Bakery managers all over the country are standing by for their busiest time of year, swatting up on production schedules, supplies and staffing rotas. The more sophisticated will already have analysed electronic point of sales data from last Christmas, probably as early as January, to help them plan. Others will only just have turned their thoughts to the season ahead, taking a less scientific approach on the basis of experience and instinct.

Once again, there will be no let up in the great British public’s appetite for mince pies, Christmas puddings and other festive lines. And if you do not satisfy them, someone else will at this all-important time of year in the bakery calendar. The so-called ’golden quarter’ of October to December can account for a huge slice of annual turnover.

This is a point that is not lost on Birds of Derby, which has 49 retail shops and one production bakery and for which a three-week period surrounding Christmas represents nearly 10% of its overall sales.

== boom time ==

Planning precision is essential if bakers are not to be caught short especially when dealing with large volumes: Birds, for example, had to produce more than 26,000 dozen assorted rolls last Christmas Eve.

The business has its own butchery and savouries department where, in an average week, it sells 300 pork pies. But in Christmas week 2005 it sold 22,799. Its Christmas lines, excluding mince pies, of which it sold 400,000 last season, generated £62,500 worth of sales, up 6% on the year before.

As Mike Holling, retail operations director, says: "It gives you an idea why good forward planning is essential to ensure Christmas runs as smoothly as possible."

Birds is one of those businesses that starts thinking about Christmas as soon as it is over. "If you leave it to later, you don’t remember," says Holling. Recommendations for new products are made at the first meeting of the New Year and sales are forecast for the coming Christmas.

This year, the industry has to take into account that Christmas Eve falls on a Sunday, so it is December 23 that will be the busiest day for many with everyone wanting their favourite items for their Christmas table. Production schedules, anticipated volumes, staffing and deliveries to shops all have to be fine-tuned for the expected onslaught of demand for mince pies, Christmas cakes, Christmas puddings, chocolate Santas and other novelty items.

By mid-September a bespoke recipe for Birds’ mince pies is already on its way back from Mathers in Scotland for pie production towards the end of October. Should the £16.5m turnover business under-estimate demand, it has a margin for error and can boost production up to the weekend before Christmas.

== early planning ==

Christmas is more important to some bakeries than to others. It depends on location and ability and/or desire to cater to a seasonal market. But at the very least, even the baker that does not go big on festive lines can capitalise on the general upsurge in consumer buying power at this time of year.

Rich Products, owner of David Powell Bakeries, starts planning its Christmas lines as early as June. James Weatherhead, factory manger at the Fareham site in Hampshire, says every new Christmas product goes through a long process of research and development, with many ingredients sourced from across the globe so it needs to allow as much time as possible before the season begins.

"The majority of our festive products are bespoke for customers, with many hand-finished at our Fareham bakery, so we need to make sure that we thoroughly plan production capacities," he says.

The company holds weekly meetings from June to run through capacity plans, depot openings and delivery strategies, giving it enough time to assess any potential problem areas and ensure the busiest period in its year runs as smoothly as possible.

The key issues in order of importance are to:

l make sure the production line is staffed to cope with a rise in output

l order sufficient ingredients

l ensure all machinery works efficiently

l reserve vehicles for delivery

l organise any other extra staffing if needed

Weatherhead acknowledges it can be difficult to gauge the amounts needed to produce on each line because demand and tastes change year on year.

"It is always challenging trying to predict volumes for a period that is not yet upon us and planning to avoid waste is crucial to our business," he says. "Although mince pies are one of our most popular products in the run-up to Christmas, we sell very little afterwards. This makes it crucial to ensure delivery windows are met in good time for Christmas shoppers."

Consultant Wayne Caddy, who runs The Essential Baker, says a single-unit retailer should start preparing for what he calls "the golden quarter" from August or September, sourcing ingredients like cranberries or mulled wine.

He says: "You need to have a firm idea of what you are going to make, such as cranberry and Cointreau mince pies - something that is a bit different."

But he warns: "Stick with what you know and adapt it to your business. There is no point doing something that costs a fortune to make and has no margin in it. If you’re making mince pies, don’t start doing panettone, if you’ve no idea how to make them."

== daily tasks ==

Brownings the Bakers in Kilmarnock, Scotland, says forward planning involves looking at products, promotions, and volumes which are then segmented into weekly then daily tasks.

John Gall, MD, says: "Once the product volumes have been calculated, we can then focus on ingredients, packaging and storage. It is not too difficult to gauge what we need as most of our customers pre-order. To a certain extent we are also in control of our own destiny as we calculate our capacity and seek orders in accordance with this." He says this is crucial to get right because it makes the difference between making a profit or a loss.

Brownings defines the Christmas period as starting in the last week of November and says the period accounts for 12-15% of annual turnover. Christmas buns account for 2% of total volume sold at this time of year, speciality/novelty Christmas cakes account for 1.8%, mince pies 1.6%, shortbread 1.3%, sausage rolls 1.17% and petit fours 0.73%.

Gall adds that it is particularly important to minimise staff holidays in the run-up to the festive period.

Hobbs House Bakery, based in Chipping Sodbury, Gloucestershire, which has four shops, started making mince pies in November 10 years ago, but now begins a month earlier because people buy them to eat straight away and not necessarily just for Christmas.

Clive Wells, director, says Christmas is the busiest time of the year but more because of increased trade in its bread. It hires in a couple of extra people to help with the mince pies and in the week running up to Christmas it gets "manic", he says.

"Our wholesale customers are selling more and we have to get more labour and people work longer hours. All our products are made fresh so we are not stockpiling."

Production meetings are held at the beginning of December for the Christmas period, where the amount of storage needed and whether extra vehicles should to be brought into the business are assessed. Hobbs holds a post mortem in the new year and tries to learn whatever lessons it offers.

Of course, things can and do go wrong. One Birds staff member got a company van stuck in a field of snow one Christmas and the driver had to walk back 12 miles.

And Hobbs suffered a power cut on Christmas eve seven years ago that is "so painful" to recall that director Clive Wells says: "I don’t want to talk about that!"

So stand by your ovens, man the tills and, Santa willing, count the profits.

As Noddy Holder of pop group Slade never tires of reminding us: "It’s Christmas!" n


=== Christmas tips ===

Christmas planning tips for the small baker by consultant Wayne Caddy (right)

l Source specialised ingredients so you sell something different

l Look at what sold well the previous year

l Consider what is currently on the market and what has been on the market in the past

l What do leading retailers sell?

l Stick to your core competencies and adapt products from there

l Be creative using a small number of sure-fire core recipes

l Keep it profitable

l Be flexible enough to cater to your customers’ changing needs

l Know ahead of time what you want to make, what the range is, and ensure you have enough capacity

l Once you decide on that range, develop it, cost it, estimate volumes, plan the launch date and staffing.

l Can you make products during lulls earlier in the year and freeze them?

l Can you develop products that are ideal for bake-off without compromising quality?

l Have a contingency plan in case of disaster