Dozens of bakers and their suppliers gathered at the Heythrop Park Hotel in Oxfordshire yesterday (18 October) for the British Society of Baking’s autumn conference.

A packed schedule included presentations from leading industry figures on the conference theme of driving business forward.

Here are just a few of the key learnings we took away from the event:

Working outside the box is hard

“Thinking outside the box is easy, working outside the box is hard – but that is where true innovation comes from.”

So stated Stan Cauvain, managing director of bakery consultants Baketran, in his presentation on global baking challenges and opportunities. But the sentiment also applied to many of the success stories told at the conference.

Cauvain identified three challenges faced by bakery businesses across the globe:

  • Improving process efficiency and reducing energy costs in bread production
  • Finding ways to make bakery products ‘healthier’
  • Developing relevant scientific, technical and production skills in your company (for more on this, see ‘Ways to address the skills shortage’ below).

Improvements in efficiency could require a fundamental rethink of production processes, suggested Cauvain. “The potential for saving energy starts at the mixer,” he said.

When it comes to ‘healthier’ product development, industry veteran Cauvain pointed out that nutritional concerns go in cycles, and that the first production development he undertook at the start of his career was sugar reduction in cakes and pies.

He described healthy product development as a triangle, with the sides representing three elements: process, recipe and ingredients.

“You cannot look at any element in isolation; change one side and everything changes,” Cauvain said.

He also pointed out the importance of texture in baked products when flavour enhancers such as sugar and salt are removed.

One business that has embraced thinking outside box is Roberts Bakery, which undertook a radical relaunch last year after a buyer said it was “undifferentiated from other brands, a complexity in the market, and was not adding value”.

The work started in April, and the business gave itself just five months to launch new branding, new products, new packaging and a new marketing campaign, explained Roberts managing director Stuart Spencer-Calnan.

“The process has taught us that, as a challenger brand, you can’t go back. You need a relentless focus to continue what you’ve started,” he said. “You also need to learn and adapt – quickly.”

The relaunch has resulted in three national supermarket listings for the brand.

Measure, measure, measure

Another business that has undertaken a transformational and successful rebranding in recent years is Warrens Bakery, winner of the Craft Bakery Business of the Year category at this year’s Baking Industry Awards.

In her presentation on the turnaround of what was previously a tired-looking and struggling business, Warrens retail operations director Alex Martin highlighted the value of data and monitoring business activities.

“We measure almost everything that can be measured,” she said, explaining that she introduced weekly league tables for store sales, and began sharing waste statistics. The business also made store managers responsible for profit and loss.

Martin introduced CCTV into all sites, which enabled the business to view activity in stores and ensure operational standards were maintained. In addition, Warrens has introduced new tills and software to enable better data collection, and now uses Cybake and Cybake Instore software.

Cauvain at Baketran also spoke about the value of measuring performance, suggesting manufacturers can make better use of in-house technical and process information.

He said businesses tend to be good at collecting data when things go wrong, but should also pay attention to data when things go well, to ensure this could be replicated.

In his presentation, he suggested manufacturers treat elements of the process that contribute to the physical and sensory characteristics of a product in the same way they treat procedures relating to safety.

Ways to address the skills shortage

Cauvain flagged up the skills shortage as a challenge affecting bakery businesses across the globe.

He said: “One of the first questions I get asked when I visit bakers is ‘Where do I get good people?’.”

London-based bakery and bakery school Bread Ahead is aiming to help industry address the skills shortage by launching a bakery academy. The business has already enjoyed success in running bakery courses: between 2014 and 2016, the number of people taking part in these rose from an average of 37 a week to 180 a week.

Bread Ahead director Chris Malec echoed Cauvain’s comments: “As a bakery we struggle to get the right talent and resource.”

The business is hoping to work with the wider baking industry to develop the academy, and wants everyone who goes through the academy to have work placements reflecting the three aspects of the trade: artisan, retail and plant.

The conference also heard from bakery trainees Megan Roberts and Jessica Dalton, winner of the 2017 Baking Industry Awards Rising Star category.

They spoke about the ways in which industry can help those in their position by offering work experience and internships, but also suggested students have to take a role by raising their own profile and “putting themselves out there”.

Food-to-go fans are a fickle bunch

Consumers are not shy about putting themselves out there when it comes to buying food-to-go, according to speaker Robert Potts, head of insight at Greencore.

“Food-to-go consumers are highly promiscuous,” he told the audience. “They typically shop in more than seven different outlets a month.”

Greencore has undertaken a major research project on the food-to-go market to help understand food-to-go consumers.

When it comes to reasons for buying food-to-go, the business found that, despite the increase in consumer interest in wellbeing, ‘health’ was the primary driver in just 10.2% of purchases.

Potts explained that healthy eating was becoming increasingly complex and specialist, and that businesses needed to “choose their battles” when it came to the health needs they sought to meet.

Greencore found that the most important reasons for consumer choices were taste, freshness and quality, and Potts said that if a business could get ‘freshness’ right, a lot of other positive factors would follow.

Looking to the future, Potts highlighted that hot-held food-to-go is a potential growth area.

Don’t put tonic water in the oven!

As part of its aforementioned relaunch, Roberts Bakery needed a stand-out piece of NPD to really catch the attention of consumers. That piece of NPD was the Gin & Tonic Fun Buns, which have gone on to collect awards and plenty of media and consumer attention.

But the development wasn’t without it challenges, as Roberts boss Spencer-Calnan told the conference.

Four weeks before launching the buns, the business learned it couldn’t use its planned recipe after discovering that quinine – a key ingredient in many tonic waters – becomes carcinogenic when baked.

Cue some rapid reformulation work that Spencer-Calnan admitted was “a bit stressful”, and the buns launched as planned.