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'Emma's Bread' during Covid-19

Emma's BakeryEmma Parkin (pictured left) is passionate about food and its connection to the environment. Therefore in 2004 she took up baking as a career to make bread in an ethical and ecologically responsible way. From originally using premises at Shillingford Organics in Exeter, to then baking in the Real Food Store in central Exeter, she now has her own premises including a bakery and café along Exeter Quay named the Boatyard Bakery & Café (pictured left). During the COVID-19 crisis, Emma has witnessed a lot of neighbouring businesses along the quay forced to close. As bread is a staple food item, the bakery part of her business has remained open but not without canny adaptations in the ways they operate.

PhD student, Becca McGowan from the School of Life Science's, Warwick Crop Centre speaks to Emma to discuss how the business has been rising to the challenge!

Can you tell us more about your business before the crisis hit? Bread Oven
We moved into our current premises three years ago. Here we have a bakery where we make wholesale bread named ‘Emma’s Bread’ and limited catering facilities. We also have the Boatyard Café here, where we sell our cakes, hot and soft drinks. It’s in an excellent location. There is a real sense of community on the Quay among our neighbouring businesses and customers. When the weather is nice we get large footfall from people out walking along the river Exe, cyclists and park runners.

We operate seven days a week with a small dedicated team of staff who bake the bread and run the café. Most of our bread is sold via wholesale to local businesses and food outlets, such as The Real Food Store, Shillingford Organics and The Plant Café. Bread is also sold direct to consumers at The Boatyard Café.

Sourdough BreadWe are an artisan bakery specialising in sourdoughs (bread without yeast) but we also make yeasted breads and seasonal novelties (e.g. hot cross buns). Being artisan, we use traditional methods so a lot of the process is done by hand. Wherever possible we use organic ingredients and Shipton Mill supplies us with organic flour. As reducing our environmental footprint is a core pillar of our business, we work with a company called Co-Delivery which delivers our wholesale bread via electric cargo bike.

We were excited to be going into another spring and summer season here at the quay and suddenly this whole situation emerged!

How did you and your team react to the lockdown measures?
I was very stressed to begin with as everything stopped overnight. There were 100s of decisions to make regarding how we could operate safely, such as social distancing in the bakery and getting bread direct to consumers. I am grateful for how well we work together as a team and we spoke things through as a group.

We immediately closed our café and lost business through our wholesale routes. Wholesale payments were delayed meaning I had to dig into my own savings to keep things afloat which some businesses might not have been able to do. Everything started to unravel in our supply chain. For example, our biggest wholesale customer decided to close. Fortunately, due to the surge in demand Shillingford Organics experienced, our bread orders through them increased dramatically! Shillingford Organics started to become our largest customer and this really kept us going.

Did you change how you operate as a team?
I spoke to my team to ask how they felt about the whole situation. Our café manager took the decision to not work as he had young children who needed home schooling while his wife worked at home and he was nervous about coming into contact with customers more directly. This helped us shut the café, which would not have been safe to keep open anyway. We have three staff on furlough and job retention schemes.

We have young people (currently at school or college) who work in the café at weekends so we have had to stop them from coming in. We usually have young people in the summer undertaking work experience with us. This will not happen this year. For this generation it will be harder to find jobs at the moment.

The two main bakers were adamant about carrying on working. We decided to split our bakery team in two, each team having a head baker, assistant baker and someone selling at the till. Each team would work on different days without swapping between the teams to reduce the risk of any contagion. The lack of contact between teams would mean that if one team had to self-isolate, we would have a back-up team to carry on working. However, the thought of this is tough and unsustainable. When working, members of the teams keep as separate as possible. I cannot see this way of working changing for a while.

How do you sell to your retail customers now?
Immediately after social distancing measures were put in place, we set up a way for customers to stay two metres apart when purchasing in the bakery. Some people are still happy to visit us twice a week for their bread. People appreciate any form of social contact especially when social distancing measures meant the majority of people could only venture outside for food or one form of daily exercise. We are getting to know our customers more and hearing about their stories. This form of human contact does not exist as much through the larger shops.

