A COMMUNITY bakery with 550 local shareholders is winning praise for its co-operative approach to retail – and also for its selection of artisan breads.
Breadmaker Ross Baxter is all too familiar with the phrase: too many chiefs, not enough Indians.
There are 550 shareholders invested in his workplace and he can’t go far without bumping into someone he has to answer to.
It’s a far cry from the Michelin-starred eateries where he honed his craft, but it is a unique concept which is building a reputation many miles from the heat of its own ovens.
Ross is one of three chefs at Dunbar Community Bakery – Scotland’s first not-for-profit breadmakers – created to fill a gap in the market when the town’s long-standing family bakers shut up shop in 2008.
The pioneering project has been applauded as a co-operative model that could be mirrored across the country, helping to revive struggling high streets in straitened economic times.
The bakery, which produces high-end produce and artisan bread, is mass owned: the equivalent of seven percent of Dunbar’s population have invested in shares, many from a time when it was little more than a concept.
Today, one year on from its launch, the bakery holds its own commercially, employs a small, dedicated workforce and is a trailblazer for other social enterprise start-ups eager to follow their successful template.
It was feted by Scottish cabinet minister for rural affairs Richard Lochhead during his whistle-stop visit yesterday as a “great example of what can be achieved when people work together to make their dreams a reality”.
For head patissier Ross, 28, progress has been built on graft and a decision to break away from traditional Scottish baked goods.
“I think the success we have achieved has come from going for a higher end product – a fine French patisserie,” he said.
“Myself and the other head baker Pavel Boz come from a fine dining background and we have carried this disciplined background into a country bakery.
“We have been trying to convert people – who are maybe more used to doughnuts and traditional baked food rather than patisserie – into this kind of bakery and its produce.”
Ross joined in March and said there had been a departure from stereotypical high street bakeries and a move into the artisan market.
“Since I have been here we have changed every aspect of the bakery,” he said. “It started as more of a traditional bakery serving bridies and sausage rolls but we revamped it with a cake range and artisan breads.
“There’s still a few people who think we should be doing that traditional kind of thing but the majority of people are enjoying it and we are getting more recognition from people outside of Dunbar.
“We have had people travelling to the bakery from North Berwick and Edinburgh, and there’s even a guy from Glasgow that comes when he’s working here to bring some of our produce back with him.”
But it’s not just the punters’ pound that is a barometer of their success, the bakery is also set to appear on Britain’s Best Bakery show, scheduled to air on ITV in the coming months.
With hundreds of devoted investors, the patissier said the bakery’s unique business model contained its own challenges.
“It’s a different way of doing things,” he said. “I’m used to having one boss who can tell you what to do but now I have the community and a committee that I have to listen to.
“The community are the ones who have invested all the money in this so I have to listen to what they say as well.
“Obviously there needs to be some compromise on things and it can be quite a challenge for me because I need to be listening to a lot more people.”
Most shareholders live in Dunbar and have invested anywhere from £50 to £10,000 in the project. They are entitled to a ten per cent discount on all purchases.
Some may be entitled to claim a dividend by the end of year three at the management committee’s discretion and provided the business is sufficiently profitable.
Renowned businesswoman Jane Wood, chair of Dunbar Community Bakery who helped spearhead the concept since 2008, said: “I think one year on there are still challenges but we made the right decision by going artisan.
“We have tried to create a destination bakery because we recognise that High Street foot fall on its own is not always enough to sustain retail shops.
“The challenge we face is always around increasing sales through wholesale.”
The bakery, which employs 13 members of staff, also doubles as a training centre for those interested in a career raising dough.
Mrs Wood, who on the back of this project has been seconded onto the Scottish Government’s advisory group for town rejuvenation, said the bakery would have to expand to build its brand.
And she said: “Because it is owned by the community the bakery is fairly unique.
“With 540 shareholders we have an immediate customer base and it’s creating footfall in the high street because people have taken it on board that Dunbar has its first artisan bakery.
“Shareholders have contributed more than £47,000 of their own money to help launch this business.
“But we could not have got it off the ground without additional support from other organisations which support community initiatives.
“The £53,000 grant we received from the government’s Tyne & Esk LEADER fund is our biggest single chunk of external finance.”
For skilled patissier Ross Baxter, who aims for savoury perfection in all his artisan creations, the many competing voices he must heed can be something of a “challenge”, but this co-operative approach to retail is raising eyebrows across Scotland.
• Community bakeries are owned by shareholders, most of whom are local people.
These shareholders put their own money into the business because they want to see local produce on the high street, to see young people being trained in a skill and to contribute to a thriving
Money invested helps to pay for fitting out the bakeries.
Shareholders, as owners of the business, receive annual report and accounts.
They have an opportunity to comment on the management of the business and its strategy and to appoint managers.
They need to make enough revenue from sales each week to pay staff and bills – the same as any other business.
If they don’t succeed, their existence will be put under threat.
But unlike other businesses, profits are ploughed back into the community, training more young people, working with the local schools and investing in other local food initiatives.