Joe Hall is acutely aware that times are tough for bakery retail outlets, and he knows his business has to change with the times, or pay the price. It’s not about pride, but survival. As managing director of Halls Food Group it is his job to make sure the business adapts and the successes keep coming, such as its win at the Baking Industry Awards 2010, when the firm took home The Customer Focus Award, sponsored by CSM (United Kingdom).

The business was established by Hall’s grandfather in 1933, but four years ago, it went into liquidation. "I bought it back and took it forward from there," explains Hall. "We have worked extremely hard over the past four years to drive the business forward and have more than doubled our turnover. By the end of next year, if not this, we hope to have tripled it, from £400,000-£450,000 to around £1.2m."

Keeping customers satisfied

Hall says this growth has been achieved by genuinely focusing on what its customers want. "I think a lot of people say that and mean it, but I’m not sure they all put it into practice," he says. Rather than making a product and trying to sell it to people, Hall strives to give customers the products they want, at a time and place that is convenient for them. "We have three static bakery retail units, all of which face a lot of the same problems that other bakery retailers face," he says. "Our traditional trade of selling freshly baked bread as part of a daily grocery shop has diminished almost to the point of not being there, so we focused on being food-to-go bakery retailers. I’m not saying that every baker is in that boat, but there’s a lot that are."

Hall’s customer service mantra features goals such as: "make sure the customer feels valued", and "build up a rapport and understanding of the customers’ needs". "The world has changed and people don’t buy in the same way they used to. I think the single most important thing you can do for a customer is to get speed of throughput and if up-selling creates too much of a disadvantage in terms of time, then we shouldn’t do it. There is a balance you have to strike."

Lunchtime dominates

Hall says 70% of its trade is at lunchtime, with the remaining 30% spread across the breakfast market and the catering side of the business. "At these times of the day, issues include limited parking and the number of staff available to serve a customer. Also when my grandfather first opened the bakery there were eight textile mills in the surrounding area a ready market for lunch but today there are none. Where have those people gone? What do they want? And how can we serve them? These are issues we look to address."

Bearing in mind it is a small company with limited resources, Hall says it needs to ensure it is more flexible than larger competitors, and make the most of selling points that they can’t. It is working with a Lancashire TV channel on a short video, which will be shown on Sky. "We will feature in it, as will our butcher and the farm he buys 80% of his meat from. Big businesses can’t show where all their ingredients come from but we can," says Hall. "It helps build trust, which is hugely important in food purchasing." The collaboration came about by chance, or rather Hall’s three mornings a week spent networking, largely through social networking sites like Twitter.

"We’re local; our food doesn’t travel very far; we can show you where it comes from; you can trust us; we’ve been around for a long time these are the messages bakers need to be getting across," he stresses. So how does Halls get its message out there? "Through Twitter, word of mouth, local PR, local advertising, Facebook, our website and blog, and also through entering awards," says Hall. He has been using social networking as a business tool for a year and says it’s a great way of picking up business.

"A big driver of our growth has been Jiffy catering trucks," says Hall the business has gone from none to four in 18 months. "We’ve also got a fifth truck coming on-stream, as we’ve signed a licence agreement with Northern Rail to park outside busy train stations in the morning, where they can’t provide food. We also plan to launch other initiatives going forward, including an online ordering system and an app, e-canteen."

It aims to provide a virtual food outlet, for use at workplaces from July. "Issues such as low average spends and disparate orders from departments and floors, and the collection of payment, have been addressed to provide a solution that will be convenient, easy-to-use, controllable and we believe profitable."

Hall also says he sees geographical growth opportunities, as well as further expansion into the hospitality sector. "We are looking at moving into a neighbouring geographical area, and replicating what we do in Chorley."