A Baker’s Reflections on a Week in the UK

By Brian Hinton, 5 June 2019

I’ve been traveling… and reflecting.

I spent May 20 to 27th in southern England, visiting Cambridge, Bedford, Bury St. Edmunds and the seaside resorts of East Bergholt, Felixstowe, and Ipswich. It was a wonderful holiday, mainly spent with family. An early Father’s Day gift to myself.

The seaside village of Felixstowe, UK, May 2019

As a senior baker, bakery manager and mentor, I couldn’t resist visiting bakeries — large and small — and reflecting on how the baking landscape in this part of England differed from what I have become accustomed to in Calgary and Alberta.

This blog is the first of two I will write to set out my perceptions following my trip.

First, I’d say that in the part of the UK I visited, the large retail chain stores appear to have stolen business from the small retail baker by replicating everything they make and making the products more attractive. I visited several small family retail bakers and I found that they had very few fresh-baked dietary products available for sale. The offerings of the large chain stores made the products look more “dainty”, more colourful, and there was much more variety. there With very few dietary products available, the small retail bakery has expanded into the midday sandwich trade because the trade in baked goods is clearly not enough to sustain the business.

The large retail baking chains

The large chain retail bakers like Greggs (see https://www.greggs.co.uk/) now dominate the retail baking landscape in this part of England, at least. This huge company, the largest bakery chain in the UK, specializes in savory products, as well as doughnuts and vanilla slices. Headquartered in Newcastle-Upon-Tyne, it is listed on the London Stock Exchange and is a constituent of the FTSE 250 Index. It’s a huge competitor for the “small fry”.

Brian in a Greggs store, Felixstowe, UK, May 2019

Large retail stores like Greggs (and others) carry a much more extensive range of baked products than the small bakeries do. They also showcase a variety of dietary products. They have dedicated sections for hot “grab-and-go” sales, as well as a full sit-down dining area. This, essentially, is a “bakery cafe”.

The range of fresh-baked products in these large stores is extensive. With regard to the situation in Canada, there is really no comparison. These large stores are creating the bakery equivalent of Tim Hortons. Everything in this part of the store is mobile: a rack of hot goods on wheels is a very efficient way to move products around. The same approach is given to the hot and cold sandwich section. Only a very small amount of baking is actually done on the premises of these large stores. Most of those products are produced via the frozen “bake-and-serve” method.

The conventional supermarket

These stores are likely to have an in-store bakery, providing standard baked goods (e.g., buns, bread, sausage rolls (including vegan sausage rolls), pasties, pastries, cookies, and decorated cakes. On the commercial rack, you can find both private labels and commercial brands. There is also likely to be an extensive range of ethnic and conventional breads (naan, pita bread and so forth).

In-store bakery in a Uk supermarket, May 2019

These stores are likely to have a dedicated gluten-free section (with products sold at ambient temperatures). The contents will be predominantly bread and buns, cakes, and pastries (all gluten-free). For private label products, branding appears to be important.

Gluten-free products are often labeled as “free from…”: a tag line found on many products. On the back of the package, the label may see that the “free from”ingredients include milk, gluten, and other ingredients.

These stores also stock branded baked goods from the market leaders such as Hovis, Kingsmill and the Finsbury group.

The smaller supermarkets (up to 3000 sq. ft. like a Circle K store in Calgary)

In these smaller supermarkets, most of the dietary products are sold in the freezer section. One very small section may have a range of locally supplied baked goods (mostly what I’d call “traditional” baking). (More on that tomorrow!) The only vegan or other dietary products (such a gluten-free or low-carb) will be found in pre-packaged bars (not considered a fresh baked product).

Tomorrow I will talk a bit more about my observations and focus on baked goods for special diets in the UK.

I’d love to hear your feedback.

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