HMPasties

When we met with Lee Wakeham, founder of HMPasties, he was in the midst of a busy week, creating two new products for Bolton Food and Drink Festival, making an all-day breakfast pie for the Festival Gala opening lunch, and making 250 Lancashire Hot Pot pasties for Si King from The Hairy Bikers and his band, who were set to perform at The Albert Hall in Bolton

What is your business?

HMPasties is a pie and pasty business with a difference. We haven’t reinvented the wheel with the products we make, we hand-made artisan pies and pasties, but what makes us is different is that 40% of our employees are either recently released from prison or are people who have been released from prison a while ago, and who are really struggling to find work due to their criminal record.

We have a hatch on our pie shop where we make our pies and pasties on Norris Street in Bolton. We also sell our pies and pasties at a range of venues and businesses.

We trade on match days at Manchester City FC, and we sell wholesale pies
and pasties to a number of really well renowned local businesses including Manchester University, Jodrell Bank, RHS Bridgewater, Lowry Theatre, and more, as well as providing pies and pasties to pubs, delicatessens, and we also provide corporate catering.

How did the idea come to you?

I was last released from prison in 1999, and I got a job as a production operative, soon after being released, working for
a lighting company, and I never looked back. That employer should probably have fired me on any number of occasions, because I still had an aggressive attitude, and I still had that prison wing mentality. They didn’t, and 18 months later, I moved to London as a trainee regional sales manager.

From my own experience I know what people can achieve once they are released from prison if they have a patient employer. An employer, as I had, who understands that people released from prison may have some attitude issues early doors, but that if you work with them, spend some time, and invest in them, in 12-18 months’ time you could get a very productive employee.

So, fast forward 20 years, and following a successful career in sales and recruitment, I’d had enough of it, and I wanted to start working with young offenders. Initially, I got a job in resettlement, working with older offenders, 25 years and above, and I quickly noticed, that people just wanted a job, but often they would lose that job, and then just start offending again.

Some time later, working as an employment coach with 18–25-year-old young offenders, it was the same story; they would get a job, the job would become the biggest problem in their lives, they would lose the job, and they would be back out offending again.

That got me back to thinking about my journey, and whether or not most jobs and most employers give people what I had – a really patient and understanding employer who works with you and helps you to develop you over a long period of time?

I was also, in my own time, making pasties, as I am originally from Devon, and I could not find a decent pasty in the Northwest, so I started to make my own. I suggested to the head of the charity that I was working for, that we start making pasties and employ ex-offenders to do that. We wanted something diverse, that would attract female ex-offenders, as well as something that would attract a broader range of candidates.

They liked the idea; I pitched the idea to the board, and we got a pot of funding to launch the business as a pilot in 2017. People liked our pies and pasties, and in 2019 I set up the business independently as a ltd company and started trading again in 2020.

How did you utilise your entrepreneurial talent?

What has helped me the most is my complete and utter lack of respect for authority. This has come from my childhood and growing up in care. Consequently, I have never had a fear of picking up the phone to business directors and owners. I will happily sit in a room with executives from Manchester City FC and will feel just as comfortable there as I do with the owner of a small delicatessen.

I am extremely resilient, and of course I want all my meetings to go well, but if they don’t, I’m not going to fall to bits. Nothing is ever going to be as bad as it has been for me in the past. I have a strength from my negative lived experience, which gives me the courage to take risks and chances in business, to kick down doors, and to not really care if a door gets slammed in my
face. Fortunately, very few time has this happened, and as soon as people hear the name of the business, HMPasties, they are hooked, and they are interested to find out more.

My first customer was FC Utd in Manchester. I emailed their CEO and all I put in the subject line was HMPasties ‘bring out the good inside,’ which is our slogan. This hooked him and he read the email. He liked what he read, and it was my first large sale. The club had a match on Boxing Day, and I had to make 250 pasties on Christmas Eve, so Christmas that year was not much fun!

But I had achieved what I had set out to, and I had landed my first wholesale customer.

What was a major obstacle and how did you overcome it?

I think the major obstacle was that originally, we set out to have the business employ 100% of people with criminal convictions. That proved to be a huge risk for us, as it took me on average 12-18 months before an employee was stable and dependable after being in prison. To build a business 100% around that, meant that quite often I was the only person in our kitchen, because the guys I had recruited fresh from prison, still has lots going on in their life outside, which often stopped them coming to work.

In time we have helped them, and things have got better, but to build a business where I’m needed to make 2-3000 pasties a week, and to do that solely dependent on people whose lives are still fairly chaotic, was a huge risk, so we took the decision for our workforce to be 40% ex-offenders.

We are still achieving our social outcomes, not as much as we would have liked to, but this way it is fairer on the people we bring in, as there is less pressure on them and if they have things going on in their personal life, we can spend more time supporting them with that. It means we can do a better job in supporting people.

Anything else you would like to highlight?

Many people are very hard-line when it comes to reoffending and just think, lock them up and throw away the key, and that that is the answer to reducing reoffending. With what we do, yes, we are trying to help people to get their lives back on track, but whether people agree with that or not, everyone must agree that it is better for everyone if there are less victims of crime.

That is ultimately what we are trying to achieve. To help people, to help them move their lives along, and to do better things with their lives. If we can do that and spend some of the £18 billion it costs when people re-offend, and we spend that money to do better things, then surely the country is going to be a better place for everyone.

Finally – Can you provide a quote to inspire others?

“It’s never too late to start again” – my second foster father said that to me when I was leaving prison for the second time, and I was thinking that was it and I was done for.

I live by that quote now. No matter what happens in my life, I will dust myself off, pick myself up and start again.