A woman's touch
30 June, 2006
What does the coming year have in store for the NA’s youngest and first female president? Carol Griffith went to Shirley Ryder’s bakery in Manchester to find out
A straight-talking Mancunian has just taken over as national president of the
National Association of Master Bakers (NA). You may think there is nothing unusual in that, but Shirley Ryder is not only the youngest person ever to hold the post but she’s also the first woman to be crowned president.Born and bred in Fallowfield, Manchester, her first job was as a Saturday girl in the bakery she now runs with husband Graham, who has owned Peter’s Bakery since the early 1970s.The pair have an unusual way of working for a small family-owned bakery. They make large batches of dough, freeze it and bake-off daily over a seven- to 10-day cycle. They make the traditional products of a local bakery, but apply the techniques of some of the supermarkets.Shirley has been a director of the NA since it changed from an association to a company in 2000. She first joined 12 years ago and went on to be the president for the Manchester Association in 1998 and then regional president for the North West and North Wales region before becoming national president in May.So what does her new role involve? “Well, I am a figurehead for the NA and represent it at national level,” she replies. “I am required to attend conferences, regional meetings,AGMs and dinners, as well as the Baking Industry Awards.“I see the role as an honour because there are many members in the NA who could have been asked, but they chose me. As I see it, to ask a 39-year-old woman is quite an accolade – I am looking forward to it being a good year.”Shirley says there are many benefits to being an NA member. “We have made some very good friends through the NA. We have also received advice on employment and health and safety issues, but really it’s an ongoing benefit. Being a member is worth its weight in gold. For instance, when we need things like motor insurance, it’s always cheaper if you are part of the NA. I’m not just saying this because I’m a director. It’s a fact: the benefits far outweigh the cost.”Another key role of the NA is to stand up to government on policies and legislation if it believes it will be detrimental to the industry.“We are not only fighting for our members but for the trade as a whole,” she says, “so even non-members benefit. But it would certainly help our cause if more people joined. Membership is crucial.”Modern techniquesWith a diary full of presidential engagements, many craft bakers would worry about burnout. But the way Peter’s the Bakers works – making large batches of dough which are then frozen – means life shouldn’t be too hard for Shirley.Graham and Shirley see themselves as traditional bakers that are making the most of modern techniques. “We work on the theory that if we can’t freeze it, we don’t make it,” says Shirley. “It really is just a case of changing the system to suit us, we’ve done it for such a long time that there are very few errors.”This policy of fitting work around life also applies to the Ryders’ summer break, which sees the shop close down for two weeks in August. “Our customers just order extra bread beforehand, come in on the last day and take it home to freeze,” says Shirley.So if making large batches of dough to freeze is such an effective system, why are more bakers not using it? “People think it doesn’t work, but we have always gone with the flow and changed things to suit our needs,” says Shirley. “Graham has been doing it for years and it has always been a success. When pre-mixes became popular in the 1980s and were widely used by the supermarkets, it really hit the industry hard. But to us it was nothing new, we were already making our own pre-mixes. It really suits us and means we don’t have to get up in the middle of the night to go to work. “The whole system caught our imagination and, over time, we have adapted it and made it work for us. We still employ skilled staff and they just adapt to a different way of working. They all seem to prefer our way because the hours are more sensible.”Tools for the jobIt is not only their system which the Ryders believe has helped them survive the battle of the fittest – they also have a fundamental belief in investing in equipment. Graham has always held the philosophy of buying good equipment and that remains his one main piece of advice to others.