Visiting Bells of Lazonby, near the heart of the Lake District, can be a confusing experience. On the one hand, you have miles and miles of quintessential country lanes, punctuated by centuries-old hedgerows and traditional stone cottages. On the other, lying in a lane just off the village high street, you have one of Britain’s most forward-thinking bakeries - one that has national distribution, was the winner of Sainsbury’s Bakery Supplier of the Year and considered corporate social responsibility (CSR) a part of its very ethos long before most us had even got our heads round the slogan.
So while the heavenly hills around Bells have seen little change over the years, the firm has embraced so much change, it is hard to keep up! But wisely, it ploughs back the profits into growing the business and serving the community. That means supporting the local school, providing affordable housing and sourcing goods locally, among other things.
The business started as a retail outlet after the last war, but now has five shops in local market towns. The remainder of the business comprises three companies: Bells with its own brand of breads, cake lines and puddings; OK Foods, a free-from range for coeliacs and those with food allergies, based in Lazonby alongside Bells; and the Village Bakery Melmerby, in Melmerby village itself, about five miles away. Here they make organic breads and cakes, and run an organic restaurant/café. Head baker Tiff (Anthony Tiffin) also runs masterclasses for bakery enthusiasts and ignorant journalists.
All three businesses supply the major supermarkets as well as health food stores and local foodservice companies.
== coveted accolade ==
But what exactly made proprietor Michael Bell enter the Baking Industry Awards? He says he knew that Bakery Supplier of the Year, sponsored by Sainsbury’s, was one of the most coveted accolades. And while this was an incentive, it also posed a challenge. "There are always good bakers on a shortlist. How can you say you are a better baker, when you are all likely to use good ingredients and make great products?" asks Michael. "So we concentrated on what set us apart and decided it was our CSR policy."
Michael was not able to attend the actual day of presentation at Sainsbury’s head office at Holborn, due to prior commitments, so he sent Carolyn Nichol, national account manager, who was pitched against seven other shortlisted candidates.
He says: "We arranged for Carolyn to take a selection of products, talk through a Powerpoint presentation then answer any questions.
"She highlighted the affordable housing we helped build for people who have at least one child and will send them to the local school, which we also support. She also highlighted our big investment in education and training - our staff spend 800 days doing off-the-job training in a year.
"Our packaging is mostly recyclable and we are the first to use compostable bread bags, which can be left to rot."
== waste minimalisation ==
The company has put in a waste minimalisation policy for everything, ranging from cardboard to light bulbs with a strong emphasis on ’environmental stewardship’. This ’thinking of others’ policy, combined with a basic need to make profits, stimulated Michael to start a subsidiary company, OK Foods, making wheat-, dairy- and gluten-free products for those on a special diet or with allergies. Since 2003, turnover has gone from zero to £3.5m and has led to the company gaining the Queen’s Award for Enterprise.
However CRS does not just extend to Bells’ goods. The new offices, a few yards from existing ones in a traditionally restored station house, and the bakery are quite original. The whole ethos is to minimise energy consumption. Sensors conserve electricity and water, careful construction and natural air circulation avoid the need for air conditioning, heating systems have been chosen for energy efficiency, wind catchers harness nature’s own power and local builders were employed in the new building’s construction.
Was Michael concerned about the competition for the Baking Industry Awards? "Once we were down to the last three - and therefore eligible to attend on the night - we learned our two fellow finalists were La Fornaia, which has achieved astonishing success, and Memory Lane Cakes, which is a great company, so to have got that far was tremendous!
Publicity for the awards helped too. Anyone who is a finalist finds press releases have been sent to their local papers and radio and TV stations.
== advice on the competition ==
So what tips might he pass on to anyone entering the same category next year, because he will not be allowed to re-enter? "I would advise people to major on answering the questions and concentrate on what sets you apart. For example everyone says they ’take great care, use the finest ingredients, or try to innovate’. You need to be different."
A tour around the new environmentally-aware Bells of Lazonby offices followed by those situated a few yards away in the old station house of Lazonby serves to emphasise the point. This will continue as the site for the marketing department and won an award for restoration to its original state - with a few environmental tweaks, of course.
On one table are all the trophies and plaques that Bells has won in the past. On the other side, the station house looks out on to Lazonby’s platform, where a local train stops six times a day. "We roll out a red carpet when VIP customers arrive. It’s often quite a surprise," says Michael.
All this, of course, goes hand in hand with the sort of service and products that supermarkets and others expect, including market analyses and retailer support packages combined with innovations, brand extensions and consumer PR and advertising, alongside in-store samplings. Even so, the price pressures can sometimes be so great that there is literally no profit left - and then Michael will walk away and seek new business. Ethical trading, he believes, must go both ways, as everyone needs to make a profit.
But when the winner of Sainsbury’s Bakery Supplier of the Year was announced on the night and Bells of Lazonby was chosen, the feeling was "absolutely tremendous", he says.
Sainsbury’s bakery and fresh foods director Simon Twigger presented the award, with the help of Joanna Lumley.
The rural baker became a national award winner in one of the most challenging categories, applauded by Sainsbury’s Nick Townend, category manager bakery, Sarah Mackenzie, in-store bakery buyer, and Debra Wharton, who has since left Sainsbury’s. They, along with independent judges, thought that, in Bells of Lazonby, you could not only taste the difference but see it in action too.