A s doctors promoting healthy eating plans go, you’d have to say that the Swiss-born Dr Vogel’s plan is faring better in the longevity stakes than his counterpart - or nemesis - Dr Atkins. While the former had wholegrain seeded bread as an integral part of his diet, the other banned bread consumption altogether. As Atkins Nutritionals witnessed boom and bust, the slower burn of the hype-free Vogel’s licence has established a loyal following. Dr Vogel lived to 94; the less said about the demise of Dr Atkins, the better.
PR and celebrity endorsements have played no part in the success of Vogel’s bread in the UK. Such is the passion elicited for the bread, that two organic specialists - Fresh & Wild and Planet Organic - both sell Vogel’s, a non-organic product. In fact, shoppers were up in arms when one of them withdrew the brand. "Within a week we were back in. Vogel’s has got a very loyal fan base," Colin Lyons, director of Goswell’s Speciality Breads wryly recalls. "Because their customers want it, and because it doesn’t contain any nasties, we’re a clean enough label for them."
licensed to bake
The speciality wholesale bread baker Goswell’s started life in 1950 and has built up a strong niche in healthy-style breads with a series of successful licences. "Since we went purely wholesale about 40 years ago, we’ve concentrated on producing speciality breads," explains the third-generation baker Lyons. "In recent years we’ve taken on licences, which are exclusive to ourselves, such as Vogel’s, Cranks and Dove’s Farm. That is the mainstay of the business."
Furthermore, the bakery produces a West Indian bread under its Caribbean Cuisine brand. A selection of unbranded products such as bagels are supplied in pallet-loads to foodservice customers, while it continues to offer the light rye breads and Polish rye breads it has done for many years.
Dr Vogel began making bread in the 1950s with a muesli bread, using milk as a humectant to give moisture. A Swiss baker took the idea to New Zealand and the loaf eventually migrated to the UK. Goswell’s started producing one mixed grain variety of Vogel’s in 1972. "We saw a ’licensee wanted’ advert in British Baker in 1971 and, because it was weird and wonderful, we thought we’d do it. We like doing difficult things," says Lyons. In the mid-’90s, two other varieties, Honey & Oatbran and Sunflower & Barley were launched followed by a fourth - the now best-selling Soya & Linseed.
Last year was Goswell’s best year of sales, building on the record it set the previous year. Turnover is now over £5m. Over the past four years the number of national listings has multiplied, along with the growth in brown and seeded breads across the bread category, and Asda, Co-op and Marks & Spencer are the only supermarkets not supplied. "Until then, we were regionalised to London, which is a large demographic area, but there were always pockets of people contacting us from different parts of the country. We now supply major supermarkets throughout the country," says Lyons.
The growth strategy has been to increase Vogel’s availability in existing supermarkets rather than pitch for new custom. "We supply a lot of people with a little bread," he says. At present, this amounts to 700 supermarkets now stocking Vogel’s.
A few years ago, Goswell’s approached the Vogel’s brand owners, based in Sydney, Australia, to extend the Vogel’s range in the UK. It cherry-picked a Soya & Linseed loaf, which has become Goswell’s biggest-selling bread over the last three years. Allied Bakeries has since seen similar successes with a direct competitor, Burgen Soya and linseed, though Lyons remains unperturbed. "I’m not too fussed who our competitors are; if, every quarter, our sales are up within the constraints of what I want to do, then I’m not worried if Burgen has doubled sales or we’ve taken half its sales. The two complement each other."
Apart from occasional cross-promotion, such as a recent offer alongside Premier Foods’ Loyd Grossman soup, there is little promotional activity. "We tend not to do large promotions and marketing, because if the packaging is distinctive enough on-shelf, then shoppers will try it."
