Obituary: Michael Baxter, catering manager and entrepreneur

Michael Baxter: One of the fourth generation of the family behind the famous Scottish soup brand
Michael Baxter: One of the fourth generation of the family behind the famous Scottish soup brand
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Born: 3 November, 1962, in Moray. Died: 30 September, 2013, in Fochabers, Moray, aged 50

Michael Baxter, who has died suddenly aged 50, was one of the fourth generation of the Baxters soup family of Fochabers, Moray, now a global company known as the Baxters Food Group and run by his “big sister” Audrey, one of Scotland’s richest women. He worked for the company throughout the 1990s, serving as a director and general manager, before leaving in 2000 to set up his own Moray-based food services, or catering firm, Quest Food Service. The firm provides bespoke menus and recipes, as well as designing hotel and restaurant kitchens and training staff how to use them.

During his time with Baxters, first under his father Gordon who died earlier this year aged 95, and from 1992 under his sister as chief executive, he helped expand the firm, which had started in 1868 in the family kitchen in Fochabers, but became a global enterprise with manufacturing sites from Poland to Quebec and a major presence in the US and Australia.

With his father, brother and sister, he also saw it expand far beyond soup to produce chutney, beetroot, pickled vegetables and jam, selling to 60 countries, including South Africa, Hong Kong and the Middle East.

Despite its expansion geographically and products-wise, its reputation remained as a family business and leaned heavily on the famous soups created by his mother and the sauces and preserves made by his grandmother and great grandmother.

When he travelled the world, he was often asked about Baxters famous Royal Game soup (the company holds a royal warrant from the Queen allowing it to say “By Royal Appointment” on its can labels, an irresistible draw to consumers in the US and elsewhere).

He was also constantly grilled about Baxters Cock-a-Leekie or Scotch Broth. Although Baxters started out in Michael’s great grandmother’s kitchen in Fochabers, it was his father Gordon – and not least Gordon’s wife Ena – during the second half of the 20th century who turned it into a soup-based brand which was not only highly respected but highly coveted.

HJ Heinz was reportedly among the big boys that tried unsuccessfully to acquire it. But Gordon Baxter, a self-styled and proud “Moray loon”, wanted to keep it in the family.

Ena’s big breakthrough had come when she saw a recipe for a Louisiana chicken gumbo soup, which influenced several of her own later creations. (Ena Baxter, the matriarch of the family, is still very much alive and, having hung up her soup ladle –well, not quite – is now a painter whose works are highly sought-after).

Michael himself generally specialised in the company food services division which, although representing less than 10 per cent of Baxters’ total turnover, was responsible for providing 27 million mini-jars of jam a year to such major clients as British Airways and the Waldorf Astoria hotel on Park Avenue, Manhattan. His expertise led to his appointment as an advisor to Bord Bia (the Irish Food Board), a semi-state company which promotes sales of Irish produce both in Ireland and abroad.

When he left Baxters to run Quest Food Service, he specialised in consulting clients on everything from recipes – without, of course, revealing those of his family’s famous soups – to drawing up menus, designing and organising kitchens and grooming would-be chefs.

“The fundamentals of efficient food composition”, he called it. He also consulted on food law and food hygiene, and on such things as kitchen lighting, wall and floor coverings, refrigeration, utensils and fire safety – working together with local tradesman and the Fire Service.

Robert Michael Baxter was born on 3 November, 1962. Like his brother and sister, he was adopted by Gordon and Ena Baxter, the couple who became legends around Moray, not only for their global success and wealth but for their charity work and support for the family’s traditional worshipping place, Gordon Chapel in Fochabers, where there is a stained-glass window in honour of Michael’s grandparents William and Esther.

Baxters now, of course, have shops which have become almost more tourist attractions than retail outlets – at their Highland Village centre in Fochabers and in the Ocean Terminal on Edinburgh’s waterfront where the Baxter shop’s “Whisky Safe” allows visitors to taste the best malt whiskies from Speyside and beyond.

It is not clear why Michael left the family firm in 2000, although he reportedly predicting that top-end bureaucracy would cut profits, which it did.

He and his brother had reportedly supported the appointment of their sister as chief executive, not least because their mother Ena had been a massive driving force in every aspect of the company – from creating soups, tasting them and making them a household name thousands of miles from Scottish shores.

In his new life after leaving the family company, Michael had his ups and downs. A beauty salon, Skin Deep Beauty, run by him and his wife Diana on Thunderton Place in Elgin, went bust in 2007.

Their Waterfront restaurant and bar in Hopeman, Moray, also closed down.

Michael Baxter’s family said they were devastated by his sudden death and did not wish to mention its cause. They did not want to confirm it but Michael is believed to be survived by his wife Diana and children, his brother Andrew and sister Audrey, and his mother Ena.