Points of difference

21 October, 2011
With M&S the latest to adopt the word 'artisan' to describe its new-look bakery, how can a traditional artisan bakery retain its USP? Anne Bruce reports
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If you Google the term 'artisan baker', the top sponsored result is bakery giant Greggs, the UK's largest bakery and takeaway chain. It isn't the business that would spring to most people's minds if asked to name an artisan baker, but Greggs does in fact bake its own wares for its 1,500-plus shops.

Then you have Marks & Spencer, which recently launched a new-look in-store bakery concept with what it calls "the look and feel of a small artisan bakery".

The term artisan may seem inappropriate for a mass-market business, but the corporate giants see a marketing value in calling themselves "artisan". Yet with everyone claiming a share of the artisan action, how can a traditional artisan bakery ensure success?

Craig Sams, founder of Green & Black's chocolates, started baking in 1972, founding Ceres Bakery on the Portobello Road, London Britain's first organic and wholemeal bakery. Concepts such as 'wheat-free,' 'gluten-free,' coeliac disease' and 'irritable bowel syndrome' were practically unknown at that time, he tells British Baker. His latest bakery venture came in 2005, when he and wife Jo Fairley took over and 're-invented' the traditional Judges Bakery in Hastings, turning its 200-line range organic.

New product development in the industrial sector is largely derivative, he says, but an artisan bakery can be at the cutting edge of innovation. He comments: "Artisan bakers have the time and the flexibility to play around, to try new ingredients, new shapes and sizes, to engage in a direct feedback loop with their customers, who they actually see face to face. The industrial bakery has to rely on market research, which tells you where the trends were rather than what's next."

There is a now a huge market for 'free-from' bakery goods, into which artisan bakers can tap. Judges, for example, has developed breads and cookies that appeal to this market. The bakery is also looking at ways of developing the flavour of its doughs, and is trialling a "completely new take on an old bread-making tradition" making a more digestible and flavoursome bread. Details are being kept under wraps.

The business also keeps its range fresh by changing the ingredients in its basic sourdough breads, staying in tune with the seasons, using locally produced herbs, fruit and other ingredients, all of which keep customers connected to the East Sussex farmers and growers, Sams says. He adds that some of the ways a craft baker can generate success may seem counter-intuitive. More and more businesses are giving bread-making classes, for example. "If your customers understand first-hand the guiding principles of the craft of making artisan bread then you've cemented their loyalty," he explains.

And opening up right next to a supermarket might also be a good idea as long as it is an upmarket one, such as Waitrose. "Then," Sams says, "you get the customer profile that appreciates what you do, and customers can park if they're driving. An artisan business doesn't need a huge catchment area. Judges Bakery is in the Old Town: population 4,500."

Building a loyal customer base is key. "Our customers often come in two or three times a day," Sams says, "for a fresh baked morning croissant, then for a sandwich or soup for lunch, then for a cake during the late-afternoon 'sugar rush' when they're flagging. You cannot do that as a supermarket."

Quality is key

Tom Herbert, sales director of Hobbs House Bakery in Chipping Sodbury, Bristol, also runs a successful artisan operation. The key to success is quality, he says, and that means baking from scratch premixes are out. Products must be given time to develop their own flavours, and they should be moulded by hand.

Bakery skills also need to be promoted in the business, and a commitment to training made. Hobbs House is training two apprentices this year. Yet the bakery is a business, not a hobby. No one should eschew technology for the sake of it, says Herbert.

"We've got electric mixers, and I am grateful we don't have to mix by hand any more; hand-kneading does not add to the end result. But shaping by hand is an artisan method that adds something to the end-product."

And while the company does not use the term 'bake-off', it does sell what can best be described as bake-off products wholesale: a big no-no in some artisans' minds. The Hobbs House 'artisanal frozen' bread range, launched in 2009, includes organic white sourdough, fig and walnut bread and six-seed malted wheat. Herbert comments: "The market is flooded with nasty, pale, bake-off stuff. This is different. We bake it until is develops a colour and then blast-freeze it. We are very careful, using the latest technology."

He says he is confident that the freezing process does not affect the taste of the product and that there is no deterioration in quality. Only breads that are strong enough to stand up to the freezing process, such as levains and sourdoughs, are frozen.

"Frozen bread is a good thing," he adds. "It helps our customers, such as farm shops, manage their stock and it gives people the experience of real fresh bread. It is convenience, but with artisan values. It also allows us to stay relevant in new markets."

Herbert's key point of diffe-rence, compared to bake-off operators such as Delice de France, is that products them-selves are handmade using craft processes.

"It is a surprising development," he admits, "but you have to be creative and resourceful to stay relevant in business. Anyone who thinks the fact that we freeze means we are not an artisan business well, I invite them to come and spend an hour at the bakery."

Skills, not machines

Chris Freeman, head baker at Dunn's Bakery, in north London, says that for him, anything made on a production line cannot properly be considered 'artisan'. "You expect 'artisan' to mean small-scale production with some skill involved. There is nothing wrong with machines, but an artisan baker should be using the skill of the baker, not the machine engineer."

That said, Freeman agrees that it would be "going back to the dark ages" to start mixing doughs by hand. Machines have their place, he says, but they should not be used as a substitute for a baker's unique skills. He is happy to use premixes in his business, although he keeps artificial ingredients to a bare minimum.

"Hovis was the original premix over 100 years ago, with flour and wheatgerm," Freeman says. "You have to live in the real world, and weigh up cost against convenience. The small baker cannot carry a huge range of raw materials it's just not practical. I don't think the term 'artisan' precludes premixes, otherwise you're back to re-inventing the wheel. Bread is much purer than it was 100 years ago."

However, Freeman is uncomfortable with bake-off. "The only skill involved there is staff reading the instructions," he says. "It's OK in garage forecourts, for example, but not in a bakery."

And buying in products instead of producing them on site is another practice he is not keen on. "It does not tick my boxes," he says. "I think you diminish the value of your offering if you buy in, and everything starts to look the same."

Craft bakery consultant and former bakery lecturer Clive Wormall works with bakery clients on improving recipes. He says that a baker who understands the baking process can be at the vanguard of innovation, experimenting with new processes and recipes and that is a huge opportunity and a unique selling point for those in the craft sector. "I would never knock the factories, but skills are limited," explains Wormall. "If there is a problem in the baking process say, if the dough doesn't rise or collapses the skilled baker knows what might be wrong. But in a factory, these sorts of skills are limited. The same goes with salt reduction: if you know your recipes, you can use other flavours and less salt, but you have to understand the basics."

Selling the artisan story

Meanwhile, Chris Young, project manager from the Real Bread Campaign, believes artisan bakeries should see corporate operators marketing themselves as 'artisan' as an opportunity to steal some marketing moves. "The high-street bakers can learn from the bigger players in the market," he advises. "You have to sell your story, talk about your products, tell people why they are different. Just look at the success of farmers' markets: they prove that consumers are prepared to pay an honest price for an honest loaf, as long as they know the story behind it."

Cost-cutting and trying to play the price game with supermarkets is doomed to failure. "You have to maintain your point of difference and tell people about it," he adds.

And as a local business makes sure its voice is heard, it already has the advantage of having its ear close to the ground and its eye on customer trends in the area.





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