I couldn’t decide whether it’s genius or a disaster..." was one onlooker’s response after being introduced to the twin-cyclone effect of the Lewis brothers and their artisan bakery concept.
The multi-entrepreneur siblings - and forces of nature - gifted delegates at the Scottish Association of Master Bakers’ annual conference with a masterclass in breathless presentation and, in doing so, wrote a whole new chapter in the book of public speaking.
From farmers to chefs to plant hirers to hoteliers to chip shop owners - the bakers-without-a-pause took an atypical career path into bakery. Two years ago, they stumbled into the trade when they bought the local bakery in Callander (swear words removed to protect our more delicate readers). "It all came about in our chip shop," remembers elder brother Tom. "Someone came in and said [adopts thick Scottish accent] ’Wanna buy my bakery? You boys wud f******* love it!’"
Sold on the superb location, they bit. "Cocky b****** that I was, I thought ’I’m going to make all leaven breads, they’re going to be lovely and crusty, free-moulded and amazing. People have been buying s**** for a long time and it’s disgraceful. The first thing I did was take away the chemicals from everything we did."
Along with brother Dick, they set about making artisan breads and traditional fare like Black Buns, Buttered Bannocks and Perkins under the Mhor Bread brand, which they’d already applied to the hotel and chip shop. "I bought the Mhor name a long time ago because I thought there was something in it. I had this thing in my head - ’Mhor’ - it looks good big and I like red, so we had it big and red," is Tom’s perfect reasoning.
They developed the chip shop over four years to the point where they now buy all their fish off the boat and customers will pay up to £18 for a fish supper. "I’m only able to charge a lot of money - and some people say I should be wearing a mask - because people trust what we put into the food, or what we don’t put into the food. We’ve taken the same principles into baking," he enthuses. "We must have the most expensive pies in Scotland!" chips in brother Dick.
Then the inevitable happened - Greggs came to town. "We thought ’here we go’," sighs Dick. But at the end of the first week of Greggs opening, takings were still going up. "With the quality of product we have at the bakery, and with people paying the extra price, I see my customer in both shops; they go into Greggs for bits and pieces, the take-out stuff, but they’re back to us for the stuff they’re taking home. And they’re paying more for it."
One bonus from running Mhor Bread - which also has a tearoom and sells celebration cakes - has been a revival of the ailing farm they inherited from their parents. "We were struggling to sell lambs for £7 and we sold all our breeding cows years ago," Tom recalls. "Now, the farm has been built up. We have a butchery and we supply the bakery with meat at a good price. We only produce mutton pies for two months of the year because I’ve only got that many sheep!"
The hardest thing, he says, has been finding the time to communicate that ethos to the customer. "We worked out we could physically go for two days straight then we’d have to have five hours’ sleep. The problem with bakery is you work all bloody night and then you have to be up all day to see the customers."
A shortage of time and the cost and unavailability of skilled labour means they will be investing in machinery. "Yes, a piece of kit might be £80,000, but the reality is it’s saved you four guys. And it’s only £80,000 once," he explains. They have also bought a wood pellet oven, which has reduced energy costs enough to allow them to add an afternoon shift. The aim is to build up to 24-hour production. "We’re still a long way from efficiency. We’re still trying to build our team up," says Dick.
Tom readily admits there are a lot of improvements yet to be made to bring quality up to the top-notch standards they’ve set themselves. "I want our bakers to think like chefs, and I know that’s a terrible thing..." he risks, to a somewhat partisan crowd. "But there’s only one way to put a pie lid on a pie - the correct way. And you don’t change that overnight. You have to lead by example. And I might take a bit longer to put the lid on my pie, but I think it looks good, and if I’m going to charge 20p more than anyone else, people have to perceive that."
So it all boils down to whether this irreproachable business ethos is genius or not in execution. "We’re basically blokes, right?" says Tom. "We’re scruffy, we buy clothes from charity shops. We have a sister, Melanie, who makes things look pretty. But she hates us! She likes a business plan; she wants to know how much money to spend. I say deal with it, we haven’t got any money. If it’s a good day, take £50 out of the till. Maybe that’s not the right way to do it..." But that’s the best kind of genius in our eyes.
=== Business tips: SAMB conference highlights ===
Sir Michael Darrington (pictured), former chief executive of Greggs, on range rationalisation
"What we’ve found is whenever we have a major range rationalisation in-store, and fewer lines, our sales go up. Why? Because we’ve got better availability and better quality. If you make three of this and four of that, two of this and 10 of that, you can be all over the place in terms of quality. If you make a lot of a product, it really settles down and you get a high standard. Where we have a more finely defined range, after looking at the customer trends, it’s simpler and there’s less waste. A smaller range is well worth doing."
Jason Turner, Abertay University, on gathering customer feedback
"We encourage organisations to get involved in focus groups. We try to get 8-10 groups of customers together and we would also promote products to them. It’s your way to communicate with and inform the customer. It’s actual, real behaviour that you want to learn, not what TNS or Mintel are saying. That’s where a lot of companies are making mistakes, by making decisions based upon [market data]. Ultimately, you want customers to feel valued. And it doesn’t have to be through formal mechanisms. You’ll be surprised how much information you can get through your staff."
Campbell Laird, Three Brands consultancy, on developing a brand
"Companies often think they have a brand, but what they have is a product. A brand should ideally have these key parts: a set of brand values, brand positioning, a very specific tone of voice in how you communicate, a brand proposition and a great quality product. If you’ve got that, you’ve probably got a strong brand and a way of differentiating yourself from the competition."