Flour, water, salt, people

Researcher Ana Bolivar explores a key ingredient of a successful Real Bread business.

E5 Bakehouse flour arrangers © Helen Cathcart

E5 Bakehouse flour arrangers © Helen Cathcart

In 2020 I wrote a thesis for my MSc in Food Policy titled ‘Exploring motivations, enablers and barriers to Real Bread bakeries in the UK’. In addition to finding what motivates people to buy their daily bread from such bakeries, three of the things I set out to discover were:

  • Why people set up and run bakeries.
  • Why others chose to work in them.
  • The relationships between bakers and other people.

My research included interviewing Real Bread bakery owners and employees. I selected E5 Bakehouse in London, Small Food Bakery in Nottingham and Hamblin Bread in Oxford because I admire the ethos of these businesses, which operate in communities with very different general income levels.

Meaningfulness

A key question I asked staff members was: ‘what are your motivations to work in this bakery?’ From their replies I deduced that the most important reason was to feel that their work was meaningful. Indeed, one baker (I promised anonymity to all interviewees) told me: "My job is very meaningful, more than any other job that I have done."

Meaningfulness can be related to motivation, performance and job satisfaction, so how did these bakers define a meaningful work? What I heard was that they felt the owners didn’t just want to run a profitable food business; they were committed to supporting the communities in which they were embedded.

Fixing a broken system

Employees also said that they felt the owners shared their mission of driving positive change. Many believed the current dominant food system to be broken. Words that interviewees variously used to describe it included: confusing, disintegrated, too complicated, not transparent and manipulative. The majority of interviewees wanted to work in a place that is creating better, healthier and more sustainable alternatives. The three bakeries’ founders are continuously striving to do so, working with farmers and other mindful suppliers to offer a better range of products, which are also good for the future of the environment. “If this bakery can be a place where people rethink food, that would be a small success for us,” one person told me.

Interviewing the bakeries' founders, employees and suppliers, I observed a general feeling of pride and achievement. They made comments including: “I feel like I am making a difference being an activist” and “This role is the most positive thing I could do to give an alternative food system, I feel like an activist.”

The opportunity to thrive

People who work in the food industry are often characterised as unskilled workers. This does a disservice to many. Certainly we can recognise that Real Bread making is a craft that embodies a range of skills and knowledge. The three bakeries’ owners share a goal of helping their team members to develop these, as well as confidence in themselves. Many of their employees arrive with little to no bakery experience. What they do have is the passion and commitment to learn a new craft, which they are given the opportunity and support to do. "I knew about Real Bread, and I wanted to work with my hands,” one said.

It was clear that when employees feel engaged and are given space to grow, they are eager to bring positive results to the companies they work for. When they face challenges, they want to put the effort into finding solutions. As one of the bakeries’ founders said: “the person who made the bread has to be interested and proud of what they are doing.” These bakeries rely on employees who want to be part of driving positive change, who in turn thrive in an environment where people believe in them and help them to grow. Many of the employees said they felt they were learning every day, and that those skills could be taken to other roles in the future.

Community

A comment echoed by many of the people I spoke to was: “working here I feel part of a community,” which extends beyond their customers. Being able to visit and interact with suppliers, farmers and other bakers is important. “I feel empowered by being able to share our knowledge with others,” one person said. Personal relationships offer so much more than placing an online order: “We met the millers and stayed for the weekend with them. They are the most wonderful people.” These relationships can be mutually beneficial: “I get the opportunity to exchange time and knowledge at other bakeries, everyone wants everyone to succeed.”

At the heart of these bakeries and their success are the founders. The general feeling was summed up by one employee: “I started this job because I wanted to help them. I like their passion, generosity and energy. I had faith in them.” People want to work at these bakeries because they like the founders, who inspire loyalty to themselves and their vision: "I wanted to help them to bring bread to this city.”

Helping each other to grow

What I took away from my conversations is that in order to attract loyal workers, who are committed to working hard for your business, they need to share your ethos. You should be hire people on account of their capacity to learn and desire to drive positive change. In return, you should invest in their training, support them learning new skills, listen to their ideas, and allow them to develop new projects. Help make them feel part of a community, both locally and the wider bakery world. As one of the bakery owners said: “At least twelve of our members of the staff has gone off to open their own businesses around the world. Suffice to say, I am very proud of that.”

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