How the Krazi Baker took the hotplate to the street
Mark Douglas – aka the Krazi Baker – has just been named Northern Ireland Food Hero at the TipTree World Bread Awards for stepping up during the pandemic. He tells NI Baker how he’s bringing his baking skills onto the streets – and where he goes from here.
Mark Douglas spent his whole life working in bakeries before taking his trade out into the great outdoors eight years ago to launch his Krazi Baker business, baking hotplate breads in front of an audience at markets and festivals.
Now he’s racked up an impressive stack of awards including four Great Taste Awards and has just been named Northern Ireland Bread Hero at the TipTree World Bread Awards for his pandemic efforts to deliver homemade bread across Co Down.
The 55-year-old dad of two says he was taught how to cook by his mum, growing up with five siblings in a typical 1970s family in which only one parent worked.
“Home cooked food was the order of the day, three times a day, and my mum baked bread, she baked cakes, it was non-stop,” he says.
“There was nothing that wasn’t home prepared and that had a lasting effect on me.”
Mark reckons the first thing he ever baked was German biscuits: “We made them two or three days a week so they were quite straightforward to make, and I would have been given permission from High Command to be allowed to roll those out and cut them.
“I’d have been given tasks like creaming up the butter and sugar for a Victoria sponge and letting the egg clear while my mum got on with something else.”
When Mark left school in 1982 there weren’t a lot of career opportunities out there, but fortunately his uncle was a partner in Moira Bakery, which was in need of an apprentice at the time.
“They mentioned in passing that they needed help, so I was shovelled out there,” he says.
“It’s one thing baking at home with small bags of flour, but there’s a massive difference in a commercial bakery where everything is upsized enormously. They were telling me to go down and bring up a big bag of flour, which would be 32 kilos, or you’d be carrying a 50 kilo bag of sugar on your shoulders.
“The hotplate was the beating heart of the home bakery back then. The hot plate is intense work, but you can roll over large volumes quite quickly, and once it was seen that you were capable, you were kept there for at least a year to make sure you were efficient in all areas of the hotplate. Once I became quite efficient with that, I was able to move to the yeast breads.”
There was a lot of demand for trained bakers at the time and after Mark had worked there for six or seven years he moved to a new job. But within six months he was asked to come back to Moira Bakery and stayed for another five years.
After that, he worked at the Country Kitchen in Lisburn for 10 years and was then asked to run June’s on the Lisburn Road which he did for six years until it was taken over by Knott’s.
Mark says he was working at Mackies in Lisburn when he had the idea of what he wanted to do with his baking – but it was a holiday in Hungary that brought his thinking into sharp focus.
“I had this idea of wanting to bake bread on site in a market – nobody ever baked bread on site then,” Mark says.
“Then I was in Budapest, walking around the Grand Market, and it was such an amazing big market and it set my mind racing with ideas about everything under the sun. They even had fish swimming in tanks there!
“So I was thinking about what you could do, how you could bake bread on site, and I went home and looked at the hot plate – and there it was staring me in the face. Hot plate bread was the only bread you could possibly make on site.”
Mark bought a three foot hot plate from Frankie Madden of Sandy Row and applied to set up a stall at St George’s Market – only to be rebuffed.
“They told me they weren’t interested. Nobody wanted to know. I wrote off to agricultural shows but I got no answer. Looking back, it seems everybody is out there now doing soda bread here, there and everywhere, but I cut the grass for them!” he says.
However, Mark was practising yoga at Conway Mill when he learned that they were planning to launch a small market in their hallway, so in September 2013, he gave market life a go for the first time.
“I had the car filled with the hot plate and whatever else I needed, and I made potato bread, soda bread and pancakes on site – in a small way because it was only a three foot hot plate. But I saw enough to realise I needed a bigger hot plate and a bigger audience to fill it.”
Mark started plying his trade at the car boot sale on the Crumlin Road in early 2014 and his hands-on approach proved hugely popular. He went back to Frankie Madden who sold him a four foot hot plate, then he had it repaired and put together a proper stall made from box section steel.
