They laughed, they clapped and they cheered as retailer Asda’s commercial bakery director, Huw Edwards, took to the stage at Birmingham’s famous Belfry to host Asda’s own internal Bakery of the Year awards.
But aside from the opening banter, this was a serious competition. In total, 26 stores out of over 350 would be acclaimed regional winners. One by one, all 26 were invited up to the stage to receive their much coveted trophies from Edwards and various suppliers, who had come to support Asda on the night.
From those 26, there would be two overall winners - one North, one South. Both would win a trip to Florida. Then, from those two would emerge one overall champion.
As the audience held its breath, that accolade went to the Elgin store in East Scotland, winner of the North and also overall supreme store champion.
Bakery manager at Elgin, Colin Donaldson said: "It’s unbelievable! It makes me very, very proud. This is an accolade for the whole team.
"We have been working towards this since January, when the event was announced. I’m just so ecstatic. When you see all the competition, it’s unbelievable that we won it!"
Along with Elgin colleague Nicky Munro, Donaldson paid tribute to regional bakery coach Keith Murray for all the support he had given them.
Winner of the top store in the south was Taunton in Somerset. Andrew Lawrence, bakery manager said: "We are absolutely delighted! We train many incoming bakery managers as well as maintaining our own high standards of bakery and products."
He and Taunton colleague Bob Holley said: "When you do a really good job, you hope for recognition. This is what this accolade provides."
Holley added: "We have a great team. Any business needs that core of passion for what they do. I’ve been there for 15 years and some in the team even longer. There’s a lot of hard work and 3am starts."
Huw Edwards told British Baker: "All our bakeries are audited by our training team and our operations team for hygiene, systems and quality. They receive a red or green rating; red means we’ll help you, green is a pass. Those with the most greens became the 26 regional winners. Then, bakery operations manager Neil McGill and myself visited the final six together to choose the top two."
He thanked the bakers, sup-pliers and trading team and told the audience of 130: "We have the fastest-growing bakery business in the UK over the past three years (TNS). And our bakeries are also the fastest-growing business in Asda (Asda’s own data). I come to work because I want to be part of a winning team, as you all are."
Edwards also revealed to British Baker that he had bought 20 handmade peels. These are already in use in three stores and will soon be in use in 20 outlets. They will be used in the stores chosen to make artisan breads from scratch, that will be baked on stone plate ovens.
"The bakers will earn the right to make them by being really good bakers and achieving 100% green scores. It will add to in-store theatre. There is something magical about walking in to a store and picking up a warm loaf of bread. Seeing it being made adds to that experience!"
Stephen Batley, bakery manager of regional winner Halifax store, and his colleague, Saima Kauser, will be one store getting the peel. Batley said: "Bakery is what I have always wanted to do. I’ve been a baker for 21 years. A lot of people who come into my store are neighbours, I want them to have the very best bread."
The prize for the top two regional winners is four days in Florida to visit a Walmart store, other bakers - and to have some fun in the January sunshine.
=== List of Winners ===
== Overall winner ==
== Divisional winners ==
North winner, Asda, Elgin
South winner, Asda, Taunton
== Regional winners and sponsors ==
Central Scotland - Asda, Livingston (McCambridge)
West Scotland - Asda, Bearsden (Bakemark)
East Scotland - Asda, Elgin (Bakemark)
North East - Asda, Bishop Auckland (Roberts Bakery)
Yorkshire - Asda, Halifax (Bakesense)
North Yorks. & Humberside - Asda, Hull, Hessle (Panelto)
Manchester - Asda, Shaw (Kluman & Balter)
Lancashire - Asda, Preston, Fullwood (Uniq)
Liverpool - Asda, Westbrook (Finsbury Group)
North Wales & Cheshire - Asda, Crewe (Warburtons)
Northern Ireland - Asda, Strabane (CBES)
Notts & Derby - Asda, Burton-on-Trent (CBES)
Fens & Lincolnshire - Asda, Thurmaston (British Bakeries)
North Birmingham - Asda, Bloxwich (Elisabeth the Chef)
Central Birmingham - Asda, Capehill (W.C. Rowe)
South Birmingham - Asda, Coventry (Speedibake)
M4 - Asda, Bedminster (Park Cakes)
M1 & Buckinghamshire - Asda, Milton Keynes (United Biscuits)
Essex - Asda, South Woodham Ferrers (Premier Foods)
North London - Asda, Beckton (Maple Leaf)
South London - Asda, Bexley Heath (Cleanbake)
Kent - Asda, Broadstairs (Winterbotham Darby & Co)
South Coast - Asda, Fareham (Allied Bakeries)
South West - Asda, Taunton (Cleanbake)
South Wales - Asda, Caerphilly (Rank Hovis)