Stepping into Fortnum & Mason (F&M) - a retailer whose price point is perhaps best summed up by the £5 pasty sitting in the deli section - you might be well advised to stroll past the exquisite patisserie (a concession of London’s Sketch), through the towering wedding cakes (made bespoke by cake master Peggy Porschen), and along to the £35 fruit cakes with your fingers in your ears, singing to yourself, "La la la la la la, what recession?"
But wait! As a tourist draw of quintessentially English products, F&M benefits from the strong tourist euro and exports of hampers. And as a luxury retailer, Jonathan Millar, buyer of sweet grocery (including bakery, confectionery, biscuits, chocolates and jams), has the luxury of not being restricted on price. "I’d much rather look at something and think, ’Can I sell it?’" he says. "The price is obviously crucial, but I’m much more interested in whether something fits into F&M’s mix."
This, he believes, frees up his stable of niche bakery suppliers to be creative. "People who use really good ingredients are often more imaginative about how they use them because they’re conscious that they’re not necessarily making to a price."
On-site, F&M stalwart of 38 years Andrew Granger runs the scratch bakery, making a small number of traditional products, from Madeira cakes to lemon drizzle cakes, teacakes, apple pies, Chelsea buns, Eccles cakes and Bath buns. Bread is shipped in from north London’s The Bread Factory alongside brands like Poilâne, though Millar has slimmed down the bread SKUs. The majority of sweet bakery is bought in and although Millar has taken on many new suppliers, he has also been rationalising, as the store shifts more to own-label.
He counts 20 main suppliers plus smaller ingredient and one-off niche suppliers on the books, all making bespoke for F&M. "I prefer to have a belt-and-braces approach," he says, "with one supplier who will do most of the product and a number two in case anything happens. We have a lot of niche suppliers who do things quite narrowly, but they do them brilliantly."
The recipes are developed by Millar himself. "They’re either old recipes or recipes I’ve invented or worked on. The thing that’s crucial to F&M’s survival is that we do recipes that are specific to us. We don’t take just anything off the shelf and put our name to it," he insists.
One example he introduced for Christmas was a cracker-shaped pack with chocolate pearl shortbread on one end and macadamia nut shortbread on the other. He used chocolate pearls because he says "chocolate chips are everywhere". The pearls are made by French confectioner Valrhona. "F&M is a very sweet store," he says. "We sell vast quantities of biscuits, from shortbreads to English thins, Piccadilly biscuits and Florentines."
Smaller volumes are sold fresh from the bakery, though he turns over an "awful lot" of classics like scones, especially a 50% fruited scone and a cheese scone made with unpasteurised Montgomery Cheddar. "Because we’re a very English brand we like to look at regional recipes and see what we can do with them. Wherever possible I like to over-egg recipes, so we put things in that are rather lovely; I like complexity."
The store is a treasure trove for suppliers, who are encouraged to go on a super-upmarket sweep. For example, the shop’s range of single-origin chocolates and truffles pop up in all sorts of recipes. Champagne truffles will embellish bought-in round sponge cakes from Primrose Bakery in north London, as a decorative twist, and pink Champagne truffles top a pink iced cake. "It adds another dimension," he explains. "I have an assistant and part of her life is spent ringing our suppliers and asking them, ’What do you need from the rest of the store?’."
There’s no scrimping on the ingredients. F&M is the biggest customer of vintage cognac supplier Delamain, for the cakes. "We get through around 6,000-7,000 bottles of that a year and it’s the very best cognac we can get. Interestingly, if you use things that are too old, when you bake them - as they are very aromatic - you actually have to put more in, because it’s all on the nose. If you’re using a crude spirit, such as a cheap whisky, you don’t have to put much in."
He also uses Somerset-based organic Jersey dairy Ivy House Farm for butter, cream and sometimes eggs in the bakery. "We support a lot of small specialist producers like Ivy House, and it makes for lovely, rich pastries." Going forward, Millar is on the look-out for new, smaller categories, like steamed puddings and microwaveable puddings.
And while there may be a recession going on, at least Kensington’s poodle population will be credit-crunching its way through some premium treats. He says: "At the moment we’re looking at dog biscuits, but with an F&M twist! You come to Fortnums to buy something incredible. We’re all about the unexpected."
=== Suppliers’ notes ===
Jonathan Millar CV: Always been a food buyer, first at Harrods on fromagerie and frozen foods, and then on to F&M on deli, then grocery and sweet bakery.
Dealing with suppliers: "One of the benefits of being F&M is suppliers are happy, if not desperate, to work for us! Very often it’s a telephone call, mulling over what’s possible and what we can do in the future with the ingredients and the packaging."
Hands-on approach: "Suppliers feed in their expertise and I feed in my ideas, along with my fellow buyers. Unlike elsewhere, as buyers, we have control over everything from recipes to manufacturing to packaging. I work out in my eye how it’s going to sell - every detail, from the size of the logo to the ribbon to the general feel of the range. I don’t like picking products off the shelf - I’d rather look at what suppliers are doing and add an F&M twist."
Minimum expectations from a new supplier: "We wouldn’t expect them to jump too many hurdles - we would help them bring their bakeries up to scratch etc. We really do work with very small suppliers - our shortbread supplier will bake to order. Expectations are simply that they are on our wavelength."
Pitching: "Just ring me on 020 7734 8040 or email me! I very rarely say no, as I’m naturally curious."
Biggest bugbear: "People coming to see me and not bothering to walk around to find out what F&M is about or thinking where their product would fit in. It’s a small bugbear that’s easily avoided with five minutes’ research."
Joys of the job: "I enjoy coming up with names and playing with the design. People are more likely to remember ’Arcadian Forest Cake’ over ’chocolate and cherry cake’. We are here to feed people but also to entertain."