International Bakery caught up with Paul Baker, founder of St Pierre Groupe, to find out more about the business, its response to the global pandemic and plans for 2021
Can you give us a brief history of St. Pierre Groupe and its mission statement?
St Pierre Groupe was formerly known as Carrs Foods and was, up until around 2002, predominantly a private label cakes business. Eighteen years ago, Jeremy Gilboy (Co-Founder of St Pierre Groupe) came to me saying, we have an opportunity to buy the business. I said ‘how much do we need and by when?’ and I suppose the rest is history. We’ve taken the business from private label cakes, to the UK’s fastest growing branded bakery business.
I suppose the actual answer – or the one that our marketing team would have me say – is that our mission is to ‘provide quality food experiences for all’. It sounds fluffy, but there is meaning behind it. Quality is at the heart of everything we do, from recruitment to the bakery products we are responsible for. So, whether it’s personal or professional experience with food, St Pierre Groupe will elevate it.
Is there still a place for premium bakery products in today’s health conscious society?
In the food world, there’s been three drivers in the past 50 years and they’re perennial. Convenience, health and luxury. Working out how those three interact and where your products sit in that mix is part of the trick.
It’s a big ask to try and cater to all three of those drivers. So, the other option is to own what you are. We don’t set out to make unhealthy products – we set out to make balanced products that taste fantastic.
Fad diets are nonsense. You can have the cream cake, just not every day! Food is a joy and it should be a joy. As a bakery expert, we’re never going to win on health and we’re okay with that. Our products are there for that day – and we all have them – when you just want something that tastes great. Right now, small joys are really important. Is it really so bad to enjoy some good food?
The answer to your question is yes, absolutely, without a doubt. There is still a place for premium bakery and there always will be.
What brands do you manage and what do they each offer the bakery sector?
Baker Street is an extended life bakery brand. It’s quality, classic bread products cleverly packed to stay fresher for longer. The brand is worth more than £24mn in the UK and the pandemic has meant the USP of the product (the extended life) is suddenly even more attractive as people are reducing the frequency of shopping trips.
Shelf-stable products have come into their own so that’s also benefited the Paul Hollywood part-baked bread range. The added appeal with that brand though, is that it provides that classic comfort – of fresh-baked bread at home – without anyone needing to be a dedicated baker.
In your role as founder, what does a typical day look like for you?
Typically, I start work at 10am. The US accounts for 60% of the business so I tend to be in the office a little later to accommodate the time difference.
We’ve doubled the size of the team this year, so in all honesty, I spend probably an hour every day walking round the office and talking to people. We’re still working in the office on a rota basis, so there are new people to catch up with each day.
My typical day seems to be about making time for quality interactions with my family, friends and colleagues. And I love it – I’m a people person – that’s the measure of a successful day, for me. How many people did I support, motivate, chat with, today?
As a European trade business, will Brexit impact you? What is your stance on this?
Brexit will undoubtedly impact us; potentially with tariffs and the price of food going up. The NET effect is probably the cost of food in this country going up for consumers. About 30 per cent of food in the UK is imported, so that’s obviously going to present new challenges.
“Fad diets are nonsense”
As a business, we’re trying to mitigate all factors. We’re well armed to weather the storms we can see coming – we have always sought to ‘de-risk’ the business. Brexit will not be the end of us, we’re confident we can navigate the waters that we’re in, but it would be foolish of me to act as though it’s not a concern. Brexit will impact the cost of our products and some of that has to be passed on to the consumer. That, in turn, might mean that some of our products are no longer viable for the UK market. We have an experienced senior leadership team though and we are scenario-planning for all eventualities. My stance hasn’t changed – I’m an eternal optimist.
How important is sustainability to the business? How do St. Pierre Groupe’s actions reflect this?
The agenda has shifted over the past few years. We no longer look at things in isolation – consumers now look at the products we eat, the planet we live on and the interaction between the two. As a consumer-facing business we have to listen to what consumers want and we recognise that everyone has a part to play in addressing sustainability.
St Pierre Groupe is working to meet that challenge in the areas in which it can. All of our products have an extended shelf-life and that has a positive impact on reducing food waste. That’s an area in which we know we can make a difference.
