Nantwich-based craft baker Arthur Chatwins has built up a loyal following in the north west over a history that spans nearly 100 years. Its high-quality scratch-baked range of breads, savouries and cakes are popular with customers in 19 bakery shops and five coffee lounges, in the North Staffordshire and South Cheshire area.
But its continued success depends on a forward-looking approach, as the trading environment becomes more competitive. The fourth-generation family business is proving it is up to the pressure – it is just about to open its 20th shop in a prime location in Chester town centre – and has plans to automate more of the processes at its central bakery in Nantwich.
And Chatwins’ balance sheet also suggests it has struck the right note between tradition and innovation across the business. Last year it says it achieved record profits on a turnover of around £6m.
The company is also a frequent finalist in British Baker’s Baking Industry Awards. In 2005, joint-MD Trevor Mooney was a finalist in the Baker of the Year category, and the year before, one of Chatwins’ wedding cake decorators, Dawn Dean, was a finalist in the Celebration Cake Maker of the Year category.
Care and attention
So what has been Chatwins’ formula for craft baking success?
“Over the years ‘quality’ and ‘service’ have been the key words,” says Mr Mooney. “One only has to visit our shops to see the array of products made with the care and attention that our customers have the right to expect.”
Knowing its customers is also a key consideration for the company. One of the big trends Chatwins has noticed and responded to is growing demand for lunchtime takeaway, he says. The company now sells 1,200 of its best-selling egg mayonnaise sandwiches a day, through its shops and wholesale channels. Sausage rolls are its best-selling line overall.
Chatwins also does a roaring trade in pasties, selling some 2,250 a day, including vegetable, Cornish, and cheese and onion variants. And the company will be launching breakfast wraps and savoury rolls to coincide with the opening of the new Chester store on February 8.
Chatwins’ general manager Kevin Pearce says customers like things “a little bit different”, but there are limits. Some of the shops in better off areas can sell smoked salmon ciabattas, but traditional lines are always the favourites. The company has a diverse range of 300 products, from pasties to cream cakes, but only parts of that range will be on sale at any one time.
Members of the bakery and retail management team, including general manger Kevin Pearce, and joint-MDs Trevor Mooney and Brian Lightfoot, hold bi-weekly meetings to discuss range and what products should be rotated. That ensures customers are offered a varied array of products.
For example, one week fancy pig cakes may be presented on the counters in stores as a novelty; the next week frogs and after that bees. And with slab cakes, options such as orange, Genoa and ginger are rotated, alongside seasonal specials.
Chatwins recently took on a French development baker, Dominique Schickele, charged with inventing innovative new products. He experiments with new concepts at the bakery one afternoon a week. Over the festive season, his Christmas pudding mousse got a particularly warm reception.
Chatwins currently employs some 300 staff, around 95 of whom work in its main bakery, in Nantwich town centre. About 90% of Chatwins’ range is made from scratch at this bakery, which is a warren of interconnecting departments.
Upstairs is a sandwich area, where the sandwiches are prepared fresh daily. And in an adjacent cake area, novelty cakes are decorated to customer orders.
Customers can choose from a range of options, from iced sugar paste and chocolate wedding cakes, featuring swags, curls, handmade flowers and modelled figures.
There is also a room set aside for the display of wedding cakes. These creations are lit by spotlight and stored behind glass. Customers can come in on a Saturday and order from the selection, which includes traditional and more modern options.
Downstairs is the main bakery, which makes the range of cakes, breads, sausage rolls and pasties. Along from the main bakery is a cream room and a packaging room, as well as a room where tarts are decorated.
The company’s suppliers include Heygates and Bradshaw for flour, BakeMark UK and Renshaw for other ingredients, and chocolate company Barry Callebaut. Local suppliers are used for ingredients such as meat and vegetables.
As with most bakeries in the craft sector, staffing and skills shortages are issues. Mr Mooney says: “Training and maintaining skill levels are very difficult these days, but over the years we have managed to achieve a lot with the help of various colleges and associations. As a family business we have always invested in our staff and in 2004 we were awarded the much-coveted Investors in People title.”
Over the years, Chatwins has offered staff specialised training in conjunction with institutes such as the Richemont School in Switzerland. This helps it combine contemporary Continental practices with traditional baking techniques, he says.
Following the enlargement of the European Union in May 2004, the company has found a solution to its staffing problems – it has taken on several Polish staff (as well as one from Croatia). Mr Mooney says: “We are absolutely delighted with them. You just can’t find them enough work to do.”
Their creations are delivered daily on Chatwins’ 14 vans to the 19 shops and to wholesale customers, who account for 15-20% of Chatwins’ turnover.
The company sells to convenience stores, delis and universities. It also supplies the John Lewis café in Wilmslow. Minimum orders for wholesale are around £100 a week.
Drivers start deliveries around 7am and are back at the bakery by 11am. One of the challenges Chatwins faces is parking its fleet of vans. Its bakery is landlocked in Nantwich town centre and there are parking restrictions all around. Van drivers end up paying for tickets to park in the adjacent car park.
It is a big expense for the company and the Chatwins family did consider moving to a purpose-built site around 15 years ago. However, the decision was taken to completely refurbish the original redbrick premises instead, expanding into an old cinema next door. The whole bakery was modernised as it was rebuilt in five phases.
This is a company which values its heritage, but also moves with the times. Chatwins has plans to streamline the manufacturing process at the bakery to make it more mechanised. It is introducing computerised weighing, stock control, and traceability systems. It is also planning to update its pasty line. These are made by hand at the moment, but the company wants to make the process more efficient, without compromising quality or appearance.
The most important factor of any new machine will be the depositor, as Chatwins’ fillings are very firm, says Mr Mooney. A couple of machines have been shortlisted and Chatwins will now have to see them in action.
Chatwins’ emphasis on quality and tradition means it does not compete directly with the supermarkets, and it is even reasonably resilient against the impact of bakery giant Greggs.
Greggs has moved into two of the areas where it trades and, although sales have been hit, the impact has been nowhere near as debilitating for Chatwins as for other similar retailers in the area, Mr Pearce says.
Costs are also rising, particularly energy prices. Chatwins has just come out of a fixed-term supply contract, and was facing a 70% hike in the price it pays for gas on a new contract. Following negotiations, a new six-month contract was secured, with an increase of 60%. And last year trade was a little less buoyant – a rise in interest rates took its toll on spending habits.
However, Chatwins is moving on with cautious expansion plans. Mr Mooney says: “We are looking to expand, but not too fast. In five years we would hope to have around 24 shops. It depends on what units are available.”
The news that the company has acquired its 20th site based at a former Weinholt’s bakery is a milestone in its history. The outlet in Northgate Street has a 70-seater tea room, small coffee bar and traditional baker’s shop.
Chatwins was given first refusal on the former Weinholt’s bakery, following a “gentleman’s agreement” stretching back decades. This agreement was that the two chains would not encroach on each other’s trade.
Chairman Edward Chatwin says the company is delighted to have acquired the site. “To have a shop in the centre of Chester has always been a goal and I’m sure my late grandfather, Arthur, would have been very proud.
Arthur Chatwin is a fourth generation family business, founded by John Chatwin in 1913, the great-grandfather of today’s chairman Edward Chatwin.
The business carries the name of John Chatwin’s son Arthur. In 1971 the business was passed to Brian Chatwin, who still works for the company as a consultant.
Edward Chatwin, who took over as chairman two years ago, is supported by two brothers: John, who works in the marketing department, and Michael, who works in the accounts office.