Since 2013, Andy Haddon and his Tyneside team have been using baking as a means of bringing people together, creating pathways to employment and making healthy food affordable.
We started Big River Bakery (formerly Artisan Baking Community) under our umbrella social enterprise called Earth Doctors Ltd. We began by making Real Bread in other bakeries when they weren’t using their ovens, then selling it to people at a village library in Northumberland every Saturday morning as they collected their books. We have learnt and grown from there and now sell our Real Bread in our own bakery shop, at farmers’ markets, through community hubs and some wholesale.
Big River isn’t just here to make and sell bread. Our volunteer training programme has seen people progress to employment, not just at Big River but other bakeries. To date we have created volunteer opportunities for more than 50 people, some who have been with us for a short time, others for years.
A particular focus for us is volunteer placements for people with autism. In 2017 we started a collaboration with a supported volunteering scheme called Bridge Engage in Northumberland. Things developed from there and in late 2019 we established an employment pathway through the Department of Work and Pensions’ Access to Work programme. It is early days but things are going well and we are soon to take on our second employee who’s on the autistic spectrum, and hopefully more to come after that.
Collaboration is central to what we do and another example is working with Young Dads and Lads project in Gateshead, which supports young fathers and dads-to-be. As well as learning to bake bread, at least 12 young dads we taught achieved a Level 2 award in Food Safety and Hygiene for Catering.
Then there’s helping other food projects and businesses to get off the ground, offering them facilities and practical support through routes to market and sharing knowledge. An example was Johnny from Glazed, who needed somewhere to make his vegan donuts while he worked to secure his own shop in Newcastle. “We had a shared vision of organics and sustainable business – a great fit while I transitioned to my own bakery space,” he said. We also helped the lads and dads who were starting a beekeeping business and needed a place to jar up their honey. We have a level 5 food hygiene rating so were able to help them with get their honey ready for sale last Christmas.
Over the years we have worked with people of all ages from two to a hundred and two. Currently we are part of the Corn Riots project in Newcastle. Lots of activities are planned for this project in 2020, including growing grains, films and song. A key aim being to engage people in the local community with the period in history when starving local miners rioted for the right to affordable food. Even though the riots took place back in 1740, it is something that we believe resonates with issues people still face today.
We also work with local schools on curriculum enrichment across all age ranges. This includes guiding children through growing wheat, milling and baking; encouraging them to ask questions about food, culture, environment, science and wellbeing; and develop their own answers. This year we have wheat growing programmes in four primary schools and hope to mill the produce at harvest time and use this to bake loaves. A second programme, which we have run for many years at a local primary school, involves making naan with the whole year group when they are studying India. For three days the pressure is on as we have just one afternoon each day to get two groups of children leaving with lovely naan by just after 3pm. I need a lie down after day three!
Collaboration is key
We work with charities, NGOs, and other social businesses as consultants, partners, and facilitators to deliver our mutual goals. We are a Community Supported Bakery and local people have been incredibly supportive of our efforts, continuing to encourage us even when the challenges mount up. The support we receive from individuals and organisations is amazing, from a pensioner offering me a fiver towards our last crowdfunder to a grant funder offering a four figure sum.
In 2018 we negotiated a commercial lease from Newcastle City Council on a former supermarket in Shieldfield. This was great with one small drawback – it was completely derelict. In January 2019, we launched a crowdfunding campaign to renovate our new space. This was quite energy sapping as it was done alongside the day to day work running the bakery at our old location nearby. To add another level of pressure, we were served notice on our previous premises while still raising funds, so had to start work with contractors on the renovation before we knew if we would hit our target.
Our initial crowdfunder failed to hit the target so we revised and relaunched the campaign and we hit our target second time around. We got the premises keys in June 2019 and the renovation took until October and we are especially proud that we managed to keep on baking with no break in production throughout this period. Crowdfunding itself was a steep learning curve, which required creativity, tenacity and an ability to learn fast from what worked and what didn’t.
Having opened our café shop in late 2019, we had an intense start to 2020 as we launched a range of courses in our dedicated training facility within our new premises. Our courses vary from £10 to £100, offering something for all pockets and ages. We tend to collaborate a lot with others to make our workshops more interesting. For example, our Brew and Bake workshops are in collaboration with local breweries. In the morning people bake bread and biscuits with us using by-products of the brewing process and then go the brewery for lunch and then make beer with our sourdough toast. It’s very Blue Peter with beer made earlier to enjoy too. So we are demonstrating how taste can be turned into something delicious with a bit of creativity and collaboration. All very circular economy!
We feel it is important to build on local food culture too so we launched a ‘Stottie and Pease Pudding’ course. This has been a big hit as the first three courses sold out as soon as they were launched with 15 people coming along to each course. Stotties are interesting as historically they seemed to have developed as an affordable fast food using scraps of dough. The more recent incarnation resonates with the Real Bread Campaign’s Honest Crust Act work as many stotties on the market appear to be just bread buns masquerading as stotties. One of our ambitions is to bring Proper Stotties back to the north east!
Another part of our work is with universities on a range of programmes, including PhDs at Newcastle and Northumbria University. One, undertaken at Newcastle University, is now complete and demonstrated how our quinoa buns had a positive impact on glycaemic index. A software PhD with Digital Civics at Newcastle University involved co-authoring an academic paper presented at a conference in Montreal on how information systems could help create a fairer food system. The third PhD is at Northumbria University and relates to our crowdfunding and community involvement in design, which is still ongoing.
We have also been an Erasmus+ project partner working with organisations across Europe for over five years. Through PRIDE 2 and 3, at least 12 volunteers and staff have had the opportunity to visit other food and drink projects across Europe and come back with fresh knowledge and enthusiasm.
We have collaborated with more than 20 undergraduates and postgraduates across many subjects including broadcasting, business, marketing and psychology. One successful approach over the last five years has been undergraduates volunteering with us as part of a career development module at Newcastle University. I hope this has given these students an insight into a mission-led start-up business rather than a business motivated by profit alone. We have also made a few films with broadcasting students.
We’ve found that learning by doing is always the most valuable method. Rather than theorising how to develop this business, we have tried different approaches and built on what works. We’ve also found that always being open to collaboration has enabled us to achieve much more than we ever could on our own.
2020 sees the launch of an ambitious, two-year Community Led Local Development programme called One Loaf at a Time. Supported by the European Social Fund, it is designed to provide accredited, skills-based training to people from the most deprived parts of the Newcastle area, who face complex barriers to employability. As part of this, we will be training well over 100 people in baking and barista skills.
Our team are doing an amazing job at producing delicious bread with our small ovens, so we’re really looking forward to upgrading the kit to allow us to deliver our training programmes and increase production. Our big challenge now is to raise the funds for a proper deck oven and so will be launching another crowdfunding campaign imminently - keep an eye on social media @BigRiverNE across all platforms!
You can find out more about Big River Bakery, where to find them and how to support their work at: www.bigriverbakery.com
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Published 1 Mar 2020
Real Bread Campaign: The Real Bread Campaign finds and shares ways to make bread better for us, better for our communities and better for the planet. Whether your interest is local food, community-focussed small enterprises, honest labelling, therapeutic baking, or simply tasty toast, everyone is invited to become a Campaign supporter.
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