Later that spring he applied for a stall with Food NI at the Balmoral Show and was accepted.
“That was the first year at the Maze site and it was queued out all day – I couldn’t believe it!” he says.
Thanks to his relationship with Food NI, he was able to take part in other events, including the Comber Potato Festival, the Dalriada festival and the Clogher Valley Show.
“By 2015 I was burned out, I was working seven days a week and more, but I couldn’t get a regular spot at any markets. I was about to throw the towel in when I saw that the new Folktown Market at Bank Square was accepting applications, so I decided if I got a pitch at Folktown I was going to buck the job in and take my chances,” he says.
With two sons heading to university, it was a serious decision, but Mark secured a Thursday pitch at Folktown and was asked to join the Inns Market on the Saintfield Road which runs one Saturday a month, as well as the car boot sale on Sundays. Then he was asked to do the market at Newtownards on the other three Saturdays of the month.
Meanwhile, he decided to branch out and deliver baking classes from the Krazi Soda School, a purpose-built building at the side of his house designed to the requirements of the Food Standards Agency.
“I hold classes in breadmaking, cookery classes, Christmas cake classes and seasonal things like Pancake Tuesday or Halloween,” he says.
“The hard part was keeping it all going. I went to London with the Tourist Board and Food NI to help launch the Year of Food and Drink at the Institute of Good Housekeeping.
“Then in 2016 I won Best Stand at the Balmoral Show and 2018 I won four Great Taste Awards for my potato apple, shortbread biscuits, treacle farls and cinnamon and whiskey soda side.”
Mark makes 99% of his products on site at the markets but he does sell some breads at the Old Mill Garden Centre and supplies the Red Hills farm shop at Brookvale Farm in Dromore.
More recently, he switched to doing Carrickfergus Market on Thursdays, as well as a number of agricultural shows. But he was forced to halt everything when the pandemic hit.
“My last class was a St Patrick’s class and then the pandemic happened – everything was gone, the classes were gone, the markets were closed. You couldn’t even have dreamed of all the things that would have stopped – it was unbelievable,” he says.
The final market was Newtownards on March 23 last year, and as the traders were setting up at 5am, they were told by the Council that it would be the last one.
However, Mark was one of the earliest businesses to switch tack and launch a delivery service, first delivering bread around Dromore and Banbridge but later expanding to Comber, Newtownards, Katesbridge and even Newry. They delivered everything in two Fiat 500s, offering hotplate goods and focaccia, and weekly specials such as sticky toffee pudding or lemon drizzle cake.
“At the start I couldn’t keep up with it – I was delivering on Wednesdays and Saturdays. I would have had around 200 customers on Saturdays,” he says. As the weeks rolled on, more and more people began delivering and it became more diluted as the novelty factor began to wear. It was never going to last, but it got me through those three months until the markets reopened in June and July.”
There was a bit of uptick for markets in summer 2020 but as Christmas approached, the markets were over and there were no agricultural shows or classes. Then the early 2021 lockdown happened.
After that, as the weather improved, there was something of a Covid spike in demand as lots of people headed to outdoor markets but it disappeared again as other amenities gradually reopened.
Since then, Mark has extended his purpose-built classroom and has just relaunched his cookery classes, planning a new schedule for the new year.
He’s keen to get back to a more regular routine – “It feels like a whirlwind spinning around, and I’d like to get levelled out to a more steady programme.”
Part of his plan would be to extend the classes, as market life can be gruelling.
“You leave the house at 3.30am to arrive at 4.15am, and you’re not home until 5.15pm – I can’t do it forever,” he says.
“I’d like to try and schedule myself for more regular classes.”
Mark says what he has noticed is his customers’ nostalgia for so many homegrown treats that have become difficult to find these days, such as potato apples and varieties of soda farl.
“When I do treacle farls, they are always massively popular and everyone says they haven’t seen them in years,” he says.
“Another one I’ve started to do this year is Paris buns – I couldn’t keep up with the demand, because people can’t get them any more.”
To read the full feature in Neighbourhood Retailer magazine, click HERE.