‘The Big Bakeover’: Nancy Birtwhistle on Helping Struggling Owners Find Sweet Success

Nancy Birtwhistle in The Big Bakeover - 'Sugarbox Donuts'
The CW
Photo: The CW -- © 2024 The CW Network, LLC. All Rights Reserved.

With 1 in 5  bakeries failing, Nancy Birtwhistle is looking to turn things around one business at a time. Enter The Big Bakeover. The CW’s new series sees The Great British Bake Off  Season 5 winner venture from across the pond to help struggling stores Stateside on the brink of shuttering their doors.

She gets to know the owners and works with them on the menu and design elements. Then it’s up to master carpenter Erik Curtis (Netflix’s Instant Dream Home) to renovate and ensure the brick-and-mortar vision is realized to pull off a true transformation.

We chatted with Birtwhistle before the premiere to discuss why her new show takes the cake.

How did this project come about?

Nancy Birtwhistle: I was invited to take part. The British Baking Show that is shown on Netflix is really popular now. I won it years ago, but they also wanted someone with knowledge of baking and business knowledge. I’ve got a Master of Business Administration (MBA). So with those skills, I was invited to do it.

What was your big takeaway from traveling to different parts of the country? 

I think there is nothing better than to embrace someone else’s culture by meeting people who live and work there. I was able to experience small towns and other places, if for a short time. It was wonderful.

What were some of the biggest mistakes or missteps these owners made? 

Every single baker could bake. There was nothing wrong with the baked goods. They were superb. It may have been they didn’t have a big enough selection or were not different enough from other bakeries in the area. It could be they had some family problems that affected the business. There was a story with each bakery, and each bakery was completely different. That was really refreshing. They had a different set of problems and baked goods they offered. They were all small businesses. The one mistake they may have is one view of things. All it may take is a fresh pair of eyes looking at things. They can all bake, but it’s about someone new coming in saying, “Why don’t you try this? Why are you just doing that?”

Nancy Birtwhistle in The Big Bakeover - 'Sugarbox Donuts'

The CW Network

The premiere centers on a second-generation Cambodian American refugee who escaped genocide in the 1970s. She has struggled to keep her father’s business alive. How was it helping her? 

I was very touched by Cindy and her donut shop, SugarBox Donuts. I feel like I can’t go in as a baker and try to teach a second-generation donutmaker how to make donuts. They are going to be better than me at that. Cindy felt the historical pressure from her dad because he started the business and wanted it to be successful. She thought she was failing him and the family. She also was presented with a whole load of problems because she had to move premises. She had 20 other donut shops in the vicinity. She had to have something quite different to be able to attract customers. The show was really good about upgrading the premises and equipment. The bakeovers were unbelievable. There really is a Wow factor. My favorite part was to see the before and after for each bakery. It was great.

Erik Curtis and Nancy Birtwhistle in The Big Bakeover - 'Sugarbox Donuts'

Erik Curtis and Nancy Birtwhistle © 2024 The CW Network

How was it working with Erik? He had to work on some tight deadlines, maybe a little over 24 hours. 

I had only met Erik over Zoom. Once we actually met in person, it was necessary for us to form a relationship. However, I have to say he is the nicest guy. I said, “The problem is British humor is strange. It can be sarcastic, or belittling. I don’t want you to get the wrong idea about my sense of humor.” I’m not from London. I’m northern, and the humor in the North of England is different than in the South. I explained that if he felt I insulted him, give it back to me. I wanted us to have that feeling together. He was really good. I talked to him all the time over social media. We just hit it off. I think that is apparent when you see the show. He is a good lad.

Did you have any memorable experiences on your travels in the United States? 

We didn’t get much time off, but when I had a day off, I tended to do my own thing. I remember going to a supermarket. I wanted to buy a bottle of wine. They said. “You can’t have a bottle of wine unless you have some ID.” I asked,” What kind of ID?” I needed my passport. I went back to my apartment and came back with my passport, but that was the strangest thing.

Anything you ate that you hadn’t had before? 

Yes! Tamales. I’ve never had them. I didn’t even know what they were. They were delicious. It was the first for me. I also had some fantastic steaks. Much nicer than I’ve had here [in the U.K.].

It was 10 years ago when you won The Great British Bake Off. How do you look back on that time and what a life-changing opportunity it became? 

It has been unbelievably life-changing. I was 60 when I won Bake Off. To say the last 10 years have been a whirlwind would be an understatement. I’ve written five books. I’ve done TV I’ve been over to the United States. It has been unbelievably fantastic. Not only am I baking, but I’m also very passionate about the planet and climate. I’ve written books about living an eco-friendly lifestyle. I’ve gotten as many U.S. followers on social media as I have British ones. Partly, I think because of Jonathan van Ness from Queer Eye. He started following me when Bake Off was airing in the States six or seven years ago. We became friends as well. It’s amazing. All of it is amazing. Who would have thought?

It seems bake shows have only gotten more popular since then. 

It’s a simple enough idea. Who would have thought that a show about people baking in a tent would take off? I think historically, here in the U.K., we have shows in the summer that are awfully intense. People will show off their homegrown produce and cakes and things like that. They’ve taken that and turned it into such an English experience. It’s as popular over here as well. I think there is something for everyone with this new show too. Recipes are shared. You see the real problems people are facing, and they are trying their best to keep their business from floundering. They get teh makeover/bakover. Six weeks, we saw everyone doing really well. I’ve met some fabulous people.

The Big Bakeover, series premiere, June 14, 8/7c, The CW