Livia's Kitchen: Entrepreneur who made Deliciously Ella's wedding cake on her 'raw' sweet treats
PUBLISHED: 12:00 02 June 2016
Olivia Wollenberg wouldn't let her food intolerances stop her from eating sweet treats, so she started making free-from desserts using only natural ingredients, the cook book author tells Judith Abrahams.
You can’t get more local than Olivia Wollenberg, whose book Livia’s Kitchen: Naturally Sweet and Indulgent Treats came out last month (Ebury Press, £20).
Petite, pretty and vivacious, the 27-year-old was brought up in Hampstead Garden Suburb, went to school at Channing, and now lives in Belsize Park.
After reading psychology at UCL, she took a Masters in cognitive neuroscience, then a second Masters in paediatric neuro-psychology. Working with brain-injured children, she thought she wanted to be clinical psychologist but then doubts set in. “I was very affected by what I saw at Great Ormond Street Hospital and found myself asking: am I cut out for this?”
After five years of studying, she was applying for jobs when she began to feel unwell.
She was eventually diagnosed with a whole range of food intolerances and was prescribed a very restrictive diet.
“I had to search for sweet things that I could eat, that were free from things I was intolerant to.
“It was really hard because so many of the free-from products were higher in preservatives and e-numbers.
“It was this that led me to spot a gap in the market.
“I began experimenting at home with ingredients that I could use to try make something delicious, coconut oil and maple syrup for example.
“My family became the guinea-pigs. That’s how Livia’s Crumble came about, when I made a crumble for Friday night dinner.
“I remember the first one, it was made with banana, desiccated coconut, maple syrup, with a topping of oats and ground almonds, and coconut oil instead of butter. The family loved it.”
It prompted Olivia to regard the crumble as a potential business idea and she enrolled on an eight-week intensive business course at UCL.
“At the very start of the course, we had to give a five minute presentation. It was terrifying to pitch my crumble idea in front of 400 people.
“The tutor dismissed it and advised me to come back the next day with a different, hopefully better, idea.”
Undeterred, she baked a crumble and brought it in to the lecture the next day. After two bites the tutor exclaimed: “This is very good! Though it could do with some custard.”
At the end of the course, Olivia won the Bright Ideas Award, a £12,000 grant from UCL – and her company Livia’s Crumble was born.
It launched with a range of fruit crumbles free from refined sugar, gluten and dairy ingredients.
Everything was made in the kitchen of the family home. “My mother is an angel, and more,” says Olivia.
“There were often 12 of us working in there and the spare room became a store room, but she never complained. And once we had customers, she helped us with deliveries.”
The demand kept growing and orders came in from Selfridges, Daylesford, Planet Organic and Harvey Nichols; on some days, the girls would be making 800 crumbles.
“Production became a nightmare and we desperately needed to out-source, but after months of looking, we couldn’t find a gluten-free factory that would handle fresh fruit.”
So in July 2015, Olivia moved on to developing a different product under the brand name of Livia’s Kitchen.
A self-confessed “total perfectionist,” it took eight months and 25 factory trials until she felt that her product was just right, with only eight ingredients, as opposed to the 20 or so in mass market treats.
“I test my recipes on people who eat ‘normally’ and not those with restricted diets as I want a product that is healthier but which people who eat sugar would also choose.”
Finally, in February Olivia was ready to launch her Raw Millionaire Bites, a nutritional twist on the classic millionaire shortbread with the caramel is made using dates. In just three months, the tubs have become the best-selling product in Selfridges Food Hall – Olivia treasures the email from Selfridges imparting this news.
Eighteen-hour days are the norm for her.
In spring of last year amidst crumble making and new product testing, Olivia’s pitch for a book of treats with a nutritional twist was accepted by Ebury Press.
She had just 12 weeks to come up with 100 recipes, all of which were tested multiple times.
“It was a challenge,” says Olivia.
“On some days, I’d have eaten quarter of a chocolate cake by 11.30 in the morning.”
She admits the recipes in Livia’s Kitchen can be indulgent. “You wouldn’t eat them in large quantities. But since they are made with nutritious ingredients, they should leave you feeling better than treats packed with refined sugar and flour.
“I have tried to make the recipes accessible. If you have coconut oil, oats and maple syrup, you can create something delicious.
“Also, you can swap ingredients, for example, you can use milk instead of non-dairy replacements.
“Whatever you enjoy -– it’s about what makes you feel good.”
What’s on Oilvia’s 2016 agenda?
A grab-and-go pack of three Raw Millionaire Bites arrives on the shelves in July and a new top-secret treat is scheduled in time for Christmas.
In the longer term, she hopes that her products will be available nationwide – currently outside of London they are available only in small shops.
“I’d like my products to be mainstream, in the supermarkets, and easily accessible.”
Olivia loves the business side and to have discovered her creativity when it comes to baking, especially her passion for making cakes. In April, she made the cake for her friend Ella (of Deliciously Ella fame) and Matthew Mills’s wedding on Mustique.
“I made it on the island using ground almonds, coconut, and maple syrup. I decorated the cake with berries, coconut flakes and tropical flowers I picked on the way to the ceremony.
“The cake had 14 layers which I assembled whilst everyone was having cocktails before the dinner.
“The frosting was chocolate-avocado, which may sound crazy but tasted heavenly.”
Olivia loved every minute of it, and is thrilled to have several orders for wedding cakes.
As for the future Olivia says: “I’d like Livia’s Kitchen to become another McVities as regards appeal: treats loved by everyone old and young.”