Tales from the Larder: Stories of resilience from Scotland's food & drink sector - Bells Food Group
Pandemic puffs up demand for pies and pastry.
The ‘Tales from the Larder’ series has looked at how a wide variety of food and drink business have reacted to the coronavirus pandemic.
This edition turns the focus on the humble but hugely popular pie.
Bells Food Group is Scotland's leading manufacturer of pies and pastry – and a household name across the country.
The chances are if you’re partial to a scotch, steak or indeed chicken curry pie you’ll have tasted one of their delicious products.
It’s still a proudly family-owned company, turning over in excess of £20million and employing over 200 people across its two bakery sites and distribution depot in Shotts, Lanarkshire.
A recent Kantar food and drink sector report found that Bells was recognised as the most chosen hot pie brand, and was second overall among all Scottish food brands.
Not surprising given that its share of the scotch pie market is around 80% - and it produces around 500,000 of them every week.
Ronnie Miles, managing director at Bells and current president of industry body Scottish Bakers, is uniquely positioned to give an insight into how the restrictions imposed by the pandemic affected the baked goods sector.
What has changed in your sector since lockdown?
“Despite everyone having the usual business continuity plans in place no-one saw it coming or was truly prepared for what happened next.
“Obviously retail businesses were hit hard, and also those in our sector whose core customers were in hospitality and food service saw 70-80% of their business disappear overnight.
“That was hugely concerning so the immediate issue was financial stability, particularly among smaller local operators.
“They really needed support and furlough certainly helped with that to a degree, but many had to quickly change their business model to keep cash coming in.
“That included finding ways to sell their goods online and set up delivery networks to enable customers to order from home.
“It’s certainly led to some rapid changes because people have had to be creative to stay in business.”
What impact has lockdown had on your business?
“We’d been having a pretty positive year then the coronavirus hit and lockdown was imposed.
“When it happened the initial worries for us included the health and wellbeing of our staff, would we be able to keep production going, and what impact would it have on demand.
“As it happens the appetite for our products went up sharply due to combination of factors.
“We sell a large number of our products direct to supermarkets and grocery stores, so they remained open and people were still able to buy our brands.
“We are also one of the biggest producers of pastry for other businesses like local butchers and bakers, as well as home baking.
“With people cooking at home more demand for pastry went through the roof for a spell, to the point where we were at max production capacity.
“Our phone was ringing off the hook with people looking to buy more, and our trading was 300% up on certain products like our famous Bells puff pasty.
“It’s been a very unpredictable period but we’ve been very fortunate in that it’s played to our strengths as a business.”
What have you done in response?
“As you’d expect in a food production business we take hygiene and health and safety extremely seriously.
“It is the number one priority at an operational level in our day-to-day business.
“From that point of view our staff and systems were very well set up to cope as we already had the highest standard of PPE and sanitisation measures in place.
“We’re always quite obsessive about handwashing, so that didn’t change!
“However, social distancing was issue when it came to packing and distribution. We had to put lot of new extra measures in place and extended shifts, recruited extra staff, and focused on selected core products in order to keep service levels up.
“There was also a realisation that as a key food supplier we had to rise to the challenge at a time when there was talk of shortages on shelves.
“We have many long and loyal servers at the company who supported each other, and thanks to their hard work the business has done well and we’ve been able to reward everyone with a Covid-19 bonus for their efforts.”
What have been the consequences of your change in behaviour/operations?
“In many ways we are a traditional family-owned company, however we consistently invest in our people, innovation and technology.
“The value of that has really shown in the way we were able to continue production and maintain our exceptionally high standards of service to customers.
“Proactive, regular and honest communications with key suppliers and customers at the outset has also helped cement relationships and overcome many of the unforeseen problems that arose during lockdown.
“We also recently received an unannounced inspection from HSE and I’m glad to say passed with flying colours, so that was a great vindication of our approach.
“I think overall we've struck the right balance between reactive measures and sensible long-term planning.”
What are your predictions for the short term in your sector?
“There is no doubt many challenges remain, but there is also optimism and people have to eat so demand is still there.
“We’re about to go into autumn and winter which is generally a strong season for a business like ours as people want hot food to warm them up.
“Christmas and New Year is obviously a key trading period for us, so we have that to look forward to and planning is already well underway for it.
“One issue that has reared its head again is Brexit. It’s not gone away and presents another big test for a battered sector.
“If tariffs on ingredients like flour come in to play that could really push food prices up and will affect everyone from producer to consumer.”
What are the changes that will ‘stick’ once out of lockdown and affect your sector for the longer term?
“An openness to innovation and adaptation. The pace of it has been upped in response to the pandemic but I think that will continue.
“The success of online sales and direct home deliveries, stricter behaviour around hygiene and sanitisation awareness, plus diversification of some business to broaden their offering are all positives in the long-term.
“Remote working will be also be permanent feature in many more businesses. That’s no bad thing, but it’s my firm belief that a food business like ours needs a degree of face-to-face interaction to generate spontaneous creativity and inspiration.
“Lots of great ideas for tasty new products come from informal chats with people across the business so I don't want us to miss out on that.”
What can the industry learn from all of this?
“In many ways it has brought people together.
“The support and guidance offered to members of Scottish Bakers via the likes of chief executive Alasdair Smith has been fantastic in keeping everyone informed and on top of the issues.
“An appreciation of what suppliers have done to help keep the industry moving has also been evident, without them none of us would have been able to make anything so they deserve a huge amount of credit.
“We all have to look after our own businesses, but a genuinely collegiate approach across the industry is good for everyone.”
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