Notes from a small island

09 December, 2005
BB Grout on Canvey Island has grown from a beach kiosk to a thriving craft chain. Tony Phillips, British Baker columnist and owner of craft bakery Janes Pantry, discovers the secret of its success
Page 11 

The company was once a café at a holiday camp

Based in Canvey Island, Essex, BB Grout is a bakery business of particular interest to me because it is very similar to my own in terms of turnover and number of shops. Noel and Sheila Grout, who own the company, are good friends of mine so I thought it was about time to venture ‘abroad’ and visit them. And I soon discovered you don’t even need a passport to get across the water!
The company was founded in 1946 in a beach kiosk then expanded into a café and takeaway in a holiday camp and a works canteen. Noel joined the business in 1953 as a young boy, then in 1956 did his national service in the RAF, where he succeeded in burning down the cookhouse while serving in Germany! The RAF was obviously pleased to let him return to the family business where he has been ever since.Back in 1947 the café featured a small outhouse where doughnuts were fried 12 at a time. In today’s climate the ‘health police’ would not even allow ingredients to be stored there, but this was the company’s first steps to becoming a bakery. From small acorns large oaktrees grow.Later the company moved to larger premises, which had room for a proper bakery at the rear and a shop in the front. On the first day it made six loaves and gave four away. The first day’s takings were £2. Things could only get better and they certainly did. The bakery has grown into a thriving, first-class business that many would envy.Family focusGrout’s the Bakers comprises 10 shops and a small property portfolio. It is a family business – sons Giles and Neale run the bakery’s production, daughter Claire handles the accounts and wife Sheila runs the office. I am not sure what Noel does, although he does have a collection of superb cars, one of which always includes a Rolls Royce. I suppose it must take a lot of time driving them around.That is a little unkind because he is an excellent businessman and the driving force in the company. Like most successful family companies, it is a joint effort by husband and wife.The philosophy of the company is very simple – make good quality products and keep the distribution area tight (it is about seven miles), which makes control easier and the company more flexible.Noel is a great believer in quality bread, which is made from scratch. It has a traditional taste and is pleasing to the eye. The bakery is well equipped with modern machinery.Two new ovens have been installed within the past two years. There is also a one-man doughnut frying system, confectionery depositor, bread plant and flow-wrapper, in addition to all the usual bakery equipment.These I mention to give you an idea of how the bakery is being improved and the forward thinking of this well-run company.The shops are all in good locations. Not knowing the area well, I would say they are in prime to ‘secondary-prime’ positions. Once again there is a continual upgrading – shop fittings are modern and give an air of hygiene and well being.I noticed that while the display units were well stocked with a good selection of products, the range appeared under control. So often I see bakery shops with far too large a variety of confectionery. Every shop has a bake-off oven and selection of hot savoury goods, plus sandwiches and filled rolls. Takeaway trade is a major part of total turnover. There is also a growing trade in buffets, which Noel intends to expand.Looking at the company as a whole, the question I always ask myself is what have I learnt and could others learn? The answer here is quite easy – keep it simple, do it well, keep tight financial control of costs and expand steadily without biting off more than you can chew.Business blueprintShould anyone be looking for a blueprint to grow a profitable family business one would have a long way to go to beat this Canvey Island small empire. The mixture of freehold and leasehold properties, tight control, family involvement, combined with an open-minded attitude to learning from others, is a lesson to us all. The company is forward looking and wants to expand steadilyWhile developing this family business Sheila has found time to bring up three children. With Noel’s enormous number of outside interests, in addition to his business, how on Earth they found time to make babies is amazing!When I tell you just a few of Noel’s activities you will appreciate the energy of the man. He spent some 30 years as a magistrate, has been a director of a greyhound stadium, chairman of school governors, an active Rotarian and Freemason, church warden and member of the Worshipful Company of Bakers. He is now chairman of the National Association of Master Bakers.While I confess I have probably missed out as many activities as I have mentioned, I guess that has given you some idea of the man and the company.Noel is at this time battling with lung cancer, but we all have total faith in him when he assures us he will beat it. To be honest, his lifestyle has not changed – he does just as much as ever. I tell him nearly every day to do less and he takes absolutely no notice.Giles appears to be taking on just as much as his father. He is LASER president this year and an active rugby player. He is also very involved with the family business.With good luck, the family will work hard and allow Noel and Sheila to spend more time in their second home in Lanzarote, Spain, as well as to visit us more in Cirencester.



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