Mike Howe explains how and why his convenience store Mills Bakery won the Asian Trader Bakery Retailer of the Year 2018 award.
The charming village of Clyst St Mary (pop. 900) lies three miles east of Exeter, just off the A376. Take the turn-off from the dual carriageway and on the first corner after the roundabout you will see the narrow end of a long white building adorned with the familiar and much-loved Londis logo.
Turn right onto the village’s main street and the wall becomes the frontage of Mills Bakery, the Convenience store which won the coveted Asian Trader Bakery Retailer of the Year 2018 award.
The shop is owned and run by Mike Howe and his wife, his mother, 84 and still going strong (“She still works in the shop. I can keep her out of the bakery, but I can’t keep her out of the shop!”), and his sister …
So it is very much a family concern, and I’ve been told that just like Warburtons, who sponsored the award, the Mills Bakery – Mills is the maiden name of Mike’s mum – has been carrying on trade in the village for five generations. “Well, we’re a bit smaller,” confirms Mike, “but yes.”
These days the enterprise has ten full-time and 12 part-time staff, but back when it began Queen Victoria was still on the throne and things were very different. “My great-great-great-grandmother, I understand, started selling sweets out of her front room to children from the local school,” Mike says. “And from there it’s really grown into what it is today.”
What it has grown into is very interesting. The old village itself recalls a long and traditional past, with one pub, The Half Moon Inn, nearly opposite the bakery at the eastern end and another, The Cat and Fiddle, at the far western reach near Exeter City FC’s training ground (a good source of custom for Mike, incidentally). In between those points the original Clyst St Mary stretches along the road – the school is still there – until the building line gradually trails away into agricultural land.
“I’ve grown up in the family business one way or another,” Mike says, and his long career here includes 33 years now with Londis – at one point he even served on the Board alongside Graham White.
“As I was leaving school my mum wasn’t particularly happy with the previous group we were with at that time,” he explains, “and being bit of a youngster, shall we say, I started looking around for her … and between us we picked on Londis.”
And was baking always in his future?
“At the time I wasn’t planning on joining the shop, I started doing something with car phones at the time, in the early days. Obviously, that didn’t last very long and I went back to the family business.”
There’s a lot of new-build property going up in the area as Exeter expands beyond its old boundaries, and that is necessarily changing the nature of Clyst St Mary – “clyst” being an ancient Celtic word meaning “clear stream” (the village is one of several that lie along the bed of the Clyst Valley).
“We used to be a perfect rural retreat,” Mike recalls. “We still try to be the perfect rural retreat, but we’re two hundred yards from the M5, on the main Exmouth-Sidmouth road, so we are inundated with traffic.” Not that traffic is bad for business: “It all helps,” he agrees.
Recent residential developments have proven a bittersweet experience for the villagers. “Planning riled people up one way or another, with housing being put on all these communities, and people
have just realized with the lack of services as well, they have to care for themselves more and their neighbours. And it’s just come together and it’s working really well,” he explains about recent changes in the area.
“The real long-timers who have been there like me since birth are slowly disappearing,” laments Mike. “But over the last four to five years or so, all the villages – it’s not just our village, but all the villages around – things have got a little renewed, community spirit amongst them. They seem to be getting back to the old way of thinking a bit more.”
One of the old (and very new) ways of thinking is “Live Locally”, which even researchers say is a big national trend, with hangar-sized supermarkets out of fashion and neighbourhood traders becoming more like linchpins of the community. “Ten years ago Sainsbury’s and Tesco’s were building superstores, but not now,” says Mike.
That can only mean more custom for his fantastic bakery, which boasts some 250 lines of patisserie, bread and rolls on 12 metres of shelving – with made-to-order, special-occasion cakes in addition: change has brought increased demand alongside new faces and disruption: in recent years Mills Bakery has enjoyed a weekly turnover of £33,000 at 20 per cent-plus margins. Not bad at all, especially at just 2000 square feet and with a post office in there as well. “Yes, and we’ve been trading up on average 6% year on year,” he says proudly.
“We want to develop further, we’re only scratching the surface at present,” It’s hard to expand but Mike has big plans: “We are relatively land-locked and we are stuck with a very old building,” he admits. “What we do next will be extremely expensive but there are always ways. We’ve even got a shop-fitter coming down next week to talk about the next stage.”
Mike now feeds the village and beyond, but it’s not only bakery, fresh groceries and ambient – the shop also offers daily roasts with all the trimmings: beef on Monday, turkey Tuesday and Thursday, and roast pork on Wednesday and Friday. It’s almost as if he is entering the catering trade – another form of evolution being seen much more widely in the Convenience channel.
