To bake or not to bake...
... that is the question. The worlds of bakery and butchery are not that far apart, so are there benefits to butchers in crossing the divide? Ed Bedington looks at the opportunities for the sector
The days of butcher's shops being an exclusive emporium of meaty delights are long gone. These days, you are as likely to pick up a latte mocha frappuccino as a well-aged steak in some forward-thinking businesses. But, as with all things, trying to offer all things to all men is never a good idea - in fact there's a word for it, "supermarket" - and while diversification is to be recommended, there are some particular areas where that diversity can particularly complement the existing business.
Bakery products are a natural fit with butchery, a sentiment held dear by Scottish operator Alan Stuart, whose business Stuart's of Buckhaven straddles the line between butcher and baker. He sees a great deal of common ground between the two and is keen to see butchers and bakers move closer together. More importantly, he points out that, for butchers, there's money to be made out of bakery products.
"Life is hard in the bakery sector, but one consistent growth area in the past few years has been savoury," he says. "I would say that hand-held savoury products are critical for the butcher to have on the counter, and there's usually a good profit margin on them."
Vic Brown, MD of oven supplier Rational, says butchers are looking at the opportunities baked goods offer: "We're seeing more and more butchers going into pie and pastry production; a lot are extending their offer. They have a traditional business, but they're looking to open that out and get footfall in the shop."
The key advantage for many butchers of moving into the baked goods sector is that they are probably halfway there already, says Douglas Scott, chief executive of the Scottish Federation of Meat Traders Association. "Most butchers will have ovens, and will be doing roasts, so they've got all the equipment; they just need to use it a bit more."
== Comfort zone ==
Alan points out that butchers are often more comfortable with meat fillings than their bakery counterparts as well: "A lot of bakers don't do meat products, because of the risk of cross-contamination, so butchers are ideally placed to deal with that. They don't have that problem, they've already got everything in place."
Scott says more and more butchers are beginning to spot the opportunities bakery can offer: "People soon realise that it's extra daily trade, and will be getting people into the store every day. You're already selling the things to put inside your freshly baked rolls, so it's a very complementary trade." Alan says butchers need to think beyond pork pies and sausages rolls. "I don't see why butchers cannot carry a wider range of bakery products, breads and rolls etc - a lot of butchers have begun to develop a takeaway trade and they go hand-in-hand."
One of the key stumbling points in the past for butchers looking to expand into bake-off and baked products has been quality. But that is beginning to change now, says Alan. "There has been a big improvement on what's on offer through wholesalers in terms of pastry cases and products," he says. "They've definitely improved and a lot of butchers would benefit from taking advantage of that."
Andrew Williams, deputy editor of trade magazine British Baker, agrees that standards are on the rise: "The quality of bake-off breads has improved enormously in recent years and there are some truly authentic, attractive-looking sandwich breads on the market, such as long-fermentation ciabattas and flatbreads, found at all the major wholesalers, which can offer a point of difference."
He says the high quality and easy availability of such products are perfect for butchers: "This opens up a great opportunity for butchers in the UK to diversify, as consumers continue to shift towards a food-on-the-go lifestyle."
== No cutting corners ==
Quality is key, however, and it is important not to cut corners when looking to establish yourself into a newer market, says Alan. "You've got to get the quality right. People are thinking about value now, but you cannot just do cheap and cheerful. People still want value for money. Some see the way forward as cheap and cheerful, but it's not the way to stay in business."
Of course, that does not mean you should be looking to stack the shelves with smoked salmon and caviar slices, or fillet steak-filled baguettes. Alan reports that consumer tastes are returning to the more traditional, simple products. "The upmarket stuff's days are numbered now. The old favourites are still popular - in fact, my dad used to say people always like cheese and pickle.
"If you look at the last 30-40 years of favourite fillings, it has changed very little. Fashionable things come and go but, over the long term, there has been little change." Brown agrees that tastes are returning to the more traditional. "People are looking at the more old-fashioned type of product, quality foods, rather than anything fancy or new. Pies, pasties and scotch eggs, hams etc - those are the type of products people are looking for. And good quality is key, that's what attracts people to butchers."
Williams, meanwhile, points to trends from the Continent, which could catch on in the UK: "In Germany, for example, butchers are perhaps more switched on to a food-to-go deli-style offering, such as rotisserie and cold meat sandwiches, freshly prepared. This has the twin effects of encouraging more customers into the shop and increasing their average spend-per-visit on both take-home meats and take-away products."
Oliver Blank, head of marketing with shop-fitting specialist Aichinger, says more and more customers are looking for takeaway, food-on-the-go products, but warns against attempting to offer hot products on the counter. "Keeping things warm is a not a problem, but if it's on the shelf for anything more than an hour and a half to two hours, then quality begins to suffer." He recommends investing in equipment to offer the customers the opportunity to have it heated on demand.
Keeping waste down is vital to the butchery business, and adding a bakery line can help reduce waste even further, points out David Dunne of bakery equipment supplier Interbake. "Having a bakery operation allows butchers to have a great display of meat, and what doesn't sell that day, can then go into the pies for the next, so you get two bites of the cherry."
== Star bright ==
Keith Mulford, who runs Dennis of Bexley, agrees: "It allows us to keep our meat cabinet star-bright all the time. Baking complements the fresh meat, we just don't get waste because of it. We can always turn something around."
Another added bonus, Keith points out, is that having a bakery and food-to-go business appeals to younger people. "It brings in the younger generation, and they're not shy of coming in any more and looking around the rest of the shop, and they tell their parents," he says.
All in all, a bakery operation is rapidly becoming a must-do for butchers - it complements the business, reduces waste and helps to bring in new customers, so if you are not looking into it, why not? As Keith says: "I don't think we'd exist without our bakery business at the moment." n
=== Do your research ===
Moving out of your traditional comfort zone is always a challenge, but it is important to ensure you do your research first, says Rational's Vic Brown. "You have to look at where you are on the high street, what's the footfall, who is coming past, and also what kind of competition you've got."
Aichinger's Oliver Blank agrees: "You need to know if you're going to generate enough customers to pay off your investment in equipment."
Brown says butchers have a key advantage over the supermarkets when it comes to creating home-produced bakery products. "By creating something new and high-quality, you're going to pull customers away from the convenience of the supermarkets. Consumers won't be able to get the quality and home-cooked taste there. In fact, any butcher not going down this road is losing customers to the supermarkets.
"They cannot fight back on price because they lack the volume, but they can compete on quality and people are still willing to pay a little more for that. They want a pork pie where there isn't an inch of air under the crust, for example."
A key point to remember, he adds, is not to get carried away when introducing a new range: "You shouldn't diversify too much, as quality might suffer. You should concentrate on getting a smaller range up and running and get the quality right. Good-quality traditional food is where butchers need to start."
Blank says a small investment of around €15,000 (£13,000) can provide all the equipment needed to set up a bakery operation - steam ovens and chillers for manufacture, and a smaller oven to provide heating on demand for customers.
British Baker's Andrew Williams says: "It may be time to rethink what it is you want to achieve with your shop in the long term. The key to doing food-to-go well is communicating it to your customers and creating a well-defined area for take-away products towards the front of the store. But a shorter-term fix would be to simply complement and widen your existing range with the glut of bake-off products out there, or buy in thaw-and-serve products, such as quiches."
Blank adds that it is essential to ensure the new element to your business is clearly presented. "It's vital to pull in new customers - there's no point doing it if you don't attract new business, so you really have to ensure the latest addition to your operation is clearly visible."
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