Set in the beautiful and also slightly quirky town of Glastonbury, Burns the Bread has pride of place on the high street, set among shops selling crystals and books on fairies and witchcraft. Yet unlike its neighbours, the bakery has its head firmly in the real world and a honed approach to its business and customers.

From charitable showcase evenings, booking accommodation for rain-soaked campers, to pulling customers’ trousers up (I’ll get to this a bit later), partner Terri Petherbridge says the firm goes "above and beyond the call of duty". Its focus on providing "something more than the customer expects" saw it take away the Customer Focus Award, sponsored by CSM UK (formerly BakeMark UK) at the Baking Industry Awards 2009, last September.

The business was established back in 1983, when Robert Burns took over a "pretty run-down" bakery in Glastonbury high street after the previous owners retired. "We ran that one shop for around 10 years," says senior partner Burns. "Then we opened the shop in Street around 15 years ago, and the Castle Cary shop just over a year ago.

"We’ve not been dynamic in wanting to expand, it has been an organic growth," says Burns. "We’ve never gone out looking for business. All the wholesale business we’ve got has come to us."

The family firm currently has three generations working for it, and is no stranger to the Baking Industry Awards, having entered three years running and in no less than three categories in 2009. Robert Burns was a finalist in the Baker of the Year category, and Petherbridge’s son, Max Stoddart, made it to the last three for Trainee Baker of the Year. "We had won the Customer Service Award 10 years ago, and we hadn’t entered the category since then, so we wanted to ensure we were still at the same standard," explains Petherbridge.

The judges wanted to find out what initiatives the business had that were different in some way. Burns the Bread highlighted its charity bakery visits as its point of difference, and something that is beneficial to all involved. Between October and April, the firm hosts these showcase evenings, once every two weeks on average, in aid of St Margaret’s Hospice. The visit lasts around two-and-a-half hours and brings in groups of around 20 people from far and wide, ranging from the WI, to Boy Scouts and Rotary Clubs. "They come in and have a glass of wine, and we do a Burns the Bread Generation Game. They have a tour of the bakery, and then we make pasties four each which we judge and give prizes for the best; these are vouchers they can use at the bakery. Then we have a buffet and more wine," says Petherbridge. The business doesn’t charge for the evenings, but asks that people give a donation, normally around £10, which goes to the local hospice. "They take home around £10-worth of goods a loaf of bread, a cake and the pasties they made and they get the buffet as well."

She says she stated on the application form that the showcase evenings are a win-win-win situation: the bakery is spreading the word about its products and its business; the visitors get a nice evening out and a goodie bag; and the charity receives a regular donation.

Burns says the company has been running the evenings for over 10 years, but more so in the last five, and has raised thousands of pounds for St Margaret’s. The groups tend to come from a 25-mile radius of the bakery, but there has been a group from Canada and one from New Zealand.

Petherbridge adds that one of the amazing things is that the company has never advertised the evenings; all the participants have come through word of mouth, and the bakery already has visits booked in for next year. The judges described its showcase evenings as a well-thought-out, long-term project, which was all about the customer.

Another aspect of the business highlighted to the judges was the fact that the company carries out customer surveys once a year, asking for feedback and ideas about products customers would like to see. "And we act on them if we get a number of requests and we realise that it’s something in demand," says Petherbridge.

Moreover, when it comes to being attentive to customers needs’, Petherbridge says she has even helped a lady with a broken arm to pull her trousers up, as they were falling down and she couldn’t pull them up herself. And she has even been known to book accommodation for customers who had been camping when the weather turned bad and were in need of a dry bed for the night.

In the year leading up to the award, Burns the Bread achieved Investors in People status, as well as picking up several other awards, including Best West Country Baker, and Best Trainee West Country Baker, won by Stoddart, at the Western Bakery Championships. It even donated its total prize money of around £800 to charity.

Training is another area that is very important to Burns the Bread. "We have just put six of our staff through NVQ Level 2 retail, and another six are starting now. A few are also doing NVQ Level 3," explains Petherbridge. "Training is ongoing. It doesn’t stop when you finish one thing, you learn something new all the time." She explains that although it is good to recruit someone with the basics, "we have our own ways and methods and we like to train the staff ourselves". The company also recruits its staff based on personality, as she says you can teach them the skills, but it’s important to have the right character for the job. She says staff retention is high and, interestingly, there are only two employees at the bakery who haven’t been trained there.

Positive staff response

Petherbridge notes that the staff’s response to the Customer Focus win has been understandably positive. The bakery manager and his wife and the Glastonbury shop manageress attended the awards, along with Burns, Petherbridge and Stoddart. And she could hardly believe it when the firm was announced as the winner, she says. "I was just ecstatic. It was so nice because my son was there as well, as he was up for an award. One of the girls on our table won one of the big bottles of champagne and gave it to me, so I brought it back and shared it with the girls in the shop."

The firm put posters about its awards win in the shop window and had coverage in the local paper. The actual award is currently residing in the window of the Castle Cary shop.

For those bakery companies thinking of entering the Customer Focus Award in BIA 2010, Petherbridge says they need to focus on an area where they are better than their competitors. Ours is a long-term initiative and something that has tangible results. "Just go for it. It’s definitely a confidence boost for the business and confirmation that you’re doing something right.

"We try to make our products special, so that they are beyond comparison a totally different product and the customer service we offer is the best it can be," she says. "The customer is king and they have to come first. If you go the extra mile to give them something more than they expect, and than everyone else gives, then that’s great."

What the sponsor had to say

"Burns the Bread held regular bakery evenings, which introduced people to the art and techniques of baking. Their entry submission for this award included numerous customer feedback sheets, included photos and was a long-term project, encouraging many people to try their hand at baking. This was a selfless initiative to develop relationships with all sorts of local groups, with no financial benefit. It was truly customer-focused"
John Lindsay, UK country manager and business unit director, CSM (UK)

On winning the award

"It’s good for local people to know we’re recognised by a national award. And it makes the staff feel good to know that their hard work has paid off" Terri Petherbridge

Vital statistics

Number of employees: 50
Turnover: approximately £1.5m
Retail/wholesale split: 75/25

Speciality products: Its secret recipe Glastonbury pasty and the Torsy Moorsy a rich fruit cake made with sultanas, pecans, local Cheddar cheese and Somerset cider, which is sold in a gift tin. The recipe has been adapted from an old recipe found by the family when they were renovating the bakery over 25 years ago.

Top sellers: Glastonbury pasty the pasty room makes around 1,000 a day. Its muffins and flapjacks sell well, as do its Chocolate Devils, which have a fudge-like texture and contain fruit, nuts and biscuit.