Natural talent

08 May, 2009
With its organic and free-from ranges in the major multiples and a focus on sustainability and healthy living, Georgi Gyton finds out about a village bakery with more than just a local reach
Page 26 

The Village Bakery in Melmerby is an organic operation in every sense of the word. Producing a wide range of bakery products, including wheat, gluten and dairy-free organic ranges, its commitment to standards and innovative branding won over the judges at last year's Baking Industry Awards, which saw it take home The Organic Award, sponsored by Asda.

Based in Cumbria, and owned by family business Bells of Lazonby, the bakery sources inspiration for its recipes from across the globe. Marketing manager Lindsay Kilifin explains that a lot of its older flagship products have interesting stories behind them. "For example our rye bread is made from a sourdough recipe that our founder, Andrew Whitley brought back from Russia over 20 years ago." The Village Bakery was founded in 1976 by Whitley, a former BBC Russian correspondent, who until a few years ago still helped out with new product development.

Kilifin says the business isn't just about organics; it's much more than that. Sustainability, healthy living, nutrition and minimal processing are all important aspects of the business, which also bakes all its products in a wood-fired oven, using renewable energy. "We tried to highlight what makes The Village Bakery different, and how it goes the extra mile in everything that it does," says Kilifin, regarding the business's approach to its application. She explains that being organic isn't always the easiest thing, and sourcing the right quality ingredients can sometimes cause problems, but continuing the values on which the business was founded is key.

"Nothing is compromised," she says. "We're very particular about the ingredients that go into our foods and our bakery products. We only use the finest of ingredients and it becomes more difficult when you look at the products which are not just organic, but are also gluten, wheat and dairy-free too - that's when the difficulties really kick in." Other challenges have included developing products with sufficient shelf life for distribution to supermarkets.

It believes 'natural good taste' is the key to success, and it uses natural processes, artisan methods and minimal additives in its products. In fact the only additive it uses is baking powder in some cakes. Its breads are produced in the belief that 'time equals flavour', employing artisan methods of slow fermentation. "We won't use certain ingredients, even if they're likely to be a great seller, if it compromises our values. For example we don't want to use unnecessary sugar, so we sweeten products using fruit juice, for example apple juice, and date syrup. We don't plough sugar into what we do - even if sometimes it would be easier." It also aims to use ingredients which cater for most special dietary needs.

Its products are all accredited by the Soil Association and it also conducts frequent reviews of its suppliers to ensure the quality is upheld and that improvements are made as the market evolves and the availability of ingredients improves.

In the year leading up to the awards, one of its biggest achievements was launching its breads in compostable bags, says Kilifin, which it believes was an industry first. It rebranded its organic range back in 2006, before doing the same for its free-from ranges in June 2008. "It's given the brand a bit of personality, an injection of colour and a focus on our brand values, as well as helping to build more of a rapport with our customers, in terms of who we are, what we do, why we do it and why we go to the lengths that we do," she explains.

The bakery also worked on a number of initiatives to improve the accessibility of its products, for example by widening its distribution and increasing its branded presence.

Its Village Bakery breads are now stocked in major multiples including Asda, Tesco, Sainsbury's and Waitrose and in a number of health food and organic retailers across the UK, such as Planet Organic and Fresh and Wild. Approximately 50% of its branded turnover is from the independent sector.

In its application to Asda's Organic Award, the bakery said it believed its growth is down to a focus on its brand values (organic, sustainability, healthy living, honest and ethical - and simply better), the fact that its innovations are very much in line with consumer and retailer trends, and also its focus on growth markets.

"The Organic Award was a new award last year, and there hadn't been one like it before. We felt The Village Bakery fitted the criteria perfectly. It had its name written all over it," says Kilifin.

As always with these things, it's still a big shock when you win, she explains. "I think the judges felt we were different and that we worked hard at maintaining what we're about. It's always a total surprise when you win and we didn't expect it, but we're really, really proud of it. It's an honour for the brand."

The awards night was attended by Kilifin, as well as MD of Bells of Lazonby, Michael Bell, wife Susan and its HR manager, Julie Kemp, who was a finalist in the Achievement in Bakery Training category.

Looking to the future, Kilifin says that despite the tough economic climate, the business is still climbing. "Being an organic brand especially, it is tough - it's no walk in the park, but we're still developing. We've just launched two new breads into Waitrose, under The Village Bakery brand."

The Village Bakery knows the fact that a product is organic is not always enough in itself for the product to sell. As the company puts it, its focus is on the wider picture surrounding the organics issue, and an attempt to encompass healthy living and sustainability as extensively as possible in all that it does.

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=== View from the awards night ===

== Michael Bell, MD, Bells of Lazonby ==

"The awards evening was fantastic last year. It was absolutely spot on. I know times are hard for everybody, but actually it's a great occasion to celebrate all that is good in our bakery industry, from the very big to the very little and everyone in between. It's a good networking night as well."

== How did it feel when you were announced as winners? ==

"Well I've always wanted to lift up the FA Cup, and I'm delighted for the business to win a Baking Industry Award - it's up there alongside it; it's fantastic. Everyone likes to be associated with success. Winning the award doesn't put thousands of pounds into your bank account, but it's you being judged by your peers in the industry and it's great to get a pat on the back from those who know."

== Why do you feel you won? ==

"We'd be complacent for thinking we knew why we'd won, but we try very hard to look beyond just being organic. Consumers are wanting more than organic ingredients, and want to believe in the brand behind the products."





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