“Yes, if you don’t keep the builder and everyone else fed well and looked after …” Mike warns. “The daily run-of-the-mill, with people coming in for their milk and the paper, doesn’t cut it anymore. You’ve got to supplement it – with what people want. It’s, ‘Oh god I’m hungry but I’ve got nothing in the cupboard let’s go there and grab a bacon bap,’ or whatever it is – quick, simple, you know it’s good.”
Most of the offerings from Mills Bakery are made fresh daily and on-site, but in addition Mike credits Bako (Western) Ltd as a fine supplier. “We do supplement our scratch-built bakery, with what we consider ‘the best of’, from other suppliers, so we can offer a complete range.”
For example? “We’re in Devon, and not having a Cornish pasty would be stupid,” Mike laughs. “Even though we did it first, we’ll let the Cornish have a little bit of a slot,” he adds. Apparently a raging controversy is ongoing between the two counties, with the earliest mention of a Devon pasty pre-dating the Cornish version by over two centuries!
On the grocery side all stock apart from local suppliers is via Londis, whose Chilled and Provisions have improved a lot since Booker got involved, he says.
But of course Mike goes back a lot further than that. “I can remember sitting out in our back little car park unloading a lorry by hand, case after case until we had emptied the lorry,” he says. “So that was the starting point – that was 1986-87.”
Progress continued (“Londis eventually changed to cages and made life a bit easier”) and today Mike receives six Londis deliveries a week. “That was a big change when they did that a few years ago,” he says. “It’s so much easier because if you are out of stock day one, day three you can have it back in. It’s much quicker, simpler and it frees up the shelves, clears space. So that made a hell of a difference.”
It might look calm and traditional from the outside, but change is ever-present in Mike’s business, and I ask him what is going on and what his plans for the future involve.
“Newspapers are dying – thank God,” he says straight away, clearly no fan of selling the things. “When we get rid of them it’ll be brilliant. We still do rounds. We make a profit out of it, but it’s hard work and not a great deal of money these days.”
Why bother, then? “You’ve got to do what customers want, but newspapers are declining. I’d give newspapers ten years, probably. And that will give me a bit more space to hold more frozen yoghurts and more coffee and slushies and anything else that’s trendy at that time.”
New technology reaches even Clyst St Mary and I enquire whether the latest smart-phone and app-based PoS systems appeal to him.
Mike’s answer is very interesting: “We’re a bit behind now,” he admits. “Cash hasn’t been king for a while now, but credit cards are, etc., and you’ve got to keep going that way. And soon credit cards won’t be it and it’ll very much be the apps,” he says. “The point of actually trying to upgrade and keep up to date is very important. Keep moving with the times.”
The problem, it transpires, is that the new tech doesn’t seem to perform as well as the old: “Londis Manager was our system and it still is our system. Technically it was a fantastic system, really done in cooperation with retailers,” says Mike, acknowledging what many Londis storekeepers feel.
“I’m trying to get out of it now because obviously it’s very old. And there isn’t a system out there that is quite as easy to use, as powerful, and as simple and quick. That is a real struggle when you want to move things forward.”
There’s a lot of grocery competition in the area: two of the country’s biggest farm shops lie within about a mile of the village, there is a Sainsbury’s superstore on the other side of the motorway, not to mention Exeter, of course. “And now we’re near a Lidl or an Aldi – I can never remember which one it is,” adds Mike.
Mills Bakery is a business that knows what it is and where it is, and as a result it fits in perfectly and profitably: a worthy winner of Bakery Retailer of the Year. “We pride ourselves on trying to be a village store, so we can provide hopefully everything for the day-to-day customers, distressed purchases and so on,” says Mike. “And with the added bonus of the post office and the bakery it gives you the extra incentive to come in and grab something from us.”
Nonetheless, it is not all smooth sailing. Customer loyalty is still harshly bounded by financial concerns – and not just by the price of milk and Marmite but also wider problems that affect the bakery’s production costs. “You’ve got to keep prices keen and this year has been very tough to begin with – this wonderful Brexit thing going on,” Mike says. “You have to take great care of the cost of ingredients, etc. coming in, and it’s really tough at present.”
But when all is said and done it must be good to be so rooted in your community, making a living and satisfying customers.
“It is. I love it, I absolutely love it. I’m also a district councillor and I’m on the parish council. You keep yourself busy and hopefully doing everything you can for the community you live in.