Rachel Munro

Ayrshire’s Future Food Star Spills the Beans

by Claire Gillespie

Rachel Munro was due to open her eco-cafe Thyme in Ayr in March 2020, just days before the UK went into lockdown. Having got the keys for the Alloway Street premises in February, she and her team had to sit tight for another five months. Like many business owners, Rachel, now 36, simply had to roll with the punches.

“The whole experience has been a rollercoaster,” she tells me. “Opening a business during a global pandemic wasn’t something I had considered during my risk assessment! It’s been very, very challenging.”

Three years later and Rachel is proof that dedication and hard work can get you where you want to be – and that you never know what else life (and business) has in store for you.

If Rachel’s face is familiar, and it’s not from popping into Thyme (which is highly recommended, FYI – their Hallouminati Bagel is to die for), you might have watched her fly the saltire on the small screen.

Rachel took part in series two of BBC’s Future Food Stars, competing against 11 other up-and-coming food and drink entrepreneurs to win a £150,000 investment from Michelin starred chef Gordon Ramsay. She came across the application one evening on Instagram.

“I filled it in and never expected to hear anything back.”

But a few weeks later, Rachel found out she’d been long-listed and she went on to participate in a series of interviews and knock-out rounds before being chosen as one of the final twelve.

“It was all very lengthy and extensive,” she reveals. “The process was about five months in total. Casting videos, phone interviews, face to face interviews, group interviews.”

Future Food Stars is known for its fierce challenges (with Ramsay at the helm, we’d expect nothing less) and episode one of series two definitely set the tone. The contestants (ranging from a kids’ cookery school owner to a producer of Cajun-style seafood boils) gathered at Ayrshire’s own Glenapp Castle near Girvan, not too far from Rachel’s doorstep. (She was born in Irvine and went to school in Ayr and Troon before moving to Buckinghamshire for university.) The first task was simple: create Scottish-themed banquets in the grounds of the castle for 60 of Ramsay’s esteemed guests. The reality? Not so simple – and Rachel ended up one of four contestants being grilled by Ramsay, trying to save their place on the show.

“I absolutely hated being selected to be taken into the grilling in episode one – I didn’t feel it was justified,” Rachel says. But this is TV, remember. “I know now why… because I provided entertainment.” Rachel recalls being “so nervous, internally shaking” but above all, she knew she “didn’t deserve to go.” She fought for her place – “You’re going to have to drag me out of here if you want me out,” she declared on the show. And who can forget her other notable one-liner: “I’m not here to take part, I’m here to take over”?

This attitude, together with an ability to stay calm under pressure, got Rachel through another four episodes before she was sent home at the end of episode five. As if scaling 40-foot-tall trees to collect pines to infuse into Michelin-starred millefeuille wasn’t enough (yes, of course she was one of the volunteers for that ordeal), Ramsay sent Rachel home after her team lost the hot sauce selling challenge. “In business we need to be proactive, not reactive,” Ramsay told her.

Rachel tells me she doesn’t have one single regret about the show. “It was an opportunity that not many of us will ever be afforded,” she says. “It was a privilege to be chosen, and an excellent experience all round.” She adds that she still speaks to fellow contestants Naomi Boles and Andy Albalous (who ultimately won Ramsay’s investment for his CBD food brand Drops of Heal). “They’re both equally amazing individuals with wonderful businesses,” she says.

Rachel said on the show that she “tried to bring order to the chaos” and I feel like this is a good way of summing up her attitude to life in general. She’s a woman who has raised her daughter Lucy, now 6, single-handedly – even driving herself to the hospital when she was in labour, and then back home after her baby was born. “I went back to work with Lucy in the pram when she was four days old, and the rest is history,” she tells me.

Work for Rachel at that time was a “free-from” bakery called Baked, a wholesale operation that included a weekends-only cafe in Ayr. Rachel’s background is actually in music and business – her university degree course was in festival management. But after the death of her father when she was 24, she decided to take the plunge and start her own business. After she was diagnosed with Coeliacs disease, the way forward seemed clear. “This was when my love for free-from baking started,” she says.

After running Baked for a few years, Rachel decided to open Thyme, which caters for gluten-free, dairy-free, vegetarian and vegan customers. Everything is baked in house (including the extensive bread menu), with a separate kitchen area for those with special dietary requirements.

It’s more than enough to keep anyone busy, particularly a single mum. But Rachel’s not done yet. Her soon-to-be-launched business, The Rebel Baker, is a free-from cake brand that she intends on taking to national retailers. And she’s not ruled out Thyme #2: “Maybe next year,” she says.

Rachel’s ambition is all the more impressive given the long-term impact of the pandemic on small businesses. “Spending habits have changed, people are watching their money,” she admits. “Finding and retaining staff has been the biggest issue, but I’ve managed to soldier on regardless of the hurdles.”

Rachel currently lives in Prestwick with her daughter, and has the support of her “amazing, wonderful boyfriend”, Cammy. I can’t help but ask her the question I most dread myself, as a longtime member of the single mum club: “What do you do in your spare time?”

“I like to sleep when I can,” she tells me. I think she’s earned that.