Welsh wizards

13 March, 2009
Producing oggies big enough to sink a ship and Polish bread for local residents, Georgi Gyton visits the Welsh bakery on a five-year winning streak
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Despite the fact that the founders of The Village Bakery in Coedpoeth, North Wales, came from a plant background, the business was founded on craft ideals and principles. These have always been important to the company and no doubt played their part in the company scooping the Rank Hovis-sponsored Craft Business Award at last years' Baking Industry Awards.

Established in 1964 by joint managing director Tim Jones' father and grandfather, the business has grown from a small two-man outfit to a successful wholesale business, employing around 210 staff. It also has five retail shops based around Wrexham, though this is not the business' main focus; Jones says it is currently an 80% wholesale/20% retail split.

The bakery's largest customers are Somerfield, The Co-operative, Londis and, more recently, Marks & Spencer. On the wholesale side, it mainly distributes to businesses within a 50-mile radius of Wrexham, but it also supplies bespoke products across the UK. For example, its Welsh Cakes are delivered to M&S nationwide and it recently had an order for 50,000 packs of them for St David's Day.

Initially, the bakery produced bread, cakes and savouries, but after a couple of years, it was decided to concentrate solely on bread. In 1988, an opportunity for savouries opened up and the company bought a small unit on Wrexham industrial estate, producing around 250 pies a week. It now produces more savouries (60%) than breads.

The company moved to its Minera site in 1992. "It was a greenfield site, so we decided to build a new premises. In theory it was supposed to serve all purposes, but we have actually extended twice since then," says Jones. Also in the early 1990s, the company made its first move into retail. The last major extension to the Minera site was in 2001, which saw the addition of a new training facility, production suite and freezer unit, as well as an extension to its savoury department.

The bakery, now run by joint MDs and brothers Tim and Robin Jones, produces breads, savouries and morning goods, from rye bread to pasties and Welsh Cakes. One of its most successful products is its Welsh Oggie - a much larger version of the Cornish pasty. It is filled with layers of potatoes, onions, leeks and beef and weighs over 500g. These are not just popular in Wales - the firm sold around 15,000 of them at last year's Glastonbury Festival.

"The real growth over the last six or seven years has been in the savoury department, especially with their inclusion at garage forecourts for example," explains Jones. "There are so many more people actually baking-off these days, that the vast majority of growth is in frozen unbaked goods."

Jones also points to the growing popularity of sliced bread. He says that, over the last few years, whenever the business launches a new loaf, they always launch it sliced, as they have noticed that when they decided to sell existing breads in a sliced format, sales have gone through the roof. "If you can get that same quality, but sliced for convenience, then you're laughing," he says.

Five for luck

Entering the awards is becoming something of a five-yearly ritual for The Village Bakery, having entered and been winners in 1998, 2003 and 2008. "We'd had some successes and a good year with regards to new business," says Jones of the year leading up to the application in 2008. "We'd also set up a new gluten-free production facility on Wrexham industrial estate - so we thought it put us in with a good chance."

Jones says he was "absolutely over the moon" when it was announced they had won. "It was a genuine surprise, as the competition was so good." The award, he says, has certainly been a great tool when speaking to new customers and has given the firm a lot of confidence. "It has also been very good for the staff. They have all enjoyed the fact that we won, and it's a great reward for them."

Speaking about why it won, Jones says the judges were impressed with the fact that the company had done so much during the year, in terms of developing the gluten-free business and on the marketing side, as well as regarding the general standard of its products. "We are great believers in provenance and try to source our ingredients locally, wherever possible," says Jones. "It has served us very well over the years, and we've also had quite a bit of aid through the Welsh Assembly. So wherever we can support locally, we always do. Of course there's a premium for that price-wise, but it's worth paying."

 

Polish connections

Despite sourcing locally, The Village Bakery doesn't only take inspiration from all things Welsh. Wrexham has a Polish population of around 5,000, 30 of whom are employed at The Village Bakery. Jones says there are now even Polish signs around Whitchurch in Wrexham.

The high proportion of Polish residents has meant that The Village Bakery isn't just making traditional Welsh products, but traditional Polish products too. It launched a 400g Polish rye loaf, containing 50% rye and 50% white flour, which became its fastest growing product. It started producing around 300-400 a week, but in no time at all, demand pushed production up ten-fold.

Since winning the award, the business has also struck a deal to supply a number of Tesco stores. "We've got a listing for nine products for 11 stores (in Wales), which is about to go live any week now." Looking to the future, Jones says he'd like to think the business will do more business with M&S, as well as with other larger chains. But there are no plans for national domination just yet. "We'd still like to grow, but we'd like slow organic growth," he says.

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=== What winning means to us ===

"It's great sense of satisfaction and we're very proud to win it. At the end of the day, it's nice to be recognised for your efforts. I really believe it's very beneficial for all the employees and it does help install a sense of pride in the business. It was a brilliant evening."

- Tim Jones, joint MD

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=== Did you know? ===

While working as a maintenance engineer at The Village Bakery, former triathlete and Iron Man, Peter Norman, came up with the idea of giving all competitors in the Wrexham Half Marathon Welsh Bara Brith instead of medals. Bara Brith is a fruit bread, produced by The Village Bakery, which sponsors the Half Marathon, and has been made to the same recipe for over 30 years.





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