Passionate People, Passionate About Food’ is Rotherham-based Maple Leaf Bakery’s slogan. This passion, along with a huge pride about what it does and what it has achieved, were the main instigators behind the company’s decision to enter last year’s Baking Industry Awards and the reasons behind its Bakery Manufacturer Of The Year accolade. Sitting in marketing and innovation director Guy Hall’s office, drinking tea out of an ’I love New York bagels’ mug, the passion is certainly evident.
Hall joined in July 2001, just before the company acquired the recently rebranded New York Bakery Co, formerly known as New York Bagel Co. "There has been quite a lot of change as the business has grown; when I joined there were about 40 people working here, now it’s 1,400," says Hall. Maple Leaf Bakery, part of Maple Leaf Foods Inc of Toronto, Canada, started manufacturing at its first site in Meadow Way, Rotherham in 1998, producing own-label bagels for Tesco. "It was a lot smaller than what you see today," explains Hall. "We built a small bakery to produce bagels and were the first on a commercial scale to boil bagels, which is the traditional process where you simmer the dough in water before baking it. We’re still one of the only ones who do that and we stone-bake as well." The Rotherham factory has since had money poured into its expansion and development and now stands at 80,000sq ft.
The company quickly expanded, manufacturing other own-label products, which it started to supply to Marks & Spencer and Asda. "That rolled out in Sainsbury’s in-store bakery as well, and subsequently others," says Hall. In 2001, the bagel market was still relatively small, but, since then, it has become a runaway success. "On average, we probably make 50,000 bagels an hour - about six million bagels a week. In 2001, the bagel market at retail was worth about £10m; today it’s worth about £60m. It’s really up with the major markets in morning goods."
Back in 2001, Maple Leaf was competing with the company that is now its most famous brand - New York Bagel Co. "We had about a 50% share of the market each - Maple Leaf with private-label and New York with branded. So we decided to purchase the New York Bagel Co, which gave us the brand, and a route to communicating with consumers, which we couldn’t do just through private-label," explains Hall.
As soon as Maple Leaf took over New York Bagel, it changed the recipe from its previously denser, chewier, American-style texture to a lighter-style dough. They started to advertise and, since then, have seen double-digit growth. "Today we’ve got somewhere in the region of 85-90% of ambient bagel supply in this country and also, in terms of in-store bakery, we make up virtually all of that - so we are the lead supplier of bagels and are very proud of that."
The brand name change from New York Bagel Co to New York Bakery has opened up possible expansion routes for the previously restrictively-named brand and Maple Leaf is hoping to grow within the speciality bread sector. The company recently launched seven test products in Tesco - four speciality bread lines along an Italian theme and three in the sweet bakery area - which are still under review.
Along with the rest of the baking industry, Maple Leaf has had to contend with escalating prices. Last year, heavy rainfall flattened all its South Yorkshire wheat and the company had to source it from the south of England. "We’ve had agreements in recent years with local growers to source wheat in South Yorkshire, which is great, as fewer food miles help the environment and it’s good for costs as well," says Hall.
Meanwhile, on the business front, many acquisitions followed, including a former pizza plant in Cumbria, a small bakery in Southend that makes pretzels and plant bakery Harvestime bakery in Walsall. It then went on to jointly purchase the French Croissant Company and speciality bread manufacturer, Avance bakery, and following that, speciality bread manufacturer La Fornaia in August last year.
Since the awards, it has also acquired a former Bernard Matthews bakery in Dunstable, in November. "In the last three years we’ve taken on several big companies, at least the same size of what we were before, so for the last 12 months we’ve been really focused on that," explains Hall.
Although Maple Leaf has no immediate plans to buy up more bakeries, it never says ’never’, and its successes so far have seen its expected turnover grow to £140 million. "If something came along tomorrow that fits with our strategy then yes we’d give it some consideration," Hall explains. "Sometimes it’s just opportunistic; for example, we wouldn’t have purchased Dunstable on the back of several other big acquisitions, but it was there and available and we had to move quickly. You have to bite the bullet - if you don’t, you miss the opportunity."
Maple Leaf had never entered any awards before BIA07, and Hall felt that with all they had achieved in recent years, it was a good time to do it. "We had a great story to tell in terms of growth and we had also secured a lot of jobs within the industry as Harvestime was purchased from the administrator and Dunstable was heading the same way." For perhaps obvious reasons, the company focused on bagels when it came to writing their application. "Although we didn’t initiate the market, from a very small and flat base, it’s Maple Leaf that’s taken that on," says Hall.
"We’re really proud of our investment and commitment to it and we’ve ploughed a lot of money back in to grow the market to where it is today. I think the judges were impressed by our commitment to the category and also the investment that we’ve brought to this bakery site and indeed other areas," he adds. "We’ve spent around £15m of capital on this site plus the investment going into the marketplace, so we were recognised for that and the success it generated. With acquisitions, if you’ve got the money, anybody could do it. The smart thing’s not really the purchase - it’s what you do with it afterwards."
=== What winning meant to us ===
"The reason we entered [the ADM-sponsored Bakery Food Manufacturer of the Year] was hopefully to win, and it was a great recognition of the business’ achievements. Everybody’s been very pleased by it and we got a lot of media coverage, which is good for morale and good for recruitment in terms of profiling the business. We’re not a well-known company because of our private-label history, but in terms of the local area, it got us a lot of exposure."
=== View from the awards night ===
"It’s a good night out, very entertaining and a good chance to meet everybody else," says Hall. "It’s easy to get parochial about your own product and there aren’t many opportunities to meet up with people in the industry. There’s some rivalry, but I think it’s friendly!"