Have you looked at the cost of a supermarket loaf lately? For a small, independent craft baker and I speak as the owner of a small craft bakery, Judges, in Hastings' Old Town there is probably nothing more depressing, because quite simply, we can never compete with that knock-down price.
Supermarkets, of course, sell bread as a 'loss leader', wafting out that just-out-of-the-oven smell to lure customers to buy loaves, which are often sold at what cannot be more than cost price. The thinking is that once those customers have been seduced by the ludicrously low price of a loaf, everything else in the store is bathed in a 'halo' of affordability, as they drift the aisles filling their trolleys, often in an out-of-town store where they don't have to pay for parking and don't get me started again on that one.
It's all very well for the Big Guys. They can afford to sell bread so cheaply because they have 20,000 other lines on which they can make a chunky 45% margin, so the loss on the bread is a drop in the ocean. Sadly, any high street or village baker does not have that luxury because bread is the cornerstone of what we make and sell. Yet we're confronted, constantly, with customers who tell us that our product is expensive because we're being compared with the price of, for example, a sliced white Kingsmill they saw last week in Morrisons.
The arguments that many of us use time to allow a loaf to rise perfectly, handcraft our loaves, rather than churning them out on a production line, and often pay higher-than-average wages in order to bring in the skills of a true craft baker invariably sound 'thou-dost-protest-too-much' to a budget-conscious shopper. We can try to explain about the difference in quality between mass-produced and craft-baked bread but because in this country so many people have come to expect cheap food as their birthright, those arguments will fall on ears that are deafened by a pair of iPod headphones funny how nobody has a problem splashing their cash around on those. As businesses, we are left to rely on our 'foodier' customers to stay afloat people who wouldn't go near a Chorleywood-processed loaf if they were paid to, and know quality when they see and taste it. But in these cash-strapped times, there are fewer of them about.
So, I have a radical proposal. Wouldn't it be fairer if the supermarkets paid a small percentage on every loaf sold, to keep the cost of flour down for the rest of us? After all, it is the small, craft baker who has done so much for the image of bread in the past few years enabling the supermarkets to cash in and sell focaccias, ciabattas and walnut breads for a fraction of the price we can afford to. It's worth noting that the price of a pint of milk is kept artificially low by a subsidy to dairy farmers. Why not hive off some of the vast profits from supermarket bread, in the form of a 'bread margin'...? An unrealistic dream, perhaps, but one way, surely, to ensure the survival of this country's artisan and craft bread shops, in the face of and I cannot be the only person to think this desperately, depressingly unfair competition.