Irish firms thrive

29 July, 2011
Andrew Williams toured a pick of Northern Ireland's bakeries to find out about their priorities and investment strategies

Northern Ireland is a bakery market facing cost pressures equal to, if not greater than, GB. The emergence of large multiple retailers and consolidation in the retail sector has driven down prices over the past decade. One consequence is the proliferation of pound lines appearing on the shelves, hitting already tight profits for margin-squeezed manufacturers. While the region is believed to be ripe for consolidation in bakery, with a large number of small-to-medium operators, there is a raft of thriving companies with successful domestic and export businesses.


The growing craft supplier

Company: Genesis, Magherafelt
Products: Speciality breads, including the honey and yogurt wheaten (brown soda), soda Farls, pancakes, rolls, including a range of sourdoughs and scones; Genesis Crafty brand
Founded: McErlain's Bakery formed in 1968 (rebranded in 1999 to become Genesis)
Growth: turnover has increased 90% since 2000
Niche: handcrafted bakery products with a contemporary image
Retail: Marks & Spencer, Sainsbury's, Waitrose and Tesco
Own-label: Superquinn and Musgrave Retail Partners in the Republic of Ireland

Having grown its brand considerably in retail, Genesis began servicing own-label supply through Marks & Spencer in 2010 and is eyeing up foodservice markets, supplying via the likes of Brakes. The planned growth of lines will contribute to a 30% increase in turnover in a matter of months.

Liesa Johnston, Marketing and new business director
On the move into own-label: "We realised it wasn't enough to be a family business; you needed to be a brand. Now we need to collaborate with retailers and have brands and own-label side-by-side. A lot of indigenous Northern Ireland companies have grown their business on the back of own-label and are now trying to do the brand stuff, which is a lot more difficult. We have established the brand and have it ticking over quite comfortably, while we set ourselves the challenge of becoming own-label suppliers. It's going to make us a better business."
How own-label began: "We started producing cakes for [Marks & Spencer], one of which has been hugely successful: a jam bake, which we call a cheesecake in Northern Ireland. It's a pastry cake with raspberry jam and a sponge on the top. It's probably a product Mrs McErlain made in the 1960s, but it's just taken off in M&S. Now we have 25-30,000 products a week going into 690 stores."
Craft versus mass-produced: "[M&S] said, 'Leave the tea-time range where it is. We want to retain you guys as our craft bakery and there are lots of other things you could do for us, rather than going down the [mass-produced] route.' They were very reluctant for us to start spending E500,000 on new pieces of kit to bang out the stuff that large firms can do just as well. Our product is different because of the handmade element. Our pastries are actually all stamped by hand. We can do heart-shaped products for Valentine's Day or shamrocks for St Patrick's Day, which not many other people will bother doing."


The crafty plant baker

Company: Irwin's, Portadown
Products: Breads batch, healthy and traditional, including Irwin's Brand, Nutty Krust Brand, Rankin Selection Brand, Guinness Wholegrain Bread; also Howell House pastries and cakes
Founded: Established in 1912, the family-run bakery is Northern Ireland's largest independent bakery and specialises in Irish breads; Irwin's accounts for around 85% of all Irish breads sold in Great Britain
Innovation: 'Nutty Krust' is Irwin's most successful product to date using traditional batch baking (baked on the oven sole) and 18-hour sponge fermentation. Originally launched in the 1960s, it has recently secured listings in 300 stores across Great Britain, rebranded as 'Irwin's Irish Batch' in a 400g variant
Growth: In 2006, Irwin's acquired cake and tray-bake specialist, 'Howell House' to introduce a specialist home bakery category. Irwin's invested in the division and strategically rebranded to 'Howell's Handmade'
Industry support: Niall Irwin is president of the Irish Association of Master Bakers. "I'd urge the bakers to join, support it and take part in it. They will learn from talking to others and grow together. I'm particularly aiming at the craft sector."

A lot of the company's marketing has been family and health-driven: it reduced salt below 2012 target levels in brown bread before the Food Standards Agency was even born, as a response to the high cardiovascular disease rate in Northern Ireland; it introduced folic acid and calcium at a time when Northern Ireland had the highest incidence of spina bifida in the world.
Michael Murphy (MM) and niall irwin (NI)
You're a plant baker that has retained longer fermentation methods why? [MM] "We believe there's a route that says making bread that way is better for your digestive system. We're trying to prove it, working with the University of Ulster to understand the science behind the old-fashioned methods. That's not to say the Chorleywood Bread Process (CBP) isn't needed, because without it we couldn't feed 60 million people every day. But our roots are in craft bakery and as we've expanded, we've automated some of our processes; we believe CBP has taken a bit of flavour out of bread and we'd like to put that back in."
On fortifying bread with folic acid: [NI] "We did it several years ago and at considerable cost, but we hope we have played our part in producing a more healthy generation. Tapping into the Northern Ireland health strategy sets us apart from GB brands."
On a spurt in social media marketing: [MM] "As individuals, we're not totally comfortable with Facebook and twitter! But when we run an on-pack offer with a tourism partner, we will drive 40,000 hits to the website. Our consumers are web-literate. and we're developing strategies that are right for them."
On Northern Ireland as a place with great food provenance: [MM] "We have a great food industry and we've only just started shouting about it as food producers we can all benefit from that."


