Ashers of Nairn has always been recognised first and foremost as a retail baker, with its shops accounting today for some 80% of total sales. However, the other 20% of its turnover drawn notably from wholesale and the gift sector has provided welcome insulation against seasonal or recession-related swings in retail returns.

Formed in 1877 and now employing 130 people, the company has 12 shops (including five coffee shops) which are located mainly along the Moray Firth coastline, from Inverness in the west to Buckie in the east. Nine of the shops are run under the Ashers banner, while three, in Elgin and Lossiemouth, retained the Smillie The Baker name, after the firm was acquired by Ashers in 2007. While all the retail outlets bake-off a certain number of products, such as savouries, most are brought in fresh from the bakery every day.

"We are just under an hour from our furthest shop so we can manage and service them effectively," explains current Scottish Bakers president Alister Asher who, along with his brother George, has been joint-MD of the Nairn family firm for almost two decades.

White rolls, sausage rolls and Scotch pies spearhead the company’s sales. But its extensive range also includes other savoury products, as well as confectionery. Its cherry ring a large Danish with a fresh cream filling and topped by four half cherries is a particularly popular line. The company has also raised sales as well as a smile with the launch of Kilted MacGingers gingerbread men, complete with sugar icing kilts.

Spreading the sales load beyond its shops, Ashers supplies bread and rolls to three Tesco stores in the region, as well as numerous fresh products to hotels, garages and convenience stores. It also operates a van service, taking fresh goods to offices and industrial estates in Nairn and Inverness, and makes biscotti for Glasgow-based coffee specialist Matthew Algie.

Perhaps the most significant diversification from the company’s retail core, however, came in 1999, with the launch of three whisky cakes, each containing a distinctive 15ml shot of either Highland, Island or Speyside malt. Winners of the Scottish Gift of the Year Award in 2000, the cakes have found favour with tourist outlets, delicatessens, hamper companies and Waitrose.

A few years later, three liqueur cakes were added to the range of products targeted at the gift market: Irish Coffee; Apricot & Peach Schnapps; and Chocolate & Grand Marnier. These duly won best UK product at the 2007 Gift of the Year Awards.

Another milestone was marked in 2002 when the Princess Royal opened Ashers’ new 13,500sq ft production hub on the outskirts of Nairn. The company took the opportunity to update and upgrade its equipment as part of a process that has continued right up to the present. For example, a new Koma retarder/prover was installed in early March this year and has already shown its worth in "achieving the right temperatures over the right time", according to George Asher. Meanwhile, a new cutter is planned for the Rondo line "which will allow us to do a couple of new savouries".

One of the next landmarks for the firm could well be the proposed construction of a Sainsbury’s supermarket right opposite Ashers’ bakery on the other side of the A96. Although the store is likely to offer competition for the company’s two shops in Nairn, its very existence "might give us some sales opportunities", Alister Asher observes.

Plans for the future include: refurbishing several of the firm’s shops; introducing EPOS into the retail outlets "for better control of product and wage costs"; and developing its niche lines, notably the gift cakes.

Baker to baker: best practice tips

Is promotional activity important to you?
"Yes. Entering and winning awards has brought us a lot of positive publicity, while a presence at exhibitions has also proved beneficial. For example, we do the BBC Good Food Show at the end of November and we sell a lot of whisky and liqueur cakes, mainly to members of the public looking for Christmas presents.
"Plus, for the last two years, we have been rebranding our packaging and shops because, after acquiring Smillies, we needed something that tied them all together and created the right impression."

How do you manage your product range?
"When we bring in new lines, we will often drop off ones that don’t sell so well. Although we still have a fairly wide range, it doesn’t pay to have six of this or eight of that, because of wastage, controlling the quality and the production implications."

What key changes have you introduced in your coffee shops?
"When rebranding, we changed from waitress to counter service. It means fewer staff and fewer instances of customers leaving without paying. Service is quicker, so people are more likely to come in, and they know they won’t have to wait for the bill before leaving either."

What advice would you offer other companies in the industry?
"Belonging to an association like Scottish Bakers, you can learn a lot from being with other bakers for example, about how they run their businesses and by swapping recipes. You get a lot more out of doing that than reading any book."

Business boost from gift-sector cakes

Ashers’ decision to launch a range of whisky cakes just over a decade ago has provided a boost for sales at otherwise relatively slack times of the year. "There is a sales peak in September and October for Christmas buying, when the bakery would otherwise be quieter," explains Alister Asher. "And there’s another peak around March time, as tourist outlets order in for the summer."
Another advantage is that the cakes can be made at times of the working day when the pressure on the production department is less acute, he adds.
The whisky cakes not only have a long shelf-life of six to 12 months, but also "improve with age", according to Asher. "The whisky is added afterwards to make sure it doesn’t bake out and so it takes time to equalise throughout the cake." This equalisation process is one of the main reasons why the company has not deviated from its 180g format; a move into different sizes would also result in additional storage, production and logistics issues, he notes.
"We will probably continue to develop the whisky and liqueur cake range," he says. "That is our niche. They are not huge volumes, but we can dictate our margins to a greater extent."