In conversation with the founder of the Cornish Bakery

As the company readies its expansion plans for 2024, Steve Grocutt reflects on how the bakery’s rebranding has helped launch outside of tourist hotspots and why bakeries have become the new coffee shop

Can you tell us a little bit about your career leading up to the Cornish Bakery?

I really didn’t have a big career, because from my early 20s I backpacked all over the world. I funded that travelling by buying and selling pub properties. I would do between two and four of those and then go travelling for three to nine months, and that was my life – finding ways to travel. I wouldn’t call it a career, I would call it a lifestyle choice. 

Eventually, it became more and more difficult to buy and sell these pubs. The thing with dealing with property is that you do a deal, you make some money, but then you never know when the next one is going to come, and of course, the middle bit is cash flow. 

The famous story of how the Cornish Bakery appeared is: my father lived in Cornwall at the time. While I lived in London, he told me that I should open a shop in Mevagissey, selling Cornish pasties, because he was aware that I was looking for a business that created cash [for travelling]. We began trading – quite well – over the summer, which left me time to go travelling in the winter. I can thank my father for the creation of the company. 

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What are your day-to-day responsibilities in your current role?

My role is ‘founder’, I don’t really have much of a title and I’m okay with that. My role is that of the investor and the brand holder, as well as looking after the brand and property – trends and investments, if you like. I’ve always tried to keep my role to doing that and keep it simple, which is one of our core values. I’m not massively involved in the day-to-day operation of the company, I’ve got a wonderful team that does that, which just trims my role back down to looking after investments and the brand. 

What led to the company’s decision to ramp up its expansion plans, and why now particularly?  

We began trading as the Cornish Bakery in Cornwall just as it started to get on the map as a vacation destination, so I looked at the whole country and started opening in the Cotswolds, the Lake District, Norfolk, Dorset, and other places known for tourism. In our expansion, we went back to that original tourist model from our early days in Mevagissey and it worked really, really well. 

In the early days, we opened our branches in tourist areas and we had a little bit of a dabble in the high streets, which didn’t go so well. I took the decision to not go into the high street; I could see that there was a high level of competition and the cost of entry was more – even in those days, you could see that the internet was going to take a fair chunk out of the high streets. The high street was always going to be on the negative side, it’s just the pandemic sped it up a lot. It was quite an easy decision at the time to say: where would you put your money? Into a declining market, like in high streets, or would you put your money into a rising market, which of course, was tourism. 

The issue with tourism is that the number of locations in which you can open are much more limited, so while the growth has been steady, it’s been relatively slow. If you think about some of our locations, there’s only a few properties that we could actually occupy, so it takes time to acquire one of those premises, whereas if you look at the high street, there are many, many vacant properties. The tourist model was slow and steady and we opened at a rate of three or four a year until just before the pandemic. 

In 2019, there weren’t many bakeries on the high streets and I just had a very, very strong feeling that the high street was about to change. I said to our acquisition agent, “we’ll do three high streets”, and then obviously the pandemic came along and slowed down our plans, but nonetheless, we opened those three high streets in Stanford, Dorchester, and Chichester, and they went very, very well. That was when we really started to look at the high street as a viable proposition again, and clearly, even with a diminished high street after the pandemic, the opportunity to surpass our pre-existing tourist growth was there. 

In your opinion, has the rebrand (that took place almost two years ago) had anything to do with the company’s success, and why? 

The rebrand was purposeful. Our old tourist brand basically said to the customer, “come in through the threshold of the bakery and you’re in Cornwall”, whereas it was clear by looking at the high street branches that people didn’t really want the Cornwall angle that much.

We made a purposeful decision around 2019/20 when we were trialling the high streets to adjust the brand. What we’ve adjusted was the design to make it (what I call) ‘of Cornwall’, so less Cornish-centric, but still selling a product of Cornwall. In effect, we dialled down the brand and dialled up the bakery. As a consequence, we put in new products as well, because the high street model is actually completely different even though it’s selling the same product range – coffee participation is enormous, so has been participation in pastry sales, lunch products and non-pasty lunch products. Our rebrand has simplified the brand, and that has been completely key to our success. 

Has the bakery really become the new coffee shop, and why?

In my opinion, a bakery is able to give a customer the full experience; the food is 100% fresh and only sold on the day. And of course, because we’re now a nation of coffee drinkers, wherever you go in this country, you now expect good coffee – that also goes hand-in-hand. 

When I said “bakery is the new coffee shop”, what was very, very clear to me was that there was a gap in the market in a venue where you could have a coffee shop service but with a bakery experience. I put those two together and now I think that the bakery is definitely becoming the new coffee shop. There’s no doubt about it. 

As the company’s expansion continues, what’s next going into 2024?

We finished our trial of the high streets and we’ve now gone into a slightly more aggressive roll-out, so we’re now planning the acquisitions for 2024. We are not going to grow for growth’s sake, but rather only invest if it’s right for the brand, for the culture, the people, and obviously, our financials. That said, we are looking at taking the company from its current total of circa 60 stores to pushing beyond 100 locations. 

On the culture side of things, it has never been better – we’re oversubscribed, fully staffed, and our internal promotion and training programmes are on fire. I’d say we have the key ingredients for growth, but we will not grow for growth’s sake, so we’ll just go one step at a time. This year has probably been a record year for openings.

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