On an incredibly rainy evening in September, myself and several hungry, damp amblers, ventured across the border into North Wales.
For our Chester-centric group, it was an abnormal, mammoth effort driven by one motivator alone – food. And not just any food, authentic Thai bao buns, which, as our Event’s Manager insisted, were like eating ‘warm, little clouds.’
We didn’t know what to expect. Creator of Bao Revolution, Sherry Edwards, probably didn’t either – yet bravely invited us into her family home for a dinner party.
The amble plague descended. ‘You guys went through 33 baos – that’s good going,’ Sherry tells me, a few weeks later as we sip coffee in Chalk. I don’t know if I should be proud of or ashamed of my ravenous team. My husband certainly made a good dent, apologising to me on the car journey back – ‘I don’t know how I did it, but I think I had 12 – I just couldn’t stop.’
It’s not his fault. Sure, we were expecting good food, but this was conversation-stopping-I’ll-kill-you-for-that-last-bun good. We piled crispy salmon (a firm favourite around the table), Pad Krapao (thai spicy minced chicken and basil stir fry) and Sweet Pulled Pork (slow-cooked pork in sweet brine spiced with cinnamon and star anise) into light, fresh-from-the-steamer buns, and ignored one another.
It was glorious. I had to prioritise eating above interviewing, which is why Sherry graciously met me a few weeks later in Chalk. ‘You should see the history of my Instagram account. I tried everything, a Thai fusion of everything – sandwiches, pies, pizza!’ It wasn’t until a friend from the gym said, why don’t you do bao buns? that it clicked. I went to the shop that second. I was going to learn how to make bao buns. I got everything I needed, went home and worked for the next few weeks on getting the right consistency.’
‘The first batch came out really well, beautiful. I think that was a fluke. The 2nd and 3rd went downhill!’
The buns are made much like bread, with a mix of different types of flour (in The States and Thailand this includes cake flour). ‘It’s really difficult to find here. In America, everything is so processed. Over here the rules are stricter about what goes in your body. So I had to adapt and figure out the recipe, trying different flour mixes to make it soft – if it’s too glutenous, too thick, it doesn’t fluff up as well.’
The current vegan offering is Tamarind Tofu (pan-fried tofu and bell peppers in sweet Thai tamarind sauce) and kitchen experiments to expand further for non-meat eaters are going well. Those with a sweet tooth can also go to town with Nutella Bao.
Sherry was born in California (where half her family still lives) and moved to Thailand when she was three. ‘I sound very American – when you drop me off in LA, people think I’m a local.’ She met a Welshman in Thailand, and moved to Wales when she was seven months pregnant with their first child. She’s called Wales home for nine or so years. ‘Tim was being a hippie when we met. He’s a lawyer by trade but he wanted to take a year off -so he’d travelled to Australia, taken a diving course and became a diving instructor. That’s how we met.’
Naturally, I assume they met underwater, with their scuba masks on, making love hearts with their hands. ‘It’s even more confusing than that. I used to work on TV – did a few movies – some very cheap, low budget American and British films. The production company hired a diving company in Thailand to be their safety divers, incase equipment fell into the water or an actor couldn’t swim…so we met on set. It’s a weird story.’
She didn’t feign drowning so Tim could rescue her (I did check).
‘I never really had a 9-5, I did some television, was a yoga teacher, was pretending to be an entrepreneur but not really taking anything seriously, but when we moved I was like having a baby is really, really tough, and I needed something outside of being a mother. We decided, when our son was nearly 2, that we would start some kind of business.’
This drive developed into running The Hat Place together (on Northgate Street in Chester) for six years. ‘My husband thought if we bought an existing business, it meant someone could show us the ropes, better than starting from scratch. We didn’t know anything about running a business.’
Sherry did, however, know hats. ‘I love hats! I’m a hat person.’ They decided to close up the shop in March this year but you can still find it online here. ‘Then we needed something else to do. And the food idea came in.’
After perfecting her buns (sorry), the fillings were the easy part, ‘It’s 2nd nature. I feed people Thai food every time they come round to my house.’
Sherry then took the show on the road, delighting at several Welsh festivals and markets, and often selling out. ‘I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the support in NWales. I’ve also had a lot of Cestrians come across the border and visit – asking me to come to Chester. I was struggling to find Chester opportunities, but I’ve now got a few Pop-up events on the cards.’
Together, we are stronger.
Of the many cool stories Sherry shares with me, my favourite has to be the one which shows independent Chester at its best. ‘Before I launched, I had a million questions. A friend had just been into Chip’d for the first time and met Andrew (owner) and suggested I reach out. So I sent Andrew a random email. I didn’t even know the guy. I said, Look, help a girl out. I’m trying to start a food business – this is what I’d like to do, maybe I could buy you a coffee and pick your brain?’ Fifteen minutes later, bam, he said, I’d love to help you.’
‘I’ve been blown away by the support of other businesses – overwhelmed by the help from people I don’t even know. When we met up, Andrew said, There are the things you need to think about. I’m not going to sugar-coat some of them, it’s going to be hard work.’ I walked away from that feeling extremely grateful for his honesty. Once I’d launched with a few followers, I emailed and asked if he’d like to a Pop-up – he was on board. Bao and chips with beer work really well.’
Alongside treating us to a wide-range of Bao foodie nights with our much-loved local indies, there are bigger goals in play. ‘I would love to have my own place, my own cafe In Chester.’ Sherry identifies as a high-anxiety person and admits she ultimately craves routine – a difficult thing to establish doing successful but demanding festivals and events.
As if she’s not busy enough, with two young kids and a steadily growing business, Sherry also teaches yoga at two gyms and holds private sessions. ‘I’m a very determined person and I want to be able to give my kids the life my parents gave me and my sister. We went to a really good school, my parents worked hard and I really appreciate that. They have a fantastic life – because they’ve earned that life. That’s what I want, and to make sure my kids are okay.’
Sherry’s found the support of Business Wales vital and invaluable. ‘When I gave my business plan to Tim (husband) he said, this is great, but it’s just fluff. We’re so different in the way we work. He’s got no creativity whatsoever. He’s a numbers man. I am all about what he calls ‘fluff’ – getting things to look amazing, the creativity. I took a couple of workshops with Business Wales – they’ve been phenomenal. They went over my plan and asked all the right questions and I was like wow, I can’t answer any of them! It was about taking that homework back and starting from scratch. Questions not just about the money, but also, does the lifestyle work for you? If every single day, you’re working events, just breaking even – is it worth the effort?‘
With a little help from my friends.
And it’s certainly looking like that determination’s paying off if the excitable Twitter chatter is anything to go by. I’m curious to hear the advice Sherry has for those thinking about going it alone. ‘I wish I had an answer. For me, it was finding a gap in the market, which was Bao buns. Every food person I’ve talked to, take Christa (Mama K’s) for example, a close friend of mine, she’s been my absolute rock – she said, you’ve just got to get out there, put yourself there and just try it. For me, the biggest thing is, you can hold yourself back by having a million doubts. You can overthink things. Some people under think things too – lack of planning is dangerous – you need a basic business plan – know your budget and don’t blow it out. For me, not necessarily for everyone else, it’s about not constantly second-guessing yourself. If you do, you’re never going to want to start anything.’
Chester’s certainly chuffed Sherry took the leap. The Bao and Beer night at Meltdown (15th Nov) has already sold out. But don’t panic, on the 1st Nov you can treat yourself to the Chip’d and Bao’d pop up on Northgate Street, details here. Follow Bao Revolution on Twitter and Facebook and website (coming soon) to stay in-the-know. Something tells me this flavour-focused entrepreneur is only just getting started…