The bread does not contain any stabilisers or additives, and although Vogel’s is not organic, this is probably just as well in light of the rising cost of organic wheat and pressures to reduce on-shelf price, he says: "With the way organic wheat availability and cost is going we would probably be priced out of the market." Goswell’s does, however, supply organic bread under the Dove’s Farm label, which it has done since 1982, as well as Cranks in ’89. The latter, originally a vegetarian wholefood restaurant with a bakery in Islington, outsourced its breadmaking to Goswell’s when it shifted focus towards making vegetarian ready-meals. The organic brand has since launched into three major supermarket groups and is "going well," says Lyons. Bakery La Fornaia also produces sandwich focaccia and rolls for Cranks.
The Cranks brand is now owned by The Grocery Company - part of the Nando’s group - which rebranded the range in recent years, with products including sandwiches, smoothies and desserts. Wrapped bread is the only Cranks product that has remained organic. An unsliced loaf with distinctive packaging, the loaf is akin to a heavier homemade bread, which gives it a unique selling point and few competitors, says Lyons.
"When you’re selling bread to the supermarkets your USP has to be strong, clear and focused. Our company has never used anything that could be construed as being artificial or unnatural, whether organic or not, and that sets us apart. The organic breads are still selling strongly because people are even more aware of green issues. But no matter how good organic sales are, they’re still only scratching the surface."
Meanwhile, Vogel’s USP is that it has a clean label at the expense of a longer shelf-life. Says Lyons: "Personally, I think a loaf of bread should have four ingredients - flour, salt, water and yeast. Our company’s USP has always been different. When people started putting acetic acid in bread to inhibit mould, when the larger bakeries were under pressure to put more water in, we went the other way rather than follow suit. I like to think of ourselves as a large craft bakery rather than a small plant bakery."
With consumers paying closer attention to the label, recent shopping trends have certainly helped Goswell’s. Though Lyons has a wizened scepticism of flash-in-the-pan diets, Vogel’s is well-placed to capitalise on current eating trends. "Vogel’s breads are at the forefront at the moment because people are saying ’Glycaemic Index is good for you, look for products with seeds and grains’. GI was the fad of last year and is still carrying on. But whichever professor you listen to, some things are great for you and some will kill you!"
Goswell’s has not featured a GI logo on the packaging. "There is a danger and a trend that products are becoming over-labelled. There’s a battle going on with nutritional information labelling, but there’s also the Fairtrade logo, Soil Association logo, vegetarian logo, Vegan Society logo, carbon footprint logo... you can go on forever. A lot of it is in danger of getting overplayed and the public are going to get confused."
absence of preachiness
One plank of the brand’s success has been a refreshing absence of preachiness and a virtually non-existent PR machine. Lyons delights in saying that his criteria for choosing what he eats is based on taste rather than goodness, and reveals a favourite weekend treat to be a supermarket baton with two eggs and a non-organic full-fat sausage. "Anything can be unhealthy if you eat too much of it," he says.
It’s a happy coincidence that Goswell’s makes healthier breads, he adds. "At Goswell’s, our breads have never been produced for any other reason than they taste good. We’re told that soya and linseed are good for menopausal women, and it helps this, that and the other. Someone will come up with something saying that sunflower seeds are twice as nutritious as anything else. But we put them in, because honey and sunflower, sunflower and barley... these are names that roll off the tongue and go together well. We didn’t enlist chemists to tell us their properties. Baking bread isn’t rocket science."
So what about the future? Foodservice rather than retail will be the biggest growth area for the firm, he believes, especially with bagels, and the bakery will continue to foster its niche. "Our brands each fulfil a niche in the market. It might sound strange, but we don’t want that niche to become too big, because once you become mainstream you’re there to be shot at. We want to be like a field mouse crawling through the grass." n
=== At a glance ===
Location: Caxton Street North, Docklands, London
Staff: 82 including temporary staff
Turnover: Over £5m
Brands: under licence - Cranks, Vogel’s, Dove’s Farm
Production: Vogel’s bread (accounts for two-thirds of production), Cranks, Caribbean Cuisine, Dove’s Farm, rye bread and bagels