A surgeon friend once said to me: "Being an anaesthetist is hours of boredom, with the odd moment of dread panic!" As you well know, dear baker, our job is the very opposite: "hours of dread panic, with the odd moment of boredom!"
You’d think that, with many years in the baking industry, I’d have seen it all. I have lived through mega-inflation, deflation, recession, bad harvests and price cuts.I have loved and lost and loved and won. I have been shafted by the occasional customer and supplier, robbed by rogue staff, falsely accused by authorities and punched in the face just once.
In all that time, I have never seen the dynamic in our business change like it has recently, with the biggest squeeze in my career between customer pressure on my prices and the runaway train of rising ingredients and fuel costs.
I’m not an accountant, but I have performance figures of the business made up in technicolour graphs, courtesy of Microsoft. The huge rise in ingredients to selling price makes uncomfortable viewing and I cannot be the only person in the food industry that doesn’t quite know what to do.
Sure, we are cutting out waste, but that only goes so far, as these increasing costs have been so huge. Some customers have accepted price rises and we have had to part company with those that won’t. Percentage increases for my baked goods have been much lower than for incoming raw material.
I watch the news reports about increasing prices of food, knowing that consumers have not felt the full impact, because retailers are suppressing prices to a degree. I then see that 30% of the food sold is thrown away by consumers, because it goes out of date. And I watch reports that cheap food may, in part, be responsible for our nation’s obesity problems, as people eat too much anyway - well other than bread of course, ahem!
Where, oh where, among these hours of panic is the moment of boredom? It’s quality. Better food and slightly less of it would do wonders for the expanded waistlines of our people. If we paid a bit more for our food and bought a bit less, we could eat better quality and look after the environment by not throwing the stuff away, because it’s gone out of date. Yes! I know, I said it was boring, but quality ingredients worked by quality staff have, throughout my entire career, always been the long-term winner.
One of our customers kicked us out, to make their sandwiches on cheaper bread. Their customers voted with their feet, complaints increased and their sales fell. Being a humble baker of bread, I take no joy in the misfortunes of my customer; like the father of the prodigal son, I wait for their return and rejoice in finding again that which was lost. I’ll rejoice even more when my margins return!
* John Foster runs Fosters Bakery in Barnsley, South Yorkshire