I fundamentally disagree. For me, it’s all creative. I’m not a trained baker or cook, so there are no parameters for me to abide by.
I remember speaking to a baker when I first started and I was saying ‘I’m going to do this and that’, and he said ‘that will never work’. He was so adamant. He’d been trained in such a detailed way that he rejected things that I knew could work.
You’ve had a really varied background. Has that helped you to this point?
From my perspective, yes. Everything is a challenge that can be overcome, not an obstacle. And I don’t think people can tell you that you can’t do something. My business has my fingerprints all over it and nobody else has ever run it before, so it’s my decision to make.
And I do what I want; I’m not restricted by anyone else’s experiences.
We were speaking to Angela Malik recently and she said that innovation comes from connecting inputs beyond your industry. Is that how you see it?
I do. I think some people have an innate spark – they have that personality type and you can see it at a young age.
As a kid, I was always daydreaming, I always wanted to do things and I grew up believing I would. When I was really young I remember aunts and uncles and older members of the family saying that they wished they’d done whatever but hadn’t. That really struck me, I never wanted to be like them.
I never knew what it is that I wanted to do. I saw fear among my contemporaries when I was younger – 11 or 12 maybe, whenever we saw the careers officer – but I didn’t see it that way. How would anyone know what they want to do at that age?
That’s one of the wonderful things about hospitality right? There’s a low barrier to entry and, for many people, they can translate a detour into a career.
I’ve always believed people can do whatever they want but I also know that I’m a product of my environment. I had to be independent at a young age and hospitality extended that. It gives you the opportunity to be yourself.
What has living abroad - and living in so many different countries - done for your worldview?
I’ve actually lived in the States, Canada, the Channel Islands, China, Cambodia, HK, Denmark, Netherlands, Israel, Jordan…there’s more. That was my version of escapism for many years. I was running away from my problems I guess, but as I’ve got older I’ve calmed down and stopped spreading myself so thin, but I’ve incorporated the culture of each of these places into my food, into my flavours.
I’d like to say only good things about my experiences, but it hasn’t all been great. When I lived in Hong Kong, I was very naïve about the politics, the opium wars and so on, and I had no idea about the culture. It was tough. This was back in the 90s – I don’t know if it’s the same now – but there was a syndrome that affected westerners and made people just spin out. You’re inundated with noise and crowded 24 hours a day and, after a while, some people would just break down. It was crazy. It’s an assault on the senses.
"A guy offered me what looked like dogs bollocks covered in talcum powder. Seriously"
More than London?
Oh so much more. It’s insane. It’s so overpopulated. There’s a place called Mong Kok -which was the most densely populated city in the world at the time – where, when you walk down the street, you’re shoulder to shoulder with 10-15 people among a sea of bodies as far as the eye can see. And it’s hot & humid, people don’t say please or thank you. It’s suffocating.
And when you get onto a train or bus people just push. It doesn’t matter if you’re an old woman; they’ll just push and elbow and fight their way on. At first, it was bizarre, but you get inculcated into it.
There would be incidents of men wanking off onto women on the train or the bus – they thought they were just getting poked in the back. It happened all the time; I tell people here and they think it’s an urban myth. At the time, most men had no relationship with western women outside of pornography.
I remember walking down the street with my then-girlfriend and a businessman, briefcase in hand walked by. He put his briefcase down and just grabbed her boobs, then picked up the briefcase and walked off. We were both stood there in shock; she then roused herself and ran after him and started punching him and he essentially acceded to it, as if this had happened many times before.
Then there’s the spitting, the aggression. It was difficult. I became – to be frank – racist against the generic interpretation of the entire race of people. But then something changed.
I went to China after I sold the sandwich business – I just had to leave Hong Kong – and I travelled through rural villages full of curious Chinese people. At first, it felt the same as Hong Kong had and I found myself wanting to fight people whenever they approached me. That’s how on edge I was.
I was on a train and a guy offered me what looked like dogs bollocks covered in talcum powder. Seriously. I thought he was trying to give me something that he knew I’d hate – they didn’t try it first, which is never a good sign! – and this was just after going to a local market where dogs are literally getting their throats cut in front of you. I thought, no thanks.
But he was so insistent that I just gave in, expecting it to be terrible. I was amazed. I was like ‘wow, this is delicious!’ He saw the look on my face and smiled and it was the first smile I’d seen in months. It was the antipathy of everything that happened to me to that point.
