Emma Parkin on totally overhauling the way her Real Bread bakery and café in Exeter operates during lockdown.
Despite all of the news that had been filtering out from The Big Smoke, none of us here at Emma’s Bread at the Boatyard Bakery & Café really wanted to believe the instruction that came at 5pm on Friday 23 March. Like many other wholesale bakeries, overnight we lost about 90 per cent of our business. Our own café tables were upturned, chairs stacked, signs removed and we told our staff members not to come in. We had three bakers wondering what on earth they were supposed to do with the unexpected free time, and a chiller full of unbaked sourdough looking for a home.
After a slightly panicky Saturday morning, when we missed the usual crowd of Park Run guys, keen cyclists, pushchair parents and even most of our daily dog walkers, we realised we had to stop and think about how we do things. I confess, I don’t do much of this as there’s never time. The ‘unprecedented’ situation didn’t make it any simpler, clouding even the easiest of decisions and making everything seem life-threatening. Did the bakers want to come in? Was it safe? How much could we bake and sell? Who to? Could we afford to shut up completely for however long? Would we lose even our regular customers? Which one of us would catch the virus first and give it to everyone else?
In the end what saved us was our local organic vegetable box scheme, Shillingford Organics. Just three miles up the road on a beautiful farm run by one of my oldest friends, Martyn Bragg, it’s where I stared the original bakery all those years ago. From usually supplying them with about 20 loaves of Real Bread three times a week, on the Monday following lockdown we were suddenly faced with an order for nearly 60 loaves, rising to 100 per day by the end of the week. We couldn’t let them down. So we didn’t.
Since September 2017, our morning’s wholesale bake has been delivered to various shops and cafés by Matilda, the trusty electric tricycle with large cargo trunk run by Jenny Ryding’s Co-Delivery. Come the crisis, it was clear that we needed to get Real Bread and other essentials out to more of our retail customers, who now can’t get to the café. We decided to enlist Matilda for a new bread-by-bike service around Exeter, which involved persuading an eight-months-and-28-days-pregnant Jenny that she shouldn’t furlough her staff. Happily they were keen to help and Jenny was delivered of a bouncing baby boy about a week later. It’s a bit tricky with Exeter’s hills and our awkward loads – eggs are very fragile, we’ve discovered.
I’m not techy - I can hardly text message and have just only got to grips with WhatsApp. Thankfully, my younger colleagues are happy to explore the realms of digital marketing. It turns out that iZettle (which we use for card payments in the café) has an e-commerce option, meaning you can put your products on a website linked to your own, and take payments that go directly into your account. Well, that’s my understanding.
Given my total lack of skills and patience with anything resembling a keyboard, various angels came to my aid - thank you. One set up the website and made it live, another wrote a great Mailchimp newsletter to promote the new site, a third worked out how to transfer and format the data into a useable production list, followed by a delivery schedule. I wasn’t exactly sitting back smoking a big cigar (I don't smoke) while all these angels did their stuff, mind. No, I worked out how to divide the bakery team in two to minimise contact between us, each with a head baker, an assistant and one person to deal with sales.
With fewer staff, our bakehouse is large enough to make social distancing reasonably practical. We also decided to close the bakery on two days a week to maximise production and baking to fit in with our wholesale outlets, though staff are still required to come in and do the sourdough preparation. All good ideas in theory, though in practice it exposes all the vulnerabilities of our operation. Suddenly we couldn’t talk to each other quite so easily, so we had to establish alternative communication systems. We realised that person A always did the flour ordering but now person B had to do it and didn’t know how much to order; or person B always made the puff pastry and people A and C had no idea how to use the laminator, and so on. This is is all on top of our already complex Excel pivot table chart of who ordered what and when and how much, which needs to be filled out, corrected, amended when a customer adds or reduces the original order and which finally becomes both the production sheets and the table from which the book-keeper (also working remotely) has to prepare an invoice.
Our café area has become a vast, open space with tables forming a barrier two metres in front of the counter complete with card reader, sanitising gel and a sign-up-to mailing list form. We allow customers in on a one-in, one-out system to order, pay and make way for the next customer. They want to chat and but we have to ask them to leave, otherwise they would be there for hours as they have got all day! Takeaway coffees are in much demand as ours is one of the only cafés open in the area. It’s become part of people’s daily fresh air and exercise routine.
My previously held belief that I did everything around here turned out not to be true, though as the ‘boss’ when things goes wrong it is still usually me who has to sort it out. In an extraordinary ‘the world will never be the same again’ situation like this we all get shaken and stirred and a huge amount of creative energy is released. Despite a feeling of being overwhelmed and exhausted and pulled in every direction and, quite frankly, not knowing what we were doing from day to day, last week the new service was up and running.
Smooth it was not, particularly on one day when something went very wrong with our delivery list, so only about half the orders went out in the morning, with the rest following later that day after we got lots of phone calls! Unlike before, we have to wrap or bag up all of the bread, creating extra work and clearing up. Oh, and the hot cross buns. Yes, everything changed at that time of year and those things add at least an hour to every morning.
On the plus side we have some very happy customers. Truly grateful and overjoyed on occasions they find us open, or discover the delivery service for people who are self-isolating. I can now put names to faces and thank them for supporting us. It has opened the door to new ideas, to collaboration with other local suppliers, to helping Co-Delivery get rounds of applause on their journey through town. Another plus is financially, critical at time of writing, when former wholesale customers seem to think they don’t have to pay for anything we delivered in March - you know who you are. We now have retail customers who buy online, meaning they pay in advance and at full price!
It has proved that our staff members are not just our employees but, both as individuals and as a team, they are people with immense dedication and a humbling amount of humanity. I can’t thank them enough. Weirdly, in this new two-team system, I finally get to have three, or even four days away from the bakery a week, something that didn’t happen before unless I was forced to go on a holiday. It’s taken some getting used to and I often still call the bakery at 5am to make sure everything is okay, or bark the latest instructions but I am getting used to it. It gives me time to think, re-discover the garden, listen to the dawn chorus and write to you. I would boastfully add that I have cleaned some windows inside and even had a go at the oven but such tasks are not filling me with joy so can easily be left ‘til tomorrow.
Like everyone, we wish the pandemic had never happened and we know that horrid, unjust things are happening to people we care about, and many more we don’t know, but on the flip side, it’s already led us down avenues of exploration we could never have imagined even a month ago. I may never get to love technology but now I can see that it has some extraordinary practical uses to help us go forward, above and beyond. Just ask the angels to help.