“We believe in making the equipment work for us. Some bakers just can’t break away from the tradition of getting up at 3am because they feel they need to make the bread from scratch. Modern equipment allows bakers more freedom and, hopefully, we can start to change the way our trade is perceived – it’s not all early starts and long hours!”Peter’s bread sales have dipped in recent years, but there are signs they are increasing again. But it is still a long way from the volumes of 10 years ago, admits Graham. “We both have a philosophy that we would never put anything in the shop that we are not prepared to eat ourselves and that’s what we’ve instilled in all our staff. As long as you work on that mentality, then you can’t go far wrong,” says Shirley. “We are always willing to try new products. If we go to another bakery and see they are doing something we’re not, then we will try it. I will always take ideas on board because if you try it and it doesn’t work, you haven’t lost anything.”The lunchtime trade consists of soup, sandwiches and pies – “nothing too fancy”, says Shirley. “We make what the customers want and they buy it, it’s no good trying to be what you are not. If you have a city centre shop where the customer wants salmon and ciabatta then that’s fine, but here they don’t. So why try and force it on them?” Cakes and confectionery are all made in-house and celebration cakes average about six per week. Photographs and captions can be added. On the wholesale side, the bakery now only supplies local schools and social clubs. Some years ago, Shirley and Graham had begun to overstretch themselves on wholesale business and decided to place more emphasis on retail. Shirley adds: “That’s when we really got a life.”Quality productsSo is there any competition? “Yes, there’s a sandwich shop just down the road but custo-mers still come to us. I believe our products are good enough to withstand the competition.“Even though we are in the middle of a council estate, the customer still wants quality. It doesn’t matter what type of area you live in people will always want a quality product.”The bakery is situated in the middle of three neighbouring supermarkets – Asda, Sainsbury’s and Tesco – and, just over a year ago, a free bus service for shoppers to Asda was introduced.However, Shirley is philosophical about the situation: “The way Graham and I look at it is that we produce a quality product at a reasonable price and even though the bulk of our customers will shop in Asda, they come back to us for their bread, cakes and cooked meats. We know the product is right.”Shirley only enters the occasional competition – namely the North West and North Wales Region Association, which holds a competition at its AGM. A couple of years ago, she won the Peter Herd Trophy for a barm cake with roast beef and mustard baked into it. In 2006, she picked up first place trophies for her hot cross buns and large bloomer, as well as a second place for a family pork pie.The business employs nine staff including two Saturday girls. It also ‘employee-shares’a member of staff with another baker in nearby Cheadle.Because of the system Shirley and Graham use, they only need a baker for two or three days a week. It is his job to fill and restock the free-zers with dough, which means production can be planned in advance and everyone can start work at a reasonable time each day.Shirley says they have a loyal staff base and, a year ago, were awarded ‘Investors in People’.“We also tend to use part-time staff in the shop as it is easier to swap them about to provide cover. All our staff are well presented. Overalls have to be clean and ironed. They are the face of our business and the first thing that people see. We put all our staff through an NVQ in retailing. If you don’t have decent staff at the front of the business, you will never achieve anything at the back.”Top tipsSo, apart from investing in equipment, what would Shirley and Graham’s top tips be to other bakers? “You can change the way you bake and invest in your staff,” says Shirley. “Always have a nice shop – if you’re going to spend money, spend it on the front of the shop as it’s what people see first. But perhaps the most important tip is to keep your husband off the premises! I couldn’t work with Graham all day every day because it would drive me insane. I have my way of doing things and he has his.”Graham runs the financial and administrative side of the business, while Shirley runs the bakery itself. She took over the day-to-day running of the bakery some seven years ago and, in 2003, the shop underwent a major refit.“Graham comes in when I need him to do so, but otherwise he stays out of the way. Between us the combination works and we have a successful business. I really don’t know how other couples get on.”She continues: “Being president of the NA, if I have to go to London for a meeting then Graham will come in and carry this place while I’m gone and we work it between us. Although we try to keep him out of here as much as we can, he keeps turning up!”Shirley and Graham, who have been partners for a number of years, finally tied the knot and got married on New Year’s Day 2006 in Gretna Green.So who wears the trousers? “We are an equal partnership. I get my way sometimes and he gets his way all the time!” says Shirley amid much laughter from the staff.