It was at that moment that I thought ‘I’ve just judged an entire race of people terribly.’ It changed my perception entirely. After that, I thought I’d take all the positive experiences and use them to propel me forward through life, not the negative. It really set me up.
I went from a very jaded person to become far more accommodating, more understanding.
I'm assuming the follow up to that story is that you eat Chinese food all the time now, right?
No, actually I don’t! You just see things there that put you off eating Chinese food for life. Chefs sitting on the pavement among the spit and cigarette butts, killing fish and meat, blood all over the curb. You can’t unsee that.
And in that part of the world, there are cockroaches everywhere, even in the best restaurants.
You owned a nightclub in Canada too right?
I spent 10 years there, 5 in HK. There are parallels between the two actually. I found Canada very sterile. Everyone was polite but there was no depth to it; people didn’t have their own opinions. It was all a bit Stepford.
I didn’t find Canada culturally engaging. I remember asking a shop owner why they only sold white, grey and black t-shirts and he said that was all that would sell. That was Canada.
Running the club, I found that I was almost taking advantage of this cultural void. People would just buy drinks to bridge a gap in personality – I know it happens here, but it was more prevalent there – or as an expression of fear and insecurity. A lot of people felt disenchanted with life and had no way to vent it, so they turned to drugs and alcohol. All these experiences have shaped how I think about the world.
Let’s talk brownies. People are more intrigued by provenance and heritage than ever, but this seems to be missed in the world of confectionary and desserts. Why is this?
I think anyone that cares about food projects an impression of themselves and their sensibilities into their product. I make brownies that I like – that’s why I don’t make coffee brownies, because I don’t drink coffee – and I eat them all, so I only make what I’m happy for me and my family to eat.
I’m a perfectionist. I go out of my way to receive feedback so that I can incorporate it in the brownies and perfect them, and that perfectionism spreads to the look as much as the taste.
Many desserts tend to be ‘eyes first.’ And I hate that. It’s such an anticlimax. Yes, make it look as good as possible – people do eat with their eyes – but back it up with genuine flavour, to take them from the look of it through to the flavour. I love seeing that when someone eats a brownie.
That’s one of the joys of food, that you can see people’s live reaction.
Absolutely. That’s why I like to deliver the food myself. It’s also the best way to receive feedback and improve the product. You can gauge people’s real reactions, rather than a calculated version.
Do you think that has something to do with your non-traditional training?
Oh definitely. I’ve ignored every professional that has ever tried to advise me really. And it’s paid off! I rely on my instincts and common sense. I put flavours together that people tell me won’t work: Chilli, lime and mango as a brownie, for example. Someone told me that would never work, but they work together in a subtle, harmonious mix.
I just have no culinary inhibitions.
And you’re making Gluten-free, Sugar-free and Paleo brownies too. Is that you, or does that come from your customers?
That’s me. The inception of the business was when I bought a gluten-free brownie because I realised that gluten was a problem for me. And I think artisanal businesses are built on the back of a move away from the corporate juggernauts and the homogeny of mass production. They want to take the power back.
I trace where my food comes from. I care about it and so do my customers. Some people don’t want to know, it’s a choice, but I can control this in my kitchen – sugar-free, vegan, gluten-free; I try and encompass everyone’s needs.
We’re seeing a move towards vendors taking more responsibility in the food their prepare and distribute now, aren’t we?
Partly. There’s a didactic element where you can show people what you've learned yourself. But it’s the government and corporate money that dictate what people eat on the whole.
Should there be more legislation to help people?
Yes, I really think so.
I don’t think things like the sugar tax really mean anything, in fact, I think that variety of legislation protects the big businesses – they need their loyalty and money.
It has to be an individual thing, ultimately, and people are waking up to that. Maybe the sugar industry isn’t your best friend…
Sounds obvious right?
Yeah, but it’s been hammered home in advertising for years. They’re selling a feel good, aspirational benefit that fundamentally works. We buy into the status or emotion we’re told we can have once we buy a product. To break away is hard, even for me! So, for people that don’t know or don’t have time, then I really worry.
Thankfully, people’s views on advertising are changing.
Final one. A biggie. What’s your favourite brownie?
Mine? That’s so hard…maybe hazelnut. It’s like a fudgy Ferrero Rocher. Try it!
Thanks to David Manbauhar.
David and the team come to our office every Thursday with brownies. Suffice to say, they’re worth looking forward to on the remaining days of the week. To try for yourself, get in touch with David on the website, or follow their goodness on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook.