It may be the current tagline for a certain brand of crisps, but the words ’simple is better’ could just as aptly be applied to Hobbs House Bakery’s prize winning loaf at the Baking Industry Awards 2009. Established in 1920, family firm Hobbs House has long been in the business of making bread. And despite many of its current recipes having been in existence for 20 years or more, the bakery, based in Chipping Sodbury, Gloucestershire, has not been standing still when it comes to innovation.
Its Organic Wild White sourdough loaf shone through as winner of the Morrisons-sponsored Artisanal Bread Product of the Year a new category at the Awards this year. The loaf contains only organic flour from Shipton Mill in nearby Tetbury sea salt, water and a 45-year-old levain starter of rye flour and water. Sounds simple, but its production takes around three days, with the starter stored for two-and-a-half days before being added to make up the dough.
Hobbs House production director Sam Wells obtained the starter 15 years ago from a German baker, who had had it for around 30 years. "People think it’s amazing that something’s still going after all that time," says Wells.
The award category required entrants to submit three different products for initial judging. Alongside its Organic Wild White loaf, Hobbs House entered its Baguette Paysan and Organic Soda Seeds loaf, but the Wild White staked its place as the strongest contender, making it onto the shortlist. "It’s the tasting that’s the key," explains Wells, who recommended the judges warmed the bread before tasting for maximum effect. "Although it’s an industry award, we obviously shout about it a lot to our customers," he explains. "We’ve made it our business to make sure we’ve had lots of press coverage, as well as marketing material in our shops, which we also sent to our wholesale customers. People like to be associated with winners."
Wells says he was prompted to enter, in part, due to the fact it was a category specific to artisan production. "It’s a word we’ve been using quite a lot recently regarding our business. Artisanal products are exactly what we’re about, so I thought, ’Maybe this us for us’."
When it was announced the firm had won, Wells says he was "absolutely speechless". "It was fantastic, a really good evening and Morrisons looked after us very well," he continues. "It was nice afterwards to be able to probe them (Morrisons’ judges) on why they chose our loaf. They told us that all the judges had their own favourite second loaf, but, without fail, they had all picked the Wild White as their favourite, which was charming to hear and really encouraging. It’s great to be able to bring that back to the bakers here, who make the loaf day-in, day-out, and to be able to give them that kind of feedback."
Wells sent a text announcing the win to his fellow directors and, when he got back to the bakery, he says: "People were really buzzing about it." One of the great things about this type of category, he explains, is that the award is attached to a product rather than a person, so it’s one the whole business can share, as they’ve had a direct involvement with it. "To be attached to the whole thing has been very beneficial internally and externally. And since winning, we’ve sold a lot more of the loaves," says Wells. "Bryan Burger, head of bakery at Morrisons, said we should expect to see around an extra 10% return out of winning, which has been about right."
Hobbs House has a 60% wholesale/40% retail split, and also offers a mail order option, although Wells admits this is only a marginal part of the business at present. With turnover of around £2.8m a year, it now has four shops, the latest of which opened in Circencester in May this year. Its main focus is on bread, but it also offers a range of pastries and confectionery in its retail outlets, most of which are produced in the back of the shop, says Wells. Its wholesale customers include delicatessens, farm shops which are really on the increase at the moment, notes Wells local hotels and restaurants.
To complement its wide range of fresh breads, Hobbs House ventured into the frozen market in April this year, with a range of 10 lines. He explains that delivering its existing range any further than 50 miles had posed problems when it came to freshness, so the firm came up with a new range of par-baked breads, which are then blast-frozen, enabling them to target a wider geographic area. The bakery now has a van that travels to Exeter, the Worcester area and down to Somerset and Wiltshire. Although on three days a week the van is less busy than the on the other two, Wells says it is definitely an area he can see having a lot of growth potential. "It’s not going to happen overnight, but it’s a growing service," he explains. "We can spread ourselves as far as we want. We can up production and get more vans that’s probably where the growth will come from."
He says the business made a conscious decision to keep the frozen range narrow, as he says its fresh range has grown and grown "and we’re not very good at taking things off it". However, he says, customers do get very attached to their favourite loaf, and you cannot just delist a loaf without thinking about what you can offer the customers as an alternative. "We stopped a loaf only a few weeks ago and I was flooded with emails from people asking, ’What are we going to do now?’," he says. And the solution he came up with? To send them all a loaf of the nearest comparison free of charge.
The business is currently relaunching its website, to tie in with a one-off documentary on BBC4, entitled In Search of the Perfect Loaf, to be screened in early 2010. It features Wells’ nephew, a director at Hobbs House and British Baker’s regular In the Mix columnist Tom Herbert. The 60-minute programme follows Herbert as he goes on a quest to create a recipe for ’the perfect loaf’. Wells explains that Herbert’s travels to a number of bakeries across the country resulted in the creation of a spelt sourdough called Shepherd’s Loaf, which he then took into Bristol town centre to be sampled by consumers.
Wells’ advice to other bakers looking to enter this category in 2010 is that a winning product doesn’t necessarily have to be one that sells in its thousands. "If you feel you’ve got the right product, and one that a lot of people like already, that is key," he explains. "The Wild White loaf is a few years old, but we have it in our heart that it’s a great loaf. Winning the award was the icing on the cake."