Lee Smith says his finest achievement at school was a Victoria sponge: “I always knew I was going to be a baker – I’ve never been as good at anything else.”
He has now been a baker for 33 years. From around five years of age he spent a lot of time in his grandparent’s kitchen, helping them prepare food for the guests in their Eastbourne hotel: “That’s where I first caught the bug.”
Following apprenticeships and training on the job in local and London bakeries, he bought his own operation in 2003, Bexhill Farm Kitchen. In 2015 he expanded that bakery operation into its own unit in Eastbourne, which it now shares with his latest creation, Poppyseed Bakery, also based in the town.
Poppyseed was originally named East Sussex Bakery, a name it kept right through the branding process. It was only at the final hour that it was changed “because we wanted the name to be friendly and homely, but also to make you think of traditional baking, because that’s what this place is all about.”
The Bexhill store has a deli and farm shop focus, while Poppyseed is very much about takeaway sandwiches and baked goods, targeting local workers.
But there is a charming seating area, “which wasn’t part of the original plan to be honest, but the space just lends itself to it.”
The shop, which used to be an estate agents and took Smith five years to find, was acquired at the end of last September, and work was completed the week before Christmas. The idea behind the new acquisition was that Smith could have more time off. “I had to expand to give us the ability to employ more people.”
Smith says the process was fairly gruelling, though: “I was working for 10 or 11 hours in the bakery and then trying to make drawings or plans. I spent a lot of hours sitting on the floor and staring at the space, changing my mind. It was really hard.”
All the designs in the shop are Smith’s own, but with the help of his wife, Kirsty, as he is colour blind. It was a friend of his, Jay, who did all the work – he also helped him refurbish the Bexhill operation and the bakery unit.
The thinking behind it is “traditional but modern”. Paintings by local artist, Mark Curryer, hang from the walls, as does a vintage Hovis sign, and framed antique cuttings from a bakery magazine. I ask if they are British Baker pages, and the tactful reply comes with a smile and without hesitation: “No, no, I would never rip that up!”
The offerings on display include filled sandwiches, ten different loaves, scones, baps, croissants, doughnuts, pies and traybakes, but no cakes. “That was a purposeful decision, because they’re too perishable.”
But unlike the cakes, this bakery is built to last, and if the breakfast trade that floods the shop floor is anything to go by, the seeds have been sown in the right place.
Poppyseed Bakery, Eastbourne
Who: Lee Smith, owner of Bexhill Farm Kitchen, was a finalist at last year’s BIA’s in the prestigious Baker of The Year category and is a multiple Britain’s Best Loaf champion. He brings with him six staff, some of which he has known since school. He employs 23 people altogether between his two shops and Eastbourne-based bakery production unit.
What: While Smith’s Bexhill operation has more of a delicatessen focus, this shop targets office workers and takeaway customers, with an offering that includes filled sandwiches, ten different loaves, scones, baps, croissants, doughnuts, pies and traybakes.
Where: Gildredge Rd, Eastbourne, East Sussex
When: The shop opened for business just before Christmas last year.
Why: Poppyseed was created because Smith “wanted to challenge himself”. He has been in the baking industry since 1984, and says he never considered doing anything else.