It may have been the year of the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II, but for the Spencer family of Hathern in Leicestershire, 1953 marked the start of a business that would evolve into one of the most respected craft bakeries in the area.
From its post-war inception, bread has always been king at Spencer’s and success is credited to the use of quality ingredients and “good, old-fashioned recipes”.
Originally, bread and confectionery were produced and sold door to door until the 1980s when people were beginning to enjoy the value and variety of the supermarkets. As eating habits continued to change, the lunchtime trade evolved and Spencers Bakery found its bread rolls were in great demand, so it diversified into wholesale and, over the years, this has become its speciality.
As many small bakery shops began to disappear from the high street, customer demand for Spencers’ bread did not fade, leading to the opening of its first retail outlet in 1994. Currently run by the third generation of the family, Ian Spencer and his sister Yvonne Leeson, who were literally brought up in the bakery, the pair have been in joint control since 1992 and also have their three offspring working alongside them.
So what makes Spencers’ bread so special? “It’s the flavour, because we make it the old-fashioned way,” says Ian. “We don’t mass-produce anything here. Everything is baked using our own recipes and we don’t use any mixes at all. We are scratch bakers. Our dough is fermented for an hour before we weigh it off. The whole process, until it goes into the oven, takes around four hours.”
The business is split between 60% wholesale and 40% retail. The main bulk of the wholesale side is producing bread rolls for the numerous sandwich vans and roadside cafés on the industrial and retail estates in Loughborough and the surrounding towns.
The bakery uses two tonnes of flour a week, supplied by Greens Flour Mills and EB Bradshaw & Sons of Driffield, and includes white, brown and Granary. Bread includes large and small tins, bloomers, French sticks and so many different types of roll, it is difficult to count.
Everything is made at the bakery, including morning goods and cakes. Products are then delivered, using a fleet of four vans, to sandwich vans and small outlets or taken to the Spencers’ shop.
Sausage rolls are made once a week, using handmade puff pastry and locally sourced sausage meat. They are frozen and then baked-off daily. Meat pies are not produced due to the complex health and hygiene regulations governing raw meat.
Spencers’ reputation has spread by word of mouth and trade has consistently built up over the years. The company does not advertise – not even its name on the side of its vans. Customers approach Spencers for its business and not the other way round.
The firm boasts 160 wholesale customers. Ian knows this because he sends out the invoices every Monday with his van drivers and the money is always collected by the end of the week. There are no bad debtors.
The company had always supplied independent retailers in the small town of Shepshed, which is five miles from the bakery. But as their numbers dwindled the family saw an opportunity, deciding to expand the empire and open a shop of their own, which they did in 1994.
Ian says: “We found the right premises – it had been an old printing shop and we completely gutted and fitted it out as a shop. It’s gone from strength to strength.”
Sandwiches are freshly made at the shop in a purpose-built preparation room. The lunchtime trade is based on filled rolls. Pupils from the local secondary school are key customers so accompaniments such as crisps, cakes and drinks are also in demand.
The shop is equipped with a microwave, so bacon and sausages are cooked at the bakery in the morning and then delivered to the shop to be reheated at lunchtime.
Orders for celebration cakes are generated through the shop and crafted at the bakery by a dedicated decorator.
Ian has decided against making organic bread for several reasons. “We’re quite busy enough with our bread. We have had the opportunity to diversify with an organic range, but personally I don’t think it’s worth it. Organic is an expensive way of buying food and there’s no guarantee that it is what people say it is. Personally, I don’t think you can beat natural, good quality ingredients.”
The business was started by Ian’s grandfather Herbert (although he was always known as Everard) then his father Reg and uncles Fred and Eric joined the business. The family owned a smallholding and lived in a several cottages on the site – the bakery was made by converting an outbuilding.
There have been two refurbishments of the bakery. One was to extend the premises in the 1970s and the other was buying new equipment. Ian says: “As we’ve grown, we’ve had to buy larger machines and adjust our recipes slightly.”
Ian’s daughter Lisa has already clocked up 10 years in the family firm, while son Liam is the ‘computer whizz’ of the family and is currently in the process of developing an accounts system. They work alongside Yvonne’s son Christopher.
As well as family members, there are 15 staff, nine full- and six part-time. There is not a huge turnover of staff, says Ian. “We didn’t employ anyone until the 1970s and over the last 30 years all the staff who have ever worked here have been very loyal to me.”
So over the years have they experienced much competition?
“There are other bakers who do wholesale deliveries and one or two have tried to step on our toes and take our customers away from us,” says Ian. “But they have not been successful – we can hold our own. One of the secrets of our success is that we have not grown too big. I think that is where people get into trouble.”
When Spencers opened the Shepshed shop other small bakers in the area included Mr Bun’s, Jordan’s, Coombes and Hampshire’s. Now, only the Leicester-based Hampshire’s and Spencers is left. So are there any plans for more shops?
“We’re quite happy with just the one, but I wouldn’t mind opening another nearby, probably in East Leake, which is a few miles away, but only if the right property came up.”
Ian firmly believes that the resurrection of the small independent retailer on the high street will happen. However, the difficulty lies in finding skilled staff to run a craft bakery.
“Youngsters these days don’t want to get up at some unearthly hour to start work and they certainly don’t want to be working through the night when they could be out enjoying
themselves,” he says.
Another major problem is the lack of quality bakery training courses. Spencers trains most of its staff in-house, where Ian feels they get a much better education than in most of the bakery schools.
“The NVQ they do at college these days is nothing compared to the City and Guilds I did when I was there,” he says. “That used to cover everything; now it is split into different categories. Students can choose to do what they want, instead of learning how to do everything and then specialising.
“Added to that, it is very expensive and smaller employers cannot afford to send their trainees to do the course.”
He adds that the prevalence of bakery mixes has also helped to drain skills from the industry. “I genuinely believe that if there are skilled bakers who take pride in producing good quality items, there will always be a customer base waiting,” he says. “It would be great to see the small baker make a return to the high street.”
Looking to the future, Ian jokes that he would like to be sitting under a palm tree in 10 years, but concedes that he will probably still be hard at work at his oven.
“I’d definitely like to open another shop. If the youngsters are still interested and want to carry it on, then we shall still be going,” he says. “I enjoy working, I just couldn’t sit around all day doing nothing. I like doing practical things such as woodworking and also like my horse racing, but very rarely get much time to enjoy it.”
Working the hours he does, starting at 3am, except on Thursdays and Fridays when he begins at 10.30pm, Ian does not get much chance to have a social life. “But I love being with my family when I get home in the evenings and at the weekends it’s great to spend time with them. We are all very close.”
So, when Ian and Yvonne eventually retire, who will take over? “There’s a question!” he laughs. “I think it will probably stay in joint ownership – just like it is now.”