The big interview: Top of the pecking order

The big interview: Top of the pecking order

Mike Holling, sales and marketing director for Birds Bakery, on how the business, which is the main craft bakery in the East Midlands and is now over a century old, is still flying high…

Times may be tough at the moment, but Birds Bakery provides something of a beacon of hope, being as it was set up right in the middle of the last major pandemic to hit these shores. Founded back in 1919 (the Spanish flu lasted from 1918 to 1920) by three brothers, it is an extremely impressive operation, remaining as it is a family-run business, even after all this time. Originally envisioned to supply baked goods and confectionary, it now operates 60 stores across the Midlands, employing more than 800 people. “The business has a proud history,” says sales and marketing director Mike Holling. “Last year we celebrated 100 years as the main craft bakery business in the East Midlands, which was an incredible achievement.”

Mike is quite right to herald the company’s inspiring heritage, and when pushed he puts its ongoing success down to the fact that all of its products – the best-sellers are the homemade sausage rolls, farmhouse loaf and large dinner rolls – are freshly baked daily with a high-level of attention and detail. “One of the things that sets Birds apart is the care and passion that goes into making our products, whether that is our cakes, bread or sausage rolls,” he says. “We pride ourselves on using only the finest ingredients and we never compromise on quality.”

And Mike has a history in the industry almost as illustrious as the company’s (though not quite as long!). Employed by Birds for more than 28 years, in that time he has been responsible for all aspects of its retail offering. He has also done more than his bit to support the wider industry, having become a board director of the National Association of Master Bakers in 2004, a position that he held for five years, before taking over the role as executive director of the Craft Bakers Association in 2013. “With more than 40 years’ experience in the craft baking industry, I have worked on numerous key campaigns for the industry, including the Pasty Tax and Craft Bakers Week,” he says. “I am also a bread judge for the World Bread Awards and Britain’s Best Loaf, and more recently I have become part of the judging team at the British Pie Awards.”

Despite the incredible depth of knowledge and experience, his team have been hit by new and unique challenges this year, though Mike says Birds was quick to react and adapt. “The majority of our stores are all located on high streets throughout the East Midlands, which has made it challenging for the business during the Covid pandemic,” he says. “At Birds, we take the safety of our staff and customers very seriously – and have therefore had to put very tight procedures in place during the pandemic. We closed for three days during lockdown and endeavoured to keep as many of our shops open as possible.

“We launched a home delivery service to help those who were self-isolating or didn’t feel comfortable visiting us in-store, which has proved very successful. We have also recently launched a ring and reserve service, where customers can call any store to place an order, pay over the phone and then collect the order when the time is convenient.”

The chain’s outlets have also been affected, with clear signage being installed in order to remind customers to adhere to social distancing rules, and all teams have to wear face visors at all times. Sadly, Mike believes that these measures will be necessary for some time yet, though he feels the industry can still cope. “Unfortunately, I think that recovery will be slow for everyone and the UK economy, but we are all in this together,” he says. “Home delivery will play a big part during this year’s Christmas period, and we will be investing a lot of time in our home delivery and ring and reserve service to help people get their favourite products. This will especially help those who are unable to leave the house, do not feel comfortable doing so, or do not want to wait in a public space.”

Looking to the future, Mike says that Birds Bakery is still looking to spread its wings further, while also continuing to improve its present outlets. “At present we are in negotiations over a new store and we have also recently refurbished two existing ones [see box]. We are committed to investing in our stores, with an emphasis on our takeaway food offering, as that is where we are currently seeing the demand.”

And it is new avenues such as these that provide a way forward and keep him looking on the bright side, which the highly experienced Mike regards as being absolutely key. “You have to try to stay positive, as best as you can,” he concludes. “There are still a lot of challenges ahead, and if your customers see that you are doing your absolute best in these very difficult circumstances, they will support you.”