Craft and creativity in Crouch End

19 May, 2006
Bakery Dunns, based in Crouch End, seems to thrive on challenge and has even let a film crew run amok in its shop. Andrew Williams speaks to proprietor Chris Freeman
Page 12 
When people eulogise about the need to diversify a craft retail bakery business, few can claim to have taken it as much to heart as Dunns of Crouch End. French farmers’ markets, gay wedding cakes and, perhaps more ill-advisedly, letting a film crew run amok, destroying the shop, are just a few of the ways it has met the challenges facing bakers on the high street.
Over the years, Dunns – a one-shop craft bakery in North London, with a history dating back to 1850 – has fielded a number of TV commercial shoots on its premises. “They’re jolly hard work but my goodness, you’ve never seen money like it!” says proprietor and fifth-generation baker Chris Freeman.One advertisement featured Bob Hoskins in a British Telecom promotion, while a Wrigleys gum commercial became famous locally as ‘the Dunns advert’. “It was the one with a guy smashing up cream gateaux on the counter. It really was done while the shop was open – quite incredible!” he recalls.Another sort of film crew is, however, less welcome; the shop has a good high street position and, despite the needling presence of a CCTV traffic camera stinging would-be shoppers parking outside, it draws in around 6,000 customers a week, spending an average of just over £3 per head.The shop sells a range of sandwiches, savouries, fresh cream cakes and confectionery and bread. “We sell quite a lot of bread compared to some other high street bakers,” he notes. This amounts to 19% of the shop’s turnover.The range includes speciality breads, such as Scofa – a yeast-free Scottish soda bread; Spekkle – a loaf enriched with sunflower seeds and soya bean flakes; Shamrock – a rustic yeast-free shamrock-shaped Irish wheaten bread, with buttermilk and wheaten oats; sunflower cob bread made with honey and sunflower seeds; Oatie – a bread with oat flakes, wheat and malt flour.Health watchThese ‘healthier’ bread types reflect commonly cited health considerations, which are filtering right down to the small craft baker. Dunns is adapting by reducing salt and hydrogenated fats, he says. “Lower salt is an issue for us; we’re in a very ‘right on’ area, where people are into all the latest things, think they know everything about everything, but probably know less than they think they do!“The Glycaemic Index (GI) diet has brought some great benefits to us,” he continues. Dunns’ lower GI breads have been successfully extended into a range of sandwiches, with a range of fillings, selling at a premium. It also makes dairy-free, egg-free – in fact anything-free – celebration cakes.“In Haringey we have the highest child asthma rate in the country,” explains Freeman. “Kids around our way have all sorts of allergies and cannot get an ordinary birthday cake, so we try to address that.”But the exercise is effectively a ‘loss leader’, he admits. “I don’t think we make any money from it – in fact, I’m pretty sure we lose money – but it does provide a service, and I think that’s what being in a community is about.”Celebration cakes are an important part of its business, at around 9% of turnover. “Photo cakes are a godsend to us,” he says. “It’s much better than trying to produce a figure or mould.” Dunns has now started making celebration cakes for civil ceremonies between same-sex couples. “One has to remember that there won’t be any Christening cakes to follow, but in Haringey we celebrate diversity!” says Freeman.Valued staffThe bakery houses a separate confectionery and bread bakery, finishing room, cake decorating room and sandwich room. It now bakes-off some products in the store itself.Staff are a valuable commodity at Dunns, with around 50 on the books, and five arepresently undergoing training schemes.“We’ve trained lots of people over the years and lots of master bakers in and around this part of the world owe their training in no small part to my father,” he says. Production wages are high, with many skilled and long-serving staff on the payroll. “Long service and loyalty comes with a price attached to it,” he says.He adds that customer service is the one tradition that cannot be compromised: “In this day of cutting back on staff levels, customer service is dreadfully important. Customers expect to be in, served, and out quickly. That’s something that we pride ourselves on. At £6 an hour, it doesn’t take many sales to earn their keep over the busy times.”Website adds profileIt’s this line between maintaining traditions and keeping a business responsive to changing times that is so crucial to bakers, he says. One addition – a slickly designed website – has helped generate enquires and gives the business a profile.Traditional bakery values, particularly family businesses, can sometimes stand in the way of taking a business forward, he believes. “When we say, ‘We’ve always sold things this way, we’ve never done that’, it can sometimes be an incredible handicap.” Bakers who never used to buy-in products or premixes – instead relying on tried and tested scratch recipes – are beginning to reconsider their approach, he says. “We buy in some savoury products that we can’t easily make ourselves, as well as marzipan figures and chocolates,” he says.Rethinking entrenched opinions extends to overturning Dunns’ age-old opposition to Sunday trading; but since relenting last autumn, the move has turned out to be a success. “I’d always campaigned strenuously against opening on a Sunday,” says Freeman. “We’re a family firm and I work pretty long hours. Crouch End is a busy place on a Sunday. But we’ve managed to run it with a shop supervisor and two staff, with no bakery staff. It does mean, sadly, that we’re selling products that were baked on the Saturday – something we wouldn’t normally do.” Local competitionAround 200 nearby council jobs were axed in recent times, dealing a blow to its local trade. Yet M&S Simply Food and Tesco Express stores, which opened in the area, have turned up the heat. And introducing a coffee machine was one step taken to hold back the Starbucks onslaught. “We get people coming into the shop, with a Starbucks coffee in their hand, to buy a Danish pastry or a muffin. We’re trying to get people to buy both from us.”It also successfully introduced smoothies to its drinks offering. “We’re always looking for different things and smoothies was a recent innovation, which we find sell well; there’s a good mark-up on them.“The high street’s a difficult place to be – it’s challenging,” he adds, “but I’m optimistic about the future.” That future may come in the form of his 13-year-old son, who is “desperately keen to become a baker, despite seeing the hours I work”, says Freeman.His son will potentially be the sixth generation of bakers to take on these evolving challenges. “I feel extremely lucky in that respect. With a family business, you’re the custodian for the time that you are running it. We’ve had some difficult times, but I’m sure the future will be good for us.” But Freeman, who is registered blind, jokes: “In terms of looking forward, I’m probably the biggest handicap to the business!” Chris Freeman was speaking at the British Society of Baking spring conference.Doughnut week fameChristopher Freeman is perhaps best-known for spearheading National Doughnut Week, which, since its inception in the early 1990s, has raised over £0.5m for children’s charities. National Doughnut Week took place on May 6 to 13. Visit www.dunns-bakery.co.uk for details.DUNNS STAFFOffice - 1Support worker - 1Weekday shop - 10Saturday staff - 18Sandwich trolley - 1Shop supervisors - 4SEASONAL FAREDunns experimented by setting up stall at the Boulogne Christmas Market, which proved to be “a big mistake”, admits proprietor Chris Freeman. “We were told by lots of people that the French would love our products. In fairness, we chose the wrong market at the wrong time. We should have gone for a food market – we certainly experienced a bit ofFrench hostility!”At Christmas time the firm produces 20,000 eight-page leaflets, to be distributed locally, at a cost of around £2,000. “I think it’s money well spent,” he says. “We put a huge amount of effort into Christmas. It’s absolutely exhausting, but I think it’s the one time when the baker really puts himself in front of the customer and shows what he can do.”Christmas puddings are still produced the old fashioned way, in china. “We’re trying to get a bit more into the gift market,” he says. “They demand a fairly hefty premium and we sold just under 100 of those last Christmas.”



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