The zero food miles pie-maker

Company: Braeside Country Pies, Loughgall in Co Armagh
Products: Sweet filled pies (ambient and frozen), fruit loaves, barm bracks, cakes and confectionery
Founded: Bakery established in 2004 on a bramley apple farm to add value to the family fruit business
Growth: the acquisition in 2008 of Christine's Farmhouse Bakery expanded the product range into cakes, tray bakes, biscuits and traditional Irish fruit loaves; £826,000 turnover with 10% growth forecast this year
Retail: In 2010, it secured its listings in the UK multiple and independent retail sector and is now being distributed by Cambridge-based Fordham Fine Foods and Devon Cakes of Ottery
exports: the Republic of Ireland represents around 36% of its business

If a box needs ticking that says 'locally sourced,' Braeside is your go-to apple pie-maker. The bramley apple grower, with a 50-acre orchard in Co Armagh, set up a bakery in 2004 and has grown to supply wholesalers, convenience stores and retailerssuch as Asda.
Lesley McNeill Co-owner
Why pie? "Initially we bought a pie line to make apple tarts, pies and crumbles. The whole idea behind the business was to process it and put it straight into the tart, non-preserved and frozen if you want it that way. It became increasingly difficult to survive making apple pies alone, so we diversified into cakes, buns and longer shelf-life products."
Targeting Great Britain for growth: "We are doing increased turnover supplying through Devon Cakes, and the product has been very good for us in the south of England. In recent months we've done a deal to supply four loaf cakes, which they were previously sourcing from another bakery. We've just developed a 12-inch non-preserved apple pie for the catering industry. We would like to do more in the GB market. It's difficult to get into the mainland, and working with Invest Northern Ireland has helped us speak to the right people and given us credibility."
The difficulties of getting product into GB: "The high cost of transport is an issue, as is reliability. We're on our second transporter. With the first, on one occasion, we sent 36 cases of cakes, 11 of which arrived damaged!"
Tough market conditions: "Sometimes you go to a distributor and you're more or less told the price point. If you're told it's £1.25, they won't accept £1.27 there's not even 2p flexibility; you have to work with your ingredients provider and your labour, and do all you can do to hit the price point.


The par-baker - riding the Subway

Company: Evron Foods Group, Portadown
Products: Frozen and chilled speciality bread and bakery products including dough pieces, garlic breads, ciabattas, parbaked French breads, "tear and share" breads, flatbreads, plus a range of Italian-style breads; ambient products were introduced in 2009 and it has extended its offering to confectionery, such as apple pies and muffins
Founded: Established in 1984, Evron is an independent, privately-owned company servicing the retail, foodservice, wholesale and food-processing/sandwich-manufacturing market sectors; it has a second facility in South Wales
Growth: With a turnover of £26.5m, it is planning to invest £15m over the next five years

Evron supplies the bread for Subway outlets in the UK and Ireland, which has propelled it into a major player in par-baked products. It has made big investment in 'high-care' production facilities and diversifying its products.
Jonathan Durnell NPD manager
On entering the gluten-free market servicing the Mrs Crimbles gluten-free brand: "One of the bigger investments on our part in the last couple of years has been gluten-free lines. Gluten-free has been a big project for us over the past 18 months. We produce breads, rolls and baguette-shaped products, working alongside our customers. We're close to a gluten-free baguette. We're focusing on a bit of blue sky, healthier eating and clean-label products, which we've done a lot of work on in the past few months."
Developing breads for Subway: "Subway, along the American lines, is trying to bring in healthier options, which aren't out [in the market] yet. But they're looking to add more fibre into their rolls, and they want to be able to make a health claim on that roll. We've been working on that for a number of months. It's a side of the business that's growing all the time."


The high street 'home bakery'

Company: Heatherlea Bakery, Bangor
Product range: Wide selection of baked goods, including cakes, tray bakes, breads and fresh deli produce; its boiled cake and fruit loaf have won several Great Taste Awards
Founded: Established in 1937 and has expanded over time and relocated to 6,000sq ft specialist food production premises located one mile from a busy retail shop, deli and café. It was bought in 1990 by Patricia and Paul Getty

The Heatherlea Bakery is a small family business based in Bangor Northern Ireland. Adapting has been key to its success, even going so far as to develop several breakfast cereals for prestigious clients in Northern Ireland and the Republic. Members of the Artisan Bakers of Northern Ireland a group of like-minded bakers dedicated to preserving and improving the skills of artisan bakers it has benefited from a collaborative network to develop products and cut costs.
Paul Getty Co-owner
Is craft bakery resilient in Northern Ireland? "It's holding its own. The major evolutions have been the decrease in white bread sales, an increase in speciality bread and an increase in pastry and cake lines. Our advantage is probably that there are so few traditional home bakeries and we're offering such a fantastic product that it's up to us to get the message out to people local people making local produce and your money is staying in your town. We don't need the multiples vacuuming the money out of Northern Ireland."
Your background is clothing retail how did you find the merchandising of bakery? "There tended not to be much variety, only standard fare. We like the wholefoods look; Ottolenghi in London is a favourite. We travel a lot [for product inspiration] and we were selling whoopie pies six months before Marks & Spencer, but it took the latter to validate that product in the minds of consumers."
On membership of the Artisan Bakers of Northern Ireland: "With fellow bakers we can hit the ground running, get our problems solved and get new ideas. We're buying together now and it is beneficial to have some buying power as a group."
The margin squeeze: "Suppliers have been too quick to pass on their price rises because the end-users will start to buy less product. We have raised prices, but not as quickly as a proper economic model would suggest we do, because the consumer would not tolerate it."





My Account

Spotlight

Most read

Social