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Our small artisan bakery is located besides Exeter’s historic ship canal (which sounds grander than it is), but nevertheless is a lovely place to be if slightly off the beaten track of the city’s once busy High Street. When we moved here three years ago, Emma’s Bread made its home in the newly created ‘Boatyard Bakery & Cafe’.

For the past two and half years we have delivered the morning’s wholesale bake up to various shops and cafes via Matilda, an electrically charged tricycle with large cargo trunk. Fab, ticks all the boxes with regards to sustainability, speed and convenience. True, it is not always a pleasant ride for the cyclists, especially during this winter’s onslaught of daily rain and wind strong enough to blow the back doors off but it works.

Despite all the news filtering down from the Big Smoke, none of us really wanted to believe in the situation that came at 5pm on Friday 23rd March. Like many others, overnight we lost about 90 per cent of our business. Our own cafe tables were upturned, chairs stacked and signs removed. Staff were told not to come in. But we had a chiller full of unbaked sourdough looking for a home. And three bakers wondering what on earth you were supposed to do with free time at 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 had to think. I confess, I don’t do much of this, never time and it was all clouded by the ’Unprecedented’ situation making even the easiest of decisions 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? Would we lose even the regular customers? Which one of us would catch the virus first or give it to everyone else?

In the end what saved us was our local organic vegetable box scheme, Shillingford Organics, where the original bakery had started all those years ago, just three miles up the road on a beautiful farm run by one of my oldest friends, Martyn Bragg. 

From supplying them with about 20 loaves of bread three times a week, we were suddenly faced with an order for nearly 60 loaves on the Monday following lockdown, rising to 100 per day by the end of the week. We couldn’t let them down. So we didn’t.

The exact sequence of events is now a little hazy but we still had two retail outlets in town, one further afield, a vegetable box scheme spiraling out of control and already an enquiry from another box delivery service. And our own local customers. So suddenly it was obvious, set up our own Boatyard bread by bike service round Exeter using Co-Delivery’s Matilda. 

Our own cafe uses a simple cash/card system called iZettle. I’m not techy, can hardly text message and have just only got to grips with WhatsApp but my colleagues are younger and happy to explore the realms of digital marketing. Turns out iZettle has an e-commerce option meaning you can put your products on a website linked to your own and payments go directly back to 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 to set up the website and make it live, another to write a great mailchimp newsletter to promote the new site, a third to work out how to get the data extracted into a useable picking and production list, followed by a delivery schedule. 

I wasn’t exactly sitting back smoking a big cigar* while all these angels did their stuff. No, I still had loads of decisions to make, not least persuading, Jenny, who runs the bike service, now eight months and 28 days pregnant, that she wanted to not put her staff in furlough. (Happily they were keen to help and Jenny was delivered of a bouncy baby boy about a week later.) I also decided to divide the bakery team into two to minimise contact between us with a head baker and assistant in each team plus one person to cope with bread sales. The old cafe area is now 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. Takeaway coffees are in much demand as one of the only places open in the area. Customers are allowed in on a one-in, one-out, regime, select the loaf they require, order coffee, want to chat and are asked to leave otherwise they would chat all day as they have got all day! It’s become part of people’s daily fresh air and exercise routine.
The premises are large enough with fewer staff to make social distancing reasonably practical. We also decided to close the bakery two days a week down to five from seven, 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, in practice it exposes all the faults and weaknesses of business. Suddenly we couldn’t talk to each other quite so easily so communication systems had to be established more effectively. Suddenly you 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 persons A and C had no idea how to use the laminator and so on. Plus we already had a complex Excel pivot table chart of who ordered what and when and how much, that needed to be filled out, corrected, amended when the customer added or reduced the original order and which finally became both the production sheets and the table from which the book-keeper (also working remotely) had to prepare an invoice. 

My commonly held belief that I did everything turned out not to be true though as the ‘boss’ when things goes wrong it was usually me who has to sort it out of course. 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, the rest later that day when we got lots of phone calls! Not forgetting the hot cross buns. Yes, it was that time of year and I meanly only allow these for about three weeks before Easter but it did add at least a good hour to every morning plus all bread having to be wrapped or bagged making extra work and clearing up. 

On the plus plus side we have some very happy and grateful customers. Truly grateful and overjoyed on occasion to find us open, to discover the delivery service works for the self-isolating, who still attempt ordering hot cross buns after Easter (no way). 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 previous wholesale customers seem to think they don’t have to pay for any supplies delivered in March (you know who you are). Customers buying online pay in advance and full retail prices too!

It has proved that people are not just your employees but both as individuals and as a team they have immense dedication and a humbling amount of humanity. I can’t thank them enough. Weirdly, in this two team system, I finally get to have three, or even four days away from the bakery a week, something that doesn’t happen unless I’ve been forced to go on a holiday. It’s taken some getting used to and I still often call the bakery at 5am to make sure everything is ok 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 till tomorrow. Like everyone, we wish the pandemic had never happened and we know that horrid, unjust things have happened to people we care about but, on the flip side, it’s already led us down avenues of exploration we could never have imagined even a month ago.  And for me personally, 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.

*I don’t smoke

Emma Parkin
Director, Emma’s Bread