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More than just dough

01-Oct-2021 More than just dough

If I went back and told my younger self that I would found a community bakery, I would not have believed me. To explain how this transition took place, I need to go back to my first work after graduating back in the 80s when there were not lots of opportunities for graduates, says Andy Haddon.

First I started as a graduate trainee in logistics with Christian Salvesen all over the UK and then moved over to TNT at their UK head office in Warwickshire. I gauged my career progression by increasing temperature, as moved from coldstores to chill, to ambient, to an office role with TNT in UK. Then working in Germany (Cologne) and then the Asia market, based in Shanghai for two years. All the time designing and implementing time-critical logistics solutions nationally which developed entrepreneurial skills in a corporate environment.

I studied quite a bit too, picking up five degrees along the way, including Psychology (Newcastle), Bio-aeronautics (Cranfield), Computing (DeMontfort), an MBA (Durham) and Renewable energy and enterprise (Newcastle). Along this road I gained various professional qualifications and rewards too, but there was a nagging feeling of dissatisfaction and that I did not really fit the values and ethos of the organisations I worked for.

A pivotal moment was standing on Hua Hai Lu in Shanghai and asking myself, "Geordie boy, where do you go next?" My earliest long-forgotten childhood memory came back to me there and then which was hunting for clutches of chickens' eggs under the hedges at the farm of my long-dead Uncle Billy in Wylam, Northumberland.

So I followed that thought and resigned from TNT in China and returned home in 1997. To help with my transition from China, I had signed up for an MBA at Durham before I left which felt like coming back to my spiritual home and was a wonderful mind-expanding experience.

Two years later, I had my house in Wylam. Over the next few years I got more and more interested in and passionate about climate change and attended the Earth Summit in Johannesburg. I initiated a climate change action group called Wylam Green Street with other local residents, but realised that, unless I created a trading entity, it would never grow to develop real scale and impact.

I then spent quite a long period of trial and error, developing various start-up projects as an employee, sometimes director and sometimes volunteer. Whilst going on this entrepreneurial journey, I had various employed roles to keep a roof over my head. Just about! Over the same period, I had a number of saddening life events and a few close shaves with the grim reaper myself too. The voices in my head got louder, telling me to follow my purpose.

So, in 2013, I founded Earth Doctors Ltd as a social enterprise with the mission to establish the North East of England as 'globally recognised, taking a leadership role in the creation of a local food system at scale which is both affordable to all and sustainable'. Not an insignificant challenge. I needed to ground this mission and, after much deep thought, decided a bakery was the best first step.

I volunteered with an existing cooperative bakery to learn enough and then started our bakery in 2013. For some years only volunteering, with others to run the bakery, making use of an under-used bakery each Friday and selling bread in Wylam village library on Saturday mornings. One of the significant of several nudges to get on with this project was a near-fatal bread van accident in January 2019 which helped me push on with project, as none of us know if we have a tomorrow!

In the last two or three years, we have grown significantly since the launch of the Big River Bakery brand and our move to new premises in Newcastle in summer 2019 after a successful crowdfunder and renovation of a derelict supermarket.

We now have two bakeries, with one in Middlesbrough on campus at Teesside University and our first site on Tyneside. Both our bakeries make sure that there is product available which is high-quality, healthy and affordable to all, alongside delivering baking activities valued by the local communities (including qualifications and employability programmes for unemployed people). We are now making plans to replicate our approach in other towns across the North East.

Big River Bakery

I believe food is not merely a commodity, but can offer real value to a community - employment, inclusivity, prosperity, health and wellbeing. We generate income through the sale of high-quality breads and bakery goods, but we also make that affordable and available in some of the most deprived wards in the North East. Vitally we do this alongside providing training, education and work opportunities for the disadvantaged and hard to reach. An essential part of what we do is to create supportive partnerships that allow us to effect change and impact, providing benefits for our partners through the growth of their own businesses and the delivery of social value.

There has been a lot of profile-raising lately, including our recent appearance with the Hairy Bikers, on BBC2 in the Hairy Bikers Go North and also welcoming Carol Vorderman as part of the Starling Bank 'Take Flight' competition launch. We have been doing this work for nearly 10 years, but it is only now that a wider audience has found us, both virtually and physically.

"What can I say about Big River Bakery?", says Si King of the Hairy Bikers. "I am completely and totally head over heels in love with it! I love the ethos. I love that it has rooted its foundations in the Shieldfield and wider Newcastle community. But the most important thing is the opportunity that the project brings to people who ordinarily would not get the chance to develop a skill set around food.

Make no mistake, the quality of the produce and the expertise of the bakers at Big River are second to none. The produce is fantastic!"

Someone told me once that an overnight success has at least 15 years behind it. For me, I think it is at least 35 years. I guess what that gives us is some useful experience and, combining that with the momentum we want, enables us to go with the flow and see how far we can take Big River Bakery in 2022. Exciting times!

We are always open to collaborate so if you are interested have a look at our website

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