But for the intervention of one of its customers, Stuart’s of Buckhaven would probably have been making a note in the diary to celebrate its 150th anniversary some time in the year 2020. In the event, the company has been marking this milestone in 2007.
The confusion arose when, unsure of the firm’s exact date of formation, brothers Robert and Norman Stuart earmarked 1970 as the year to honour the company’s centenary in business. The noteworthy feat duly attracted local media attention and prompted the aforementioned customer to pay a visit and state, in no uncertain terms, that the firm had got its dates mixed up.
What’s more, she had proof - in the form of an invoice dated October 12, 1890, which bore the company’s letterhead and the key phrase ’Established 1857’. This small slip of paper describes the firm as a baker and confectioner specialising in "fancy bread and pastry, sugar and dessert biscuits and fancy cakes of all sorts", including "marriage and christening cakes". It also shows that the company charged 11s 6d for a catering contract comprising cakes, shortbread, tea bread and 20 pies - "quite a good order for 1890, I would have thought", quips current managing director Alan Stuart.
An unashamed sentimentalist, Stuart goes on to point out that the invoice - now framed and kept in his office - was signed by James Stuart himself, Alan’s great great grandfather, who had founded the family business some 33 years earlier. The initials ’R T’ in the company’s limited name - R T Stuart - belong to James’ son Robert, who moved the business to Randolph Street, Buckhaven, in the very early days of the 20th century.
Still going strong at 150 years of age, Stuart’s is certainly assured of its place in Scottish baking history: it is the oldest baking company in Fife and one of the oldest in Scotland. Alan Stuart ventures to suggest that the firm is the longest-surviving baking business to be managed exclusively by the founding family in its town of origin.
One slice of history to which the Stuarts lay an incontrovertible claim is that it is the only founder member of the Scottish Association of Master Bakers to remain in business today. Indeed, records confirm the company’s presence at the body’s inaugural meeting in 1891.
Move for the future
But while happy to spend time gazing into the company’s past, Stuart is quick to acknowledge that no company can survive on the strength of its history alone. Three years ago, the firm underlined its long-term commitment to the Scottish baking trade by moving to larger, purpose-built premises. The company had spent more than 100 years at the 13,500sq ft Randolph Street facility, but the creation of the modern, 22,000sq ft Dubbieside bakery was essential to safeguarding the firm’s future, he said at the time.
Three years later, the company is continuing to run 16 baking shops - all in Fife - but has increased the number of its butcher’s shops to three, following the acquisition of a retail outlet in Lundin Links two years ago. Overall annual turnover has climbed from around £3 million to more than £3.5m over the same period, with roughly the same sales mix of 25-30% savouries, 20% morning goods and the remainder biscuits, cakes and cream products. "First and foremost, our reputation is built around savouries, and especially pies, followed by a very good selection of morning goods," explains Stuart.
Stuart’s has also continued to indulge its passion for new product development, launching an Iron Brew sausage in April this year, which has gone on to become "our best-selling speciality sausage", according to Stuart. As its name suggests, the product comprises pork and the national fizzy drink, Irn Bru. Looking ahead, Stuart is weighing up the introduction of a mail-order service for the butchery side of the business in 2008.
To some extent, consolidation has been forced on the company since its move three years ago by the loss of long-time bakery director David Dalgity, who took early retirement in 2005 owing to ill health. Stuart’s son Keith - the sixth generation of the family to enter the business - took over this pivotal role while still in his mid-20s but was given a huge confidence boost when he was named World Scotch Pie Champion for 2007. He followed this up at the latest championships by winning the Diamond Award for the best bridie.
From father to son
Stuart is clearly delighted that his son has "stepped up to the challenge" of playing a key role in the business. He is also immensely proud of the unbroken family link running through the company’s history. "Family businesses give you a chance to take a more measured look at what’s going on," he suggests. "They engender a different kind of loyalty and a degree of tolerance that doesn’t exist in big business."
It is worth noting, he adds, that around a third of the bakery workforce has clocked up at least 15 years with the company, with bakery manager Archie Strang currently the longest-serving member of staff at approaching 40 years’ service.
While as determined as ever to secure a solid future for the business and its staff, Stuart is proud to be surrounded by reminders of the company’s past. The walls of his office at the Dubbieside bakery are decked with photos of management and bakery scenes, taken during the earlier days of the business. And in the middle of an area of grass outside his window stands alone a century-old spiral staircase, which was rescued from the Randolph Street bakery. "I couldn’t bear to leave it," he admits. "It’s our Stairway to Heaven."
=== Scotch Pie gains renown ===
Over the last decade or so, Alan Stuart has taken his passion for the Scotch Pie to extraordinary lengths. He established the Scotch Pie Club in 1996, in a bid to help producers overcome the gloom of BSE and E.coli outbreaks. He also wanted to "bring butchers and bakers closer together", and to improve the quality of this traditional Scottish product.
But the real stroke of genius came in 1999 with the launch of the World Scotch Pie Championships. From humble beginnings, the latest event in November attracted a record 70 entries, as well as copious national newspaper and TV coverage. "I thought it would last for three or four years at the most - long enough to give savouries a shot in the arm," concedes Stuart. "But it has now become part of the Scottish food calendar."
He continues: "I don’t think there’s any doubt that the savoury market has become buoyant - and the championships certainly haven’t held it back."
The figures bear him out: the first winner saw pie sales increase fivefold while Stuart’s own company recorded an almost 50% leap in demand for Scotch Pies in the aftermath of its victory in the World Championships for 2007. Stuart believes standards have improved markedly since the event was launched. "There are very few products now coming into the competition that are not of a good quality," he says.
With 2008 set to feature the tenth World Scotch Pie Championships, Stuart is hoping to organise a Master Class in the art of pie-making, involving "the best craftsmen" in the business. The Scottish Bakery Training Centre at Mathiesons’ headquarters in Larbert would be the ideal location for this initiative, he adds.