Angela Pullin’s arrival into her parents’ business has brought a renewed vigour, plus a slice of not inconsiderable marketing and PR nous. In four short years, she has helped pull Pullins beyond its traditional markets, culminating in canny new branding and packaging last year. What’s more, she says, this modernising bakery has since set its sights on breaking out of its south-west stronghold by taking on a more diverse client base.
All this is pretty interesting stuff, revealed to me by Pullin while chatting at the bakery’s offices in the sleepy village of Yatton in Somerset. I’d like to hear more, but then the sales and marketing director shoots a conspiratorial glance over to confidant and marketing executive Tristan Hunt and drops the age-old scourge of journalists. "We decided beforehand that we wouldn’t tell you any names of our customers," she says. "Only markets." Damn these commercial bakery sensitivities!
Efforts to wheedle the information out of the fourth-generation Pullin prove fruitless, so it’s lucky dip time: there’s mention of two major supermarkets (Asda? Tesco?), two unnamed airlines operating in the UK (BA? Ryanair?), and an unidentified national coffee chain (Costa? Starbucks?). Named or not, together they represent the broadening mix of ambitious new targets that this 82-year-old bakery is gunning for.
The multiple retailers’ continuing focus on sourcing local products has been a boon for Pullins, perfectly placed as it is to tap into this trend with a traditional handcrafted range of products and a long local presence, with loyal customers. "People started specifically looking for those things and we were like, ’Hey, hang on, we’re doing this already!’" she says.
"Catering was a very big part of our wholesale customer base before, and although it is still a part now, a lot of that business has gone to national contracts. So you’ve always got to evolve the business towards new markets."
Another change introduced of late has been a more marketing-led approach to new product development (NPD). "We look at the market opening up to us and where we want our brand to be seen, so naturally we’ve identified certain product types that will grow," she says. "You look at Pret with its half-sandwich - well, we have a mini-bar with half the guilt too!"
Pullin is not talking about the hotel room variety, but the bakery’s biggest recent success: packaged and branded mini cake bars, supplied into those mystery retailers, airlines and coffee chains. These are smaller than the average-sized bars on the market and have a good shelf-life, that allow for a wider national distribution - all of which has appealed to buyers, says Pullin. "It’s great to have a product that you don’t have to change and that fits into all sectors - retail, coffee chains, catering and hospitality. So we’re moving our markets in that sense and sending out pallets where, before, we were sending bread baskets."
== Roundabout route ==
Pullin arrived in her role via a career in FMCG sales, before switching to PR and then, four years ago, she came home to roost. "When you’re young, over the holidays you work in production and help out. I grew up with the bakery, but I didn’t want to come into the business - it certainly wasn’t my goal," she recalls. "Then I walked in here one day and I thought ’Wow, there’s a massive opportunity here’.
"It’s interesting - we’ve always made high-quality products," she continues. "We’ve always been innovative in coming up with new ideas, while sticking to traditional handcrafted processes. But although we’ve been doing it, we’ve never really shouted about it."
So products were rebranded and, ever since, it has been a process of gradually communicating those brand messages through improved packaging, point-of-sale and by exhibiting at trade shows. Pullins’ strapline is ’Handcrafted for food lovers’, and the speciality breads range has been branded Family Recipes; featuring six products unique to Pullins and handed down through the generations, they have all been recipients of Taste of the West awards. A lot of Pullins’ products are also being moved over to 100% natural ingredients.
In production, advances have been made by introducing flow-wrappers and flapjack cutting machines to improve efficiency. A year ago, all the flapjacks were cut by hand. "Now it’s cut by machinery, but the essence of everything we do is still very much handcrafted: twists are hand-twisted, breads are kneaded and plaits are hand-plaited, so the machinery hasn’t taken away the traditional values," says Hunt.
"The Danish we make are all hand-twisted," confirms production director Kim Pullin. "We may have a modern pastry breaker (roller) but at the end of the day, all that does is make the dough thin. In terms of the actual hand-crafting of it, this is where the important work is done. Some of it could be made quicker, but it is the hand-finishing that makes all the difference."
A fresh sandwich range is also assembled on site by hand, using Pullins’ breads, to maintain complete control over the process. "We can decide to make sandwiches with anything we want, from cracked black pepper bread, oat bread to sun-dried tomato bread and wholegrain mustard bread," says Kim.
And a brand new Stevens traceability system has been installed. "We now have complete traceability on everything that moves in here," he says. "It also stores all of our recipes, so if we need to make 15 of something, it works out the recipe and tells us instantly exactly what to weigh."
== market response ==
The key to modernising has been responding quickly to the needs of the market, by supplementing these small technological advances with a fresh approach to NPD. "That’s one of the biggest changes for Pullins, from being a bakery that goes out and sells what it makes, to one going out into the marketplace and asking, what does the market need," says Kim. "That was a bit of a shock for the bakers at first, but they got over it!"
He continues: "Pullins has always been progressive. But the fourth generation coming into the business has given us a completely different edge and a dynamic focus. So it’s an exciting time." An added creative input has come from recruiting Polish bakers, whose skills and knowledge have contributed to the development of more slow-fermented breads.
While the Yatton, North Somerset facility has achieved the Grade A BRC standard necessary to meet the new retail challenges, with space for storage of packaging now proving an issue on this quaintly historic site, a move of premises could be in the offing. The bakery, converted by the Pullins family in 1925, has undergone a number of extensions over the years, swallowing up the original retail shop in the process. But there’s only so much more that can be bolted on. "Our next step would be a new site," predicts Pullin. "It wouldn’t look quite as cute, considering our craft roots, as a building with beams, but it’s more practical in terms of efficiency, and that’s what we’re working towards." n
=== Pullins at a glance ===
Established: 1925, based in Yatton, North Somerset.
Business: largely wholesale and branded; Pullins still has three shops, and the range has been broadened to stock a deli selection of local produce; the firm also sells "phenomenal amounts" of bread at Bristol Farmers’ Market every Wednesday morning.
Staff: around 90, with 30 working in the bakery.
Products: Family Recipe-branded breads; snack-sized packaged cakes; sandwiches; confectionery and pastries.