Joe and Dawn Reade started the Island Bakery in a garage on Mull and have transformed it into a business that supplies biscuits to the likes of Marks & Spencer and Waitrose, as Peter Ranscombe finds out.
It seems that Joe Reade was perhaps born to be an entrepreneur. When he was just 12, his parents – Jeff and Chris – bought a derelict farm on the island of Mull and moved Reade and his brothers from the dairy pastures of Somerset to the wet and wild west coast of Scotland.
“Dad had this romantic idea of selling milk to customers instead of selling it to a big processing factory,” Joe laughs. “Back then, fresh milk supplies to the island were very unreliable and people would keep ultra-heat treated (UHT) milk in their cupboards, just in case the delivery didn’t make it to Mull.
“There’d be queues of people at the Co-op wanting fresh milk. So, Mum and Dad set up their dairy and began delivering cartons of milk door-to-door on the island.”
Balancing supply and demand on an island can be tricky and so the family also began making cheese on its farm at Sgriob-Ruadh, near Tobermory, the island’s main town. The result was Isle of Mull Cheese, arguably one of Scotland’s best-known dairy products and still made by the Reades today.
While he was studying geography at the University of Edinburgh, Joe met Dawn, his future wife, and she moved back with him to Mull to start a bakery. But how did he convince Dawn, who grew up in Belfast, to swap life in a city for life on an island?
“He promised me an unlimited supply of cake,” Dawn shouts from across the office the pair share. Joe laughs and nods.
“Setting up the bakery was another one of my Dad’s crazy ideas,” he admits. “The local baker was retiring and Dad suggested that we could set up a bakery and deliver the bread alongside the milk on the rounds.
“I guess Dawn and I both went into it in a naïve way thinking it would be really nice to run a bakery on Mull. There have definitely been lots of highlights – but it’s really hard work too.
“I think I always expected I would end up working for myself. When you come from a family of entrepreneurs, it seems like a natural step to take.”
And so the Island Bakery was born. Its original premises back in 1994 were a garage attached to a cottage in which one of Reade’s brothers lived. Two years later, the business expanded by opening a delicatessen’s shop in Tobermory. Watching which products sold well in the deli, Dawn realised there was a gap in the market for a range of organic biscuits.
The couple had wanted to create a product with a longer shelf-life that they could sell beyond the shores of Mull and so the “Island Bakery Organics” range of biscuits was launched in 2001, with four flavours. They were an instant hit. Early customers included department stores Harvey Nichols and Selfridges, both of which are still on the roster today.
Crunch time came in 2007, by which point the biscuits were out-selling the produce in the deli. Selling the shop allowed the couple to concentrate on the bakery and to come up with plans to move into purpose-built facilities. The current bakery opened in 2012 and has some very innovative features. The ovens are powered by wood-chips that come from the forests surrounding the property.
“We believe that we’re the only biscuit manufacturer in the world to use ovens that are wood-fired,” explains Joe. “Wood fired ovens are nothing new, of course, but ours is a bespoke system that keeps the combustion separate from the baking chamber, so we get all the heat but none of the smoke.”
The wood-chip powered biomass boiler isn’t the only renewable energy source that’s used by the bakery, which sits next to the family’s creamery at Sgriob-Ruadh. Another of Jeff’s “crazy ideas” was to install a hydro-electric turbine on the burn that runs next to the bakery and so one of Joe’s brothers now sells him renewable electricity, while a wind turbine on the hill above the farm also provides power.
“Using renewable energy sounds like it could just be a marketing ploy – but it’s not,” argues Joe. “It’s also the right thing to do to help to maintain the beautiful environment on the island.
“It also ties in with our ethos of using organic ingredients. That kind of provenance is really important when you’re a food business on an island.”
Renewable energy also played a key role in the Island Bakery winning one of its most important contracts – supplying supermarket chain Marks & Spencer with own-label biscuits. The deal accounts for between one-quarter and one-third of the company’s output.
“They are great people to work with,” Joe says. “When I made our pitch to them, I explained that we wanted to use renewable energy in the new bakery – I think that appealed to them because they also have very strict environmental credentials with their ‘Plan A’ programme.
“Why else would they award a contract to a small bakery on Mull when they have so many other suppliers on the mainland? In some ways, we’re mad to run a bakery on an island because it makes logistics so much more difficult.”
Yet Joe and Dawn have overcome those difficulties to grow a business that now turns over £3m a year and has almost 40 members of staff, making it one of the largest private sector employers on the island. Dawn’s sister, Lynn Peden, is in charge of the bakery’s accounts and logistics, while Lynn’s husband, Paul, is the firm’s delivery driver, taking the biscuits from Mull down to its wholesaler in Glasgow.
“We have two shifts, the first of which starts at 6am and the second that finishes at 10pm,” explains Joe. “So much of the work on Mull is seasonal, so we’re really pleased that we can offer people year-round jobs.
“A lot of the jobs on the island are seasonal because we’re so heavily reliant on the tourist trade. We saw that with our deli – we would have a great June, July and August, but then the rest of the year was much quieter, which made cash-flow a problem.”
One commentator who was certainly wary of such problems was James Caan, one of the dragons on BBC Two’s Dragons’ Den television series. When Joe appeared on the show back in 2009, Caan described the plan to build an eco-bakery as “risky” and “a mistake”, but the baker was nevertheless satisfied because he’d sign-up for the experience just “to get my biscuits on the telly”.
Marks & Spencer disagreed with Caan’s assessment and it isn’t the only big name that stocks the biscuits either. The company signed a deal to supply Waitrose at the start of the year and its goodies are also served to passengers on board both British Airways and Virgin Atlantic.
That’s on top of sales to farm shops, delicatessens and department store food halls throughout the UK. The range now includes shortbread and oat crumbles, as well as apple crumbles, lemon melts, chocolate limes and chocolate gingers.
If everything runs to plan then the bakery can produce 130,000 biscuits in a day. Between 15% and 20% of the firm’s sales are already exported, primarily to Europe, and Joe has his eye on the United States – but he needs a bigger bakery first.
“When we started out, we were just in a garage at the end of a cottage – literally a ‘cottage industry’ – and then when we moved into this bakery it felt like a massive empty shed,” he says. “Now, we’re running at full capacity and so we’ve just applied for planning permission to extend the bakery.”
With cheese and biscuits already ticked-off, it will be fascinating to see in which direction the family’s businesses will grow next.
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