A traditional small family bakery, situated in the terraced back streets of Kidderminster, Worcestershire, can trace its roots back to 1886 and still uses the same traditional recipes from over 120 years ago. Over the last year, Tony’s Bakery has been exposed to a whole new generation of bread lovers, following a listing in celebrity chef Rick Stein’s Food Heroes, and profited from the area’s emergence as a commuter belt.

Kidderminster is an old industrial town but, during the last 10 years, has become home to hoards of commuters and houses have sprung up at a rapid rate. The bread at Tony’s is the main attraction, made using the sponge and dough method, and sales are on the increase, boosted by the influx of professionals in the town. At the shop in Peel Street, everything is baked from scratch and mostly by hand. "We have never lost our ethos of handmade quality products," says owner Steve Ray.

Tony’s is the only family-owned, small bakery within a 10-mile radius, surrounded by six big supermarkets. So what makes this craft business drag customers away from the the convenience of one-stop-shopping? The answer is developing a loyal customer base. "There are 1,500 customers who come every week, no matter what, and we pick up more along the way. And one customer comes all the way from Cardiff every four weeks," says Ray.

"We do a lot of advertising on the radio and in the local paper and that keeps us in people’s minds. But the best form of advertising is simply word of mouth." For this, samples are available for customers to try. "Because they create so much interest, they become a conversation topic and it can often lead to added sales," he says.

internet aid to craft

Ray believes that the growth in supermarket internet shopping has helped craft businesses. "One of our customers summed it up. He said that he uses the supermarket to buy all the regular items online and then, on a Saturday, he and his wife go to the local butcher and baker and make shopping a more enjoyable experience. They know they are buying quality products."

The inclusion in Rick Stein’s Food Heroes had a positive effect on the business. "The whole bakery was recommended - the way we do things, rather than any specific product," says Ray. "It has attracted people from further afield and also some of our former customers who used to come years ago, who then got out of the habit."

While most bakeries are switching focus to the lunchtime trade, not a single sandwich or roll is made at Tony’s. "When I took over, I couldn’t believe that my dad didn’t do sandwiches at lunchtime, so we tried it, but it was just not worth the hassle. Another lesson I learned the hard way!" Instead, the focus is firmly on the bread.

convincing consumers

Ray is a big advocate of constantly trying out new speciality breads and maintaining availability, although it has taken some time to educate the consumer. "When I came to work here, I thought we were missing out (by not offering speciality breads), so I decided to introduce them. My first thought had been, ’Oh my dad’s baked for 30 years, but I know better and I can double takings in a week!’ So I made about six or seven different varieties. They had a mixed reaction and the amount I wasted that first week was unbelievable. I learned the hard way that you have to do it bit by bit."

The shop also specialises in a range of traditional cakes and confectionery. Little has changed in its recipes since the turn of the 20th century. One such product is the orange and marmalade cake, which was first introduced by Ray’s grandfather in 1914. However, after the start of the First World War, marmalade became scarce and production was stopped. Now it has been reintroduced and has been very well received.

Though the products are not organic - "I can’t see my customers going for organic iced buns!" - much play is made of provenance. The bakery uses flour from Clarks (Wantage), a small independent flour mill, which lists the wheat’s origins right down to the farm where it was harvested. This is displayed in the shop. Ray also does demonstrations and baking sessions at local schools.

So where does he see himself in 10 years? The answer is simple: right where he is now. He doesn’t want to take on another shop or expand into wholesale. He wants to be in charge.

"I’m here most of the day. My customers like having the head baker in the shop, to be available to chat with them. That sort of service makes it personal. I’m absolutely convinced there will be a revival of the small family bakery. People are going for quality. If you are a small bakery now, you have an opportunity to build your business up. That’s exactly the position I’m in and I intend to be here every step of the way." n


=== Tony’s Bakery at a glance ===

History: Established in 1886 by the current owner’s great grandfather and passed down through the family until Steve Ray and his wife, Tracy, took over 10 years ago; Ray was formerly a bakery manager and trainer for Safeway

Business: One retail shop, no wholesale: "If you go chasing after wholesale, you can end up torn between which customers you look after more. You can either do retail - and do it well - or do wholesale well and forget the retail. I don’t think you can do both," says Ray.

Products: The standard range of sponge and dough bread is white, wholemeal and wheatmeal, with a full range of rolls. Sales of white bread far outweigh brown. The current range includes rye and six grain, tomato and garlic, cheese and onion and mixed pepper; Ray produces a vast range of confectionery products, especially fresh cream, and his best-sellers include jam doughnuts, iced buns and cream cakes. The revival of an orange and marmalade cake is proving very popular and the consistent demand for lardy cake has remained unchanged since its introduction in the 1950s.

For savoury products, all the meat is roasted at the bakery. Sausage rolls are the most popular and flavours include pork and leek or tomato and garlic. These are made at the beginning of the week, frozen and baked-off. There are also Cornish pasties, a bacon and sausage wrap, and a pie range, including beef and onion, steak and kidney and chicken balti. The bakery produces around 30 celebration cakes a week, decorated by Steve and Tracy.