Beaney's holds its nerve

30 January, 2009
Is expansion during a recession a foolhardy move? Not always, says NAMB's Chris Beaney, who feels bakers need to hold their nerve. Patrick McGuigan reports
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Chris Beaney must be one of the few people left in the country with a good word to say about the banks. The owner of Beaney's Bakery in Strood, Kent, who is also currently President of the National Association of Master Bakers (NAMB), recently secured generous financial backing from his local Barclays to take over a shop and bakery in the nearby town of Snodland in West Malling. "My bank manager has been really supportive. I was surprised how keen he was to help out when I went to see him about buying the bakery," says Beaney.
Mind you, this was back in October, before the banks had really started to put the crunch on credit - bakers approaching their bank managers these days might get a different reaction altogether.The new shop is a big step for the Beaney business, which was first set up by Chris' father in 1936, before Chris joined in 1968. Well-known for traditional loaves, confectionery and savouries, as well as artfully decorated celebration cakes (see At a Glance), for a long time, Beaney's has only operated two shops - a small branch in Gillingham and an equally small shop at the main bakery in Strood. With increased parking restrictions in the town centres, not to mention the rise of the supermarkets, the business naturally began to focus more on wholesale, with two vans currently making 40-50 drops to restaurants, hotels, local shops and pubs.But the acquisition of the Snodland shop and bakery has changed this around, so that there is now a 60/40 split in favour of retail sales. Altogether the company employs 17 people, with six on production, not forgetting Beaney himself who still starts work most days at 4am. "I'm very much a hands-on baker," he says.== A calculated risk ==While some might think that now is a strange time to expand a business, Beaney says he is taking a calculated risk. "The shop is in a great loca-tion - on a prominent corner, opposite a bank and next to a post office. Shoppers have always gone there in their droves," he says. "When opportunities arise, you have to be brave enough to take them."Beaney's bullish approach is partly informed by his experience of being NAMB president. "I've met lots of fellow bakers at various events and heard about their experiences," he says. "I've built up so much knowledge, it has given me confidence to grow my own business."Providing an opportunity for craft bakers and suppliers to meet and share ideas is one of several important functions of the NAMB, says Beaney. "I know how to bake, but as a small business owner, I'm also expected to know about employment legislation, health and safety, and tax. It's a lot to deal with, so it's good to have the NAMB at the end of the phone if I have a question or need expert advice. Then there are the member discounts on things like insurance and telephone bills, laundry and breakdown cover."A lot of bakers don't realise the range of services available, so they either don't join, or fail to make full use of their membership. But in the current economic climate, being an NAMB member is more important than ever." Other projects currently being considered by the NAMB include a celebratory craft bakers' week each year and a forum where baking and business questions can be discussed, he adds. == Riding the recession ==As well as sticking together via the NAMB, craft bakers will have a better chance of riding out the recession if they stick to their principles, says Beaney. "We have to carry on doing what we do best - making good quality products that are correctly priced. It would be madness to start competing with the supermarkets by launching economy lines. We need to hold our nerve. Shoppers will soon realise that a 50p loaf from the supermarket isn't actually value for money, because it is full of additives and most of it will be thrown away because it has gone stale."The downturn is by no means the only issue occupying craft bakers' minds at the moment. Rising ingredients prices and soaring utility bills prompted Beaney to increase his own prices last year, with a large tin loaf going from £1.20 to £1.40. "That's still competitive with the plant loaves in the supermarkets and I would argue I'm selling a superior product in terms of quality. We make our bread fresh by hand every day and always use a good grade of flour with high protein and gluten levels," he says.Another ongoing challenge is the constant rises in the minimum wage. "Over the years we've seen increases that are double or triple inflation and it puts tremendous pressure on us. It's not just the people on or close to minimum wage that we have to pay more. Everybody has to get a rise to maintain the differential."Beyond the everyday challenges, Beaney remains distinctly upbeat about the future of craft baking, especially if people work together. But this is perhaps not surprising from a man who readily admits he has always been in love with baking. "As a schoolboy I always used to help my father out in the holidays," he says. "To tell the truth I never wanted to do anything else but work in a bakery."



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