What did it mean for you, being named North West Director of the Year for International Trade? Could you tell us more about the award and how it reflects your leadership skills?
I was born into baking and at the time it was one of the lowliest jobs you could think of. Don’t get me wrong, I love my craft and I’m proud of it – but I always wanted to take it as far as it could go. When we launched in the States, I drove across the country with a boot full of brioche. I like to think I lead from the front and that is demonstrable in what I do every day. From operations, selling to retailers, hiring staff to exploring new product development – I am involved in all aspects of the business.
The business is small but perfectly formed. Even though growth has been and will continue to be rapid, the culture is something that is embraced by each and every colleague, whether they’re working from the office, or homes across the UK, America or France. Establishing that culture in the business has always been really important to me and it’s one of the things I’m most proud of. Being recognised for that was incredibly poignant.
I’m personally driven by leading our team. Some companies unwittingly destroy self-esteem. To build it, you have to take an avid interest in peoples’ lives. Success is important. If you’re part of something successful then it builds self-esteem and that’s so important for everyone. I like working with people, seeing my colleagues grow and evolve and how that spurs the business on.
St Pierre Groupe is creating opportunities for people that give them the kind of vibrant working life that you wouldn’t expect from our industry. We’ve evolved out of a traditional, craft-based trade to something that is totally different for bakery. It’s a little bit bonkers if I sit and think about it, but it’s brilliant.
What bakery trends do you see and what do you think will be big in 2021?
When it comes to the bakery sector, specifically – there’s likely to be some really interesting NPD, driven by consumer trends in the market.
The way people eat, the times they eat and the sense of occasion around each meal time has changed this year. Most of us are very habitual in our choices, with an ‘at home’ menu that we recycle based on the day, the season and the guests around our tables.
Covid has changed that, because it altered our circumstances. It’s driven a huge shift in needs and behaviours when it comes to food. The opportunity for food companies is huge, but for the bakery sector, in particular, it’s phenomenal.
We have an audience who is more receptive to change than ever before, an audience that is actively seeking out new flavour experiences and an audience increasingly eating at home. Weekday lunches have long-been a low-value, low-interest event – but there’s an opportunity for bakery to do something different in that area and put weekday lunch back on the menu.
“A social change leads to food change and food change equals opportunity. Make it new, but keep it simple – there’s a recipe for success”
Multi-pack formats will also benefit from the change in behaviour. People shopping less frequently, will opt for products that offer multiple uses, or that can be versatile in the purpose they serve. Savvy brands and producers will highlight versatility in their offering to make the most of the opportunity. St Pierre has been creating new recipes to inspire different ways to use brioche products for years, but this ‘education piece’ is more important than ever.
The other impact of reducing the frequency of shopping trips, is that products with a short shelf-life will suffer. Bakery – and bread in particular – is always top of the list when it comes to household food waste. Yet, consumers are more aware than ever, of the damage this has on the environment and indeed, society.
Bagels are my hot tip for 2021 in the bakery sector. New York Co have recently launched NPD to extend its range and I think other bakery brands – not known necessarily for bagels – will follow suit.
Increasingly, bagels have become a recognised part of the UK bakery repertoire – even securing a spot on this year’s Great British Bake Off. In 2017, the UK was eating more than 300 million bagels a year, and the number of bagel sandwiches being eaten in or out of home grew by 73% between 2015 and 2019 (Kantar). That growth continued throughout the pandemic this year and I’d say it’s a fair bet that new lunches – prompted by lockdown – could well continue as we come out of the pandemic.
What do you see/hope for the future of the business?
When, not if, we come out of this, you have to think that this period of lockdown will result in an explosion of activity. Economic, social, creative, cultural – you watch, 2023 the clouds will start to lift. We have to rebuild confidence to go back out into the world.
As a business, it took us three years to move out of the 2008 recession and feel like we weren’t under the shadow of the financial crash. People don’t like to hear that – we’re so used to having everything immediately. A three year window now feels like infinity, but in reality it’s not that long. It just boils down to perspective. My hopes are for continued growth, success in new territories and that as a team we continue to work incredibly hard to ensure that the St Pierre Groupe brands fulfil their potential – while having as much fun as we have so far!
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Editor, International Bakery
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