Tom Herbert is a fifth-generation baker and director of Hobbs House Bakery, a multi-award-winning craft bakery, based in Gloucestershire
Well, we’ve nurtured our sourdough for a long, long, time. It was already very old when we started using it 25 years ago and it has risen the dough of some of our finest loaves. And recently, Uncle Sam collected the Artisanal Bread Product of the Year award from Ronnie Corbett at the Baking Industry Awards for our Wild White loaf its second national award in two years.
On the back of the awards, selling a pile of sourdough loaves at the Organic Food festival in Bristol, and another pile that I shifted with my son, Milo, at Tetbury food festival, I asked my shop team leaders, how can we sell more in our shops? After one heck of a ’mind smash’, we agreed to run a week-long promotion. And the killer feature would be that, during every single transaction, the customer is asked: "Would you like to buy the Artisanal Loaf of the Year?" There would of course be the ubiquitous posters, window displays (featuring serving suggestions) and sampling. I also agreed to run a for-one-week-only promotional price, with about £1 off each loaf.
It was during this week that the Queen of Shops, Mary Portas came to film in my Nailsworth bakery/café for the day. She brought with her the proprietor and baker from a South London family bakery to find inspiration among our hallowed gingerbread walls. Knowing something of Mary’s reputation, sharp-as-a-bread-slicer wit, and retail raptor eyes, I was baguetting myself (pardon my French). The responsibility of being the exemplar saw a Herculean mid-week effort and was rewarded with a Portas "Wow!" I’m sure the consistent message of our promotion helped and I felt relaxed long before she pinched my bottom.
But it wasn’t just Mary’s box that was ticked, the promotion totally worked. And here’s the rub. In my Cirencester shop, they chose not to sell the Wild White at a promotional price and annihilated the sales in the other shops. That proved, beyond doubt in my mind, that customers buy sourdoughs and other artisanal breads on benefit and not price. In fact, I’m certain that a great loaf sold at a discount is a confusing and unappealing proposition to most people.
And how does one encourage shop staff who don’t like the taste of sourdough to wax lyrical about it? I put on a two-hour bread event on a Friday evening, with the first handful of my shop team and some ladies from the office. It commenced with a Willy Wonka-style tour of the bakery, into the warm and humid prover, past the running-at-full-steam ovens, dipping fingers into the sourdough vats, inhaling the heady aroma of the overnight dough tubs, through the walk-through freezer; it was a bit like any dry ice scene in an ’80s power ballad being followed by a dozen women. We then rolled up our sleeves and each made a soda loaf. While the soda bread was baking, we sampled sourdough and other breads and made notes on how each of the breads would be best enjoyed and I had an opportunity to tell the stories and share the benefits with my rapt team.
Everyone took home a hot soda bread and I’m thrilled with the feedback; young Nathan was heard the next day extolling the virtues of soda bread to a willing customer, authoritatively adding, "I made one yesterday."
In a nutshell, selling sourdough is about sampling (ideally toasted and hot and buttered), engaging the sales team with the making and the story and encouraging the smiling staff to invite customers to buy.
Job’s a goodun. And the sourdough has been selling like hotcakes!