When craft bakers buy new machinery, weighing up the competing claims of all the equipment suppliers can prove a headache. Often a quick call to a bakery comrade will cut through the sales pitch and determine the value of a new piece of kit.

But now bakers have a double agent in their midst in the shape of Stephen Steadman – a bakery-owner-cum-equipment-supplier.

Last year, he established a mixers company in the UK and snapped up his own string of four traditional craft bakeries to boot. In a tale of two businesses, 2005 saw Mr Steadman, formerly of Sainsbury’s and machine supplier Scobie & McIntosh, spearheading Italian mixer company Escher’s new UK operations and purchasing Avards Bakery, based in Lamberhurst, Kent.

“I left Scobie because I wanted to go back to my roots so I decided to invest in a traditional family bakery,” he says. “It’s where my passion is and my heart is still with the products. But the intention was also to go back into equipment.”

Escher, which is based at the foot of the Alps in Schio, was founded as a mixers specialist in 2000, although the family’s involvement in mixers goes back four generations. It now supplies 35 countries around the world. “It’s a lovely, small team of people and a nice working environment where they design, develop and manufacture the machines.”

Direct sales

With a UK hub in place, Mr Steadman says taking the dealer out of the equation and selling directly to the end user should benefit bakers. “By dealing direct, without that second overhead, we’ve really hit a special part of the marketplace. It’s working very well,” he says.

In this way, he explains, it was possible to reduce prices without compromising the quality of the machines. “Because we use a network of engineers, we are able to deliver, install and commission machines, as well as offer full warranties.”

Escher’s mixers are used in two of the UK’s major supermarkets and the firm has already seen 25% year-on-year growth supplying to the likes of Honeytop Bakery in Dunstable, where it recently installed 14 large 200kg removable bowl machines. The company has just launched a new range of removable bowl machines, which are aimed at the small industrial and large independent baker, and come in 80kg and 120kg capacities.

“Now we are dealing directly we can better understand the needs of our customers and obviously try to make more competitive moves within the UK to grow our business,” he comments. “I’d like to grow our market share significantly.” Meanwhile Mr Steadman also runs Pentagram Equipment, for distributing Williams Refrigeration and other bakery equipment.

But he stresses that having his feet in both camps – as a bakery proprietor and machinery supplier – does not mean taking his eye off the ball on either front.

“Avards Bakery is a really good, solid business, which I primarily have run for me by management. There is still a bit of involvement from myself, but I’m not tied up with the day-to-day issues affecting the bakery.”

Bakery beginnings

Mr Steadman started his career in Palmers of Haughley – a five-shop craft bakery chain based in Suffolk. He then joined Sainsbury’s in 1984 as a baker, progressed through its management-training programme and became a regional manager working at the head office by the mid-90s.

“I diversified into different roles at a time when Sainsbury’s was going through quite a radical change in its in-store bakeries,” he recalls. “I was responsible for a lot of the new ideas and concepts, equipment and the design of bakeries and processes, working with a small team of people.”

He left Sainsbury’s in 2002 to become director and part-owner of equipment supplier Scobie & McIntosh, with responsibility for business development, sales and marketing.

Buying Avards Bakery, he says, was a chance to revive his early days as a craft baker at Palmers. “I’ve kept in touch with Palmers over the years throughout my Sainsbury’s and Scobie days. They have such a routine – everything is still made on the same day, at the same time – but they’ve got a nice, steady, loyal customer base and I have nothing but respect for them”

Following a five-month scout around 20 bakeries for sale, the stars came into alignment in August 2004 on a visit to Avards.

“Everything about the business was perfect – I just knew it the moment I walked through the door. It’s a family business that goes back to 1869, which is exactly the same year that Palmers and Sainsbury’s were founded, which is a bit spooky. As I walked out my wife took one look at my face and said, ‘We’re buying a bakery!’”

Avards revamp

Avards has four shops, 85 wholesale customers and employs 38 staff. The previous owners of 15 years had developed the business by expanding the number of shops, though signs of under-investment quickly needed addressing.

He has since spent £75,000 on a new website, logo, three new vehicles, shop fronts and advertising, and developed one site based in a conservation area. And by installing his own equipment in Avards he is putting his money where his mouth is.

A 10-15 year plan to develop the £980,000 turnover company was taken with a firm belief in the future for the traditional craft baker, Mr Steadman says. “Whereas you see so many other bakeries folding, I’m trying to invest and focus on the traditional route. ‘Artisan’ has almost become a commercial word – I would like to think that our products are ‘artisan’ because they are handmade to traditional recipes.”

All products are baked in one of the shop locations and the bakery has a 60/40 retail/wholesale split, with much of the wholesale trade long-established.

It makes 400 traditional products including 130 cakes; a range of 80 breads; 45 soft and crusty rolls, French sticks and speciality breads. These include some breads unique to the area, such as the Sussex Nutty Loaf. Pizzas, quiches, savouries, filled rolls and seasonal products are also available.

But the key to keeping traditional craft bakeries alive is to review your operations and consider change, urges Mr Steadman. Avards has received planning permission to incorporate a teashop and sandwich bar at one of the locations. Additional locations and sandwich runs are also being considered.

Planetary v spiral: how they match up.

A planetary mixer is best suited for confectionery, although it is suitable for small quantities of dough by using a hook attachment. Different attachments can be used such as a whisk for mousses and eggs to create a variety of products, typically made by the craft baker.

A spiral mixer, which has a corkscrew-shaped agitator, is more suited to larger scale bread production due to its more robust, high-stress mechanism. The bowl on a spiral mixer rotates and most machines have two motors, one to power the bowl and one to power the spiral tool. Spiral mixers generally have two speeds, with first speed for blending the ingredients and second speed for developing the dough. With capacities up to around 200kg, larger capacity machines can also be used for creating small batches of dough.

“A spiral mixer allows optimum quality needed for bread production,” explains Stephen Steadman. “It is much more gentle on the dough structure and causes less damage and a much better final dough quality. But it is still quite fast and you can mix a large quantity of dough in about 10 minutes.”