The Friday night shift at Hobbs House Bakery with Tom Herbert.
I am standing outside a modern, purpose built bakery on the outskirts of Chipping Sodbury, and the smell of hot bread envelops the midnight air. “Is this building what you were expecting?” asks Tom Herbert, the Marketing Director of Hobbs House Bakery and fifth generation descendant of the original founders of the business, his great-great grandparents, Mabel and Thomas.
“No, it isn’t at all!” I replied. Just minutes earlier, and in the light of the moon, we had been for a little tour of the outside of a terraced Georgian town house where Tom grew up (originally lived in by a certain Mr. Hobbs, hence the name of their business), in rooms right on top of the bakery shop. Beside it there is a butcher’s shop, originally dating from the Reformation, which his younger brother Henry is now running. Behind the two shops, through an alley way where barnyard animals were once herded through, are the stone barns and outbuildings where the animals would have been kept, fed and ultimately slaughtered, to be then brought into the butchery and the meat sold.
Tom explains that the family are going to convert these buildings to create a new cookery school, café, delicatessen and charcuterie shop. They want to create a real foodie destination hub in this part of the Cotswolds, bringing more people into the town, to shop on the high street. His rise to the collective consciousness came when Tom was chosen by a television production company to present the television series of “Turn back time: The High Street”, shot in Shepton Mallett, a beleaguered Somerset town whose fortunes were demised by the construction of a big supermarket. He also appeared on the “Save our High Street” series, a rallying call for small businesses to improve their offering and for consumers to support their enterprises, presented by champion of small artisans, Mary Portas. “This is the only way to thwart the supermarkets’ monopoly on all our wallets” says Tom. “We need to offer them a one-stop-shopping-eating-learning destination.”
His boyish enthusiasm and excitement at this new venture is infectious. Through the dimly lit courtyard, the starry Gloucestershire sky hanging like a shroud over dilapidated roofs and aged stone walls, my mind conjures alfresco cafe lunching, hams hanging on butchers’ hooks, bowls of olives on a wooden shop counter, pork chops sizzling on hot coals and Tom kneading and folding dough while giving bread lessons to rows of would-be bakers.
Wind the clock forward, and we are entering the real engine room of Hobbs House bakery, in the modern premises that have been, for over a decade, the central bread production and distribution point for the business. I am beginning to understand just how fiercely fought the battle for our bread money is in the competitive world of food production.
This bakery is a world away from the fast, commercial Chorleywood method of cheap, tasteless, mass-produced sliced bread, sold in plastic packets on every supermarket shelf, to generations of British people who know no better, and seek no more. Yet it is also not a small, one man artisanal cottage industry. Hobbs House sits in the middle market area: a longstanding baking family, their farming, milling, baking and entrepreneurial endeavours spanning over a century. The new generation has taken this business to a platform where their ancestors could never have dreamed of arriving.
This Cotswold bread making lineage spans all the way back to 1887 and through marriages, alliances, recessions, wars and spiralling wheat prices, Hobbs House has carved its niche as the South West of England’s premier real, quality bread producer and wholesaler.
On a Friday night they usually make around 4500 loaves. They serve 250 wholesale customers every day and use 10 tons of flour a year in 4 bakery shops and one restaurant, the Hobbs House Bistro in Nailsworth. The business employs 130 people, of which 20 are professional bakers. In Chipping Sodbury, Tetbury, Nailsworth and Cirencester people queue every day for the Bath buns, sausage rolls, crusty sourdoughs, poppy cottage loaves, seeded bloomers and hot caffelattes. I should know, I am one of their Tetbury customers and the width of my girth is testimony to my queuing capabilities.
We walk into a huge storage room where Shipton Mill flour sacks are stacked by the scores on palettes. There is one type of flour, Moul-Bie French flour, which Tom says is used for making “levain” bread, the very slow rising dough which gives the baker “securite”, the French for security. Everything in the production schedule at Hobbs House is driven by time: doughs are hand made and loaves are hand moulded; rising, proving and fermenting are all done slowly; the selection procedure for all the individual ingredients that go into producing the hundred different bakery product lines is done gradually.
The only indication of speed in the bakery is the dance music playing on the radio. Bakers are moulding loaves, placing them in tins, then on racks, then in the deck ovens, then turning them out onto wire shelves for cooling, all in silence. They work to a natural, synchopated rhythm and the air is unbelievably rich and warm with the aroma of yeast, milk, sugar, seeds and raisins.
Tom shows me the Stevens Weighing machine, a screen attached to the wall which is linked by PC to the office. On the dashboard it tells the baker exactly how much of each ingredient he needs to weigh out for each loaf, and next to it there is a long list of tonight’s production. “This machine allows the business to achieve total consistency, traceability, stock management and zero waste” explains Tom.
A whole row of enormous, stainless steel mixers with dough hooks are lined to the side of the wall. An Artofax dough mixer stands with two great steel arms hanging down, pointing towards the floury floor. Next to them Tom opens a vat which houses the 55 year old sourdough, nicknamed “The Monster”. Originally from Germany, this wild yeast ferment is used to flavour their bestselling rye bread and Shepherd’s Loaf, as well as the sourdough loaves themselves. One of the bakers, Graham, gave his name to the coarse cut wholewheat, cut wheat and dark molasses bread called “G-Stone”.
In a profession where you work in intense conditions, for long hours, over decades with the same team, bonds are formed and Tom stops to chat to each of the bakers in turn. Many have worked in the business man and boy, and in some cases the employees’ children or their spouses come to work in the business too. He confesses that, in the past, his enthusiasm and energy for his craft did, at times, drive some of the employees of the company mad.