Similar to other food retailers we have experienced an increase in demand. To reach more customers who could not personally come to the bakery to pick up bread (due to isolation etc…) we decided to expand our use of Co-Delivery so bread could be delivered direct to consumers at home. Word has spread that we now deliver. I am aware of residents in communities having WhatsApp and Facebook groups which has aided spreading the news that we deliver. It has been critical that we have been able to deliver and we need to focus on streamlining it.

Has it been challenging to set up a new delivery system in such as short space of time?
Two riders from Co-Delivery were very happy to continue delivering with us once lockdown commenced. Someone even offered to work for free, really highlighting how people want to aid others during this crisis. We did not deliver to retail customers before this crisis so it was quite a challenge to set up but we are so grateful for the help of colleagues and the tolerance of our online customers.

We had a few teething problems to begin with. One day we made a large mistake when half our customers did not get their bread delivered! We fixed our mistake and our customers got their bread later on that day. It is comforting to know how people do not expect perfection at this time and it has taught me not to expect the worse reactions possible from them.

Are you selling more than bread through your new online shop?
It has been a steep learning curve to expand our mini shop! We only know bread but we have started to add other items to the online shop such as things we would usually sell in the café. In response to different demands from our customers, we have also developed different products. For example, Quicke’s cheese (a local cheese producer) had too much grated cheddar in stock so we came up with a pizza swirl using their cheese.

Cakes are very popular through our new online shop particularly Brownies, so we have started to add different fillings to them such as peanut butter etc… Normally in the café we would sell individual slices of brownies or cookies. We are conscious that we do not want to price ourselves out of the market so we are now selling ones which are smaller and in mixed bags. They do not cost a fortune and are more likely to be added to the deliveries.

How will you manage your café under social distancing measures?
For walk in customers at the moment they have the option to also buy a coffee. We sold 100 coffees on Monday this week! We may start producing other kinds of food for people to take away such as sandwiches and small salad pots. People could find somewhere to eat this outside and at a distance. The café staff which are not working at the moment might be able to do this later this summer. We would have to make sure they do not come into contact with our baking team. We need to use our space and resources in the best way.

Is business picking up with any of your wholesale customers as lockdown measures are easing?
We are aware things are changing. One of our major customers is now reopening and cafés which stopped business are starting to contact us.

Do you think the extra demand from your retail customers will continue?
We are expecting orders to drop off once people are more comfortable to leave the house but these people are enjoying the convenience of getting their bread delivered. We hope 50% will stay but nothing ever stands still. It will be about going the extra mile to help.

Do you think the crisis has changed perceptions of food?
Food has become a focal point during this crisis. People are recognising that local supply and food chains are both good quality and flexible and the resulting increase in sales of local food has hopefully also increased peoples’ knowledge of seasonal food. I think people value food when they know where it is coming from. In the context of bread, it is not an anonymous loaf of bread off the shelf anymore.

What positives have you taken from your experience during this crisis and what could be improved?

Some positives include:

  • More money has been spent in local communities due to people buying local food
  • It has forced us to improve our ways of operating as a business. People are questioning how their workspace functions and how businesses are managed.
  • We have had to embrace technology such as ecommerce for our online shop. I only started to use computers when I was 30 however I received help from one of our very logical and practical bakers, Anna, and one of the directors of the Real Food Store. The crisis has positively highlighted peoples’ skills and been a catalyst for people to take responsibility
  • Another technology we are utilising is video conferencing. It is now second nature to us and this has enabled me to speak more to staff. This new format of communicating is challenging us to speak more clearly. Technology is the way forward and people need to embrace it
  • People are experimenting more with food!

Room for improvement:

  • Communication – whether by phone, email or verbal – it sometimes feels overwhelming so it is important to establish how and by which method people communicate. It’s not always possible (or essential) to respond immediately though expectations are high! For example, a phone call is usually an urgent issue or one where a dialogue will help sort out an issue; an email is useful for placing and tracking orders, verbal is great for customers face to face and establishes better, more human, relationships. However, time (and dough-covered hands), can constrain communication. Reacting too quickly can lead to mistakes being made. This crisis has taught me to think before I act and ask for help when an answer isn’t immediately obvious!