Knocked back it may have been, but there’s no stopping the rise of The Forest Bakehouse

Written by: Andrew Merrell | Posted 06 July 2020 9:08

Knocked back it may have been, but there’s no stopping the rise of The Forest Bakehouse

Sometimes, however kneady you might think a business would be, it can continue to earn its crust and more – even through a pandemic. 

Of course, with the arrival of lockdown a huge chunk was immediately knocked off The Forest Bakehouse bottom-line. 

But behind the scenes something was rising to the surface which saw the popular café and bakery operation quickly transform itself and relaunch. 

“We did not really see it (the pandemic) coming too far in advance and were not really prepared,” said Sue Bailey, one of the founders of the Longhope-based business, thinking back to the day Boris Johnson announced to the nation it was now in lockdown. 

“We are a café and bakery and make about 50 per cent of our business in the café. So, we lost that immediately.” 

This is no ordinary café. This is a business which grew from the desire of a group of Forest residents to make and provide quality food for their community. 

That became a reality in 2013, starting with its staple, a mouth-watering sourdough bread, long before hipsters got their heads around the idea and TV baker Paul Hollywood turned the nation onto the old-school offering. 

“We closed for about four days from lockdown. It was to get our heads around what we should do. We completely reshaped the business. We are a community company (actually a registered society – think co-operative society), so it was a joint decision and everyone was in agreement – we would keep going,” said Sue. 

The staff team is currently nine-strong with only one staff member, who worked front of house, furloughed. If everything was operational in a pre-pandemic fashion, that number might be 10. But with one staff-member leaving as his full-time role elsewhere opens up again there is even a vacancy.

And with that decision to remain open, and a plan in hand, they set to work – stripping out the café, spreading out the bakery equipment so everyone had space to work and felt comfortable and safe. 

The nature of its operation meant staff learn every role within the business as a matter of course, even if they become specialists thereafter, so moving from the café to begin baking its croissants, breads, full range of cakes, pizzas, was within everyone’s grasp. 

But when the doors re-opened, there was one feeling top of mind every business closed for a period must have - would the customers come back? 

“It worked – but we absolutely did not know it would. I don’t think I sept for about two weeks. But if we had stayed closed, we would only worry you would not know whether you had a business in the future,” she said.

Opening hours are reduced – between 10am and 2pm Wednesday to Saturday – but customers have come, and come in numbers as they stayed away from supermarkets, sought good quality local food, and followed their noses to The Forest Bakehouse. 

There are continual questions from customers about re-opening the café, but with all the risks that involves currently, and its new business model operating so well, it is a case of watch this space. 

Customer buy using contactless payments with no contact with staff or other visitors because of the space in front of the business – which is on Longhope Industrial Estate (Unit 9b) - which allows for a market stall-type display. 

Plans are afoot to construct a canopy at the front of the building to help maintain the safe environment and allow for faster footfall if the weather is inclement. 

For some the model of a business that everyone has stake in it, but no one owns it, might seem alien. But its sustainable model, serving the community, providing employment and training opportunities – from apprenticeships onwards to master baker status – also seems close to others’ post-lockdown utopian dream.  

Originally set up with a community grant with EU money from the Forest of Dean District Council and innovative ‘bread bonds’ - loans from local people paid back in full (the interest of which was paid in loaves) - The Forest Bakehouse intended to wholesale its wares Forest-wide.

But it immediately adapted its plans as its business nose sensed poor margins down that road. That acumen and its increasingly skilled team prepared to keep learning also saw it develop firm links with other Forest food producers. All the producers now help promote one another through their own social media and this family has added to their resilience through the pandemic. Not just with customer referrals but also by strengthening supply chains. 

Credit goes to the likes of Shipton Mill, speciality miller of organic flour based in Long Newnton, Gloucestershire, the Dean Forest Food Hub, Kevin's Butchers, Mitcheldean and Camerons Quality Butchers, Bentleys Castle Fruit Farm, The Pantry, a village shop and delicatessen run by Martin and Mary in Saint Briavels, the Forest Deli in Coleford and even a marketing and design agency, The Workshop, run by Dave Thorpe. 

One wonders whether their story marks a way for others to follow.

To find out more visit The Forest Bakehouse.