Now 33 years old, but looking like a teenager in a boy band, with low hung jeans, a brown leather school satchel and wayfarer jacket, Tom Herbert knew from toddler age that his destiny would be to follow his father, Trevor, into the business. His mother, Polly, has two brothers, Sam and Clive Wells, and they are also directors in the business. ”We are the non-violent bread Mafia!” jokes Tom, but it really is quite Italian to find such a close knit family working together in the same business.
When Tom shows me the office spaces and rooms they all share during the working week it seems the walls are too thin for arguments and discord. There are children’s drawings scribbled on the walls: there are eight Herbert grandchildren in total, and four of them are Tom and Anna’s children. Anna, Tom’s wife, also works in the business part-time, on the design and styling side. His sister, Clementine, is an English graduate and edits all the Hobbs House marketing content that is written online and on print. His younger brother, Charlie, is a chiropractor and the youngest of the six children, Archie is just doing his A-Levels. There are sixteen years between the oldest Herbert son, Tom, and the sixth child, Archie.
We are now standing in the proving room: it is so warm and clammy, with a temperature of 30 degrees Celsius and a humidity of 76% that I feel relieved when the door is shut and we walk away. From one extreme to the next, Tom shows me the double entry freezer rooms, where bread is stored, fully baked, to be transported all over the country. At minus 18 degrees Celsius you can only stand in it for a few minutes before you start to panic in case you are left locked inside.
Tom worked in all areas of the bakery for many years before moving to an office job “I used to stack boxes in the freezer, and I would wear a fleece, gloves and a hat, and I was still cold. For a decade I made bread all day every day. It is an incredibly tough, physical job. I loved creating new types of loaves and playing around with flavours. It’s all I ever wanted to do. I couldn’t wait to leave school. I thought that being a baker was just the best job in the world. Other bakers come to work shifts at Hobbs and I find it so inspirational that organisations like the Real Bread Campaign have inspired a whole new generation to do what I do. When I was 20 none of my friends thought it cool to do a manual, artisanal job, but now the trend is completely the other way. ”
This frozen bread part of the production activity is relatively new, and Tom shows me the Koma blast freezer, a large Danish computer linked freezing room that reaches temperatures of minus 36 degrees Celsius. This means that baked bread can be sent out to customers in boxes, fully frozen, across the British Isles, 24 hours a day 6 days a week. Tom goes around the farm shops, delicatessens, food shops and markets that want to stock Hobbs House bread to show them how to bake loaves and breakfast goods from frozen. His younger brother George has now come to work in the business as Sales Director to spearhead this section of the business.
Pater familias, Trevor Herbert, is a Managing Director of the business and is involved more on the new product development side of the business. “We’ve invented these new baps which are going to be sold at the Glastonbury festival” beams Tom. “It is so important, when you have a barbeque or you want to eat grilled chicken or steak, to have a proper bap, and not just something bland and boring.”
I taste one, and there is a sweet, almost egg-wash brown crust, covered with sesame seeds, and inside your teeth sink into a pillowy soft, floury, creamy richness.
We enter a room whose wall to wall view takes my breath away. As far as the eye can see there are racks upon racks of breads, croissants, Danish pastries, pain aux chocolat and even Lardy cakes. “It is unbelievable the resurgence of what I call “retro” pastry. It’s out with the cupcakes and in with the Bakewell tarts!”
Jerry, the foreman, is in charge of this room. Here breads are sorted, some are sliced, some are packed, inventories are made and ticked, orders are checked and prepared for the 30 more people that are due to arrive in three hours’ time, at 5 a.m., to pack and deliver the bread. Nine vans will be driven, one by one, into the loading area. Then the bakery is cleaned and prepared for the next shift.
In Jerry’s office a map of the South West of England hangs, dotted with multi-coloured pins that denote where the vans must stop to unload the bread crates and boxes. The impressive march across swathes of the region is testimony to a century of familial continuity, consistency and innovation, against all the odds, challenges and obstacles that all small food businesses must overcome, daily. The pins are trophies, and there are an awful lot of them.
Hobbs House is an Investor in People business, they donate thousands of pounds to charity every year, work with schools to promote education in baking skills and provide baking apprenticeships to young school leavers. One of their protégés, Adam Greenway, won Apprentice of the Year in 2011.
“It’s not just a bread business. We have responsibilities to our community and to the customers we serve. In order to keep our business alive and prospering, even when margins are becoming increasingly tight and food costs are moving alarmingly upwards, we have to think long term. Hobbs House is in it for the long run. There is an overwhelming sea of change in the food industry, a clear and growing renaissance in artisanal bread making and eating. The whole community looks to Hobbs House to set the standard, to train new people, to teach the next generation, to be stewards of a business that is now a connective part of the fabric of our region and its social history. Above all else we are a Christian family, and this informs and underpins our every action. There is no more powerful representation of community, hearth, home and life itself than bread.”
Hobbs House Bakery website:
Hobbs House Shops:
39 High Street, Chipping Sodbury, Bristol, BS37 6BA
4 George Street, Nailsworth, Gloucestershire GL6 DAG. To book a table at Hobbs House Bistro ring tel: 01453 839396.
18-20 Church Street, Tetbury, Gloucestershire GL8 8JG
Unit 3, Cornhall, Market Place, Cirencester, GL7 2NY