Brian McErlain has learned plenty of valuable lessons during his career but the key motto for Bertie’s Bakery, his latest venture, has been ‘don’t sell anything you wouldn’t eat yourself’.
It’s a principle that has stood the business in good stead after launching with a £1m investment 12 months ago.
“It’s gone very well and we’re very excited,” enthuses McErlain, and the numbers appear to bear him out. In the last year the company has more than doubled its workforce to 26 staff and increased its delivery fleet from two to six. What’s more, Bertie’s products are now stocked in 104 stores, compared with 12 a year ago.
The business operates from a 15,000 sq ft site at Creagh Industrial Park near Magherafelt in Northern Ireland, producing freshly baked products including bread, rolls, morning goods and cakes, all handcrafted and hand finished.
Prior to founding Bertie’s Bakery, McErlain was managing director of Genesis Crafty. Having evolved from his family’s bakery business that was started in 1968, the company was sold in a pre-pack deal in 2018 to the boss of Tayto Group.
McErlain says his length of time in the industry has forged a strong connection with customers and consumers, while also teaching him lessons he’s putting into practice with his latest company.
“I suppose the thing really driving me was that I felt things hadn’t ended perfectly with the previous business, but I’ve relaunched my own career and also relaunched what I feel a bakery should be,” he explains.
“We got distracted by own label with Genesis, and maybe we didn’t pay attention to the areas we should have done, and that cost us in the long run, but this was an opportunity to start with a clean slate and go at it again.”
Authenticity is key
‘Authenticity’ is the watchword for McErlain and Bertie’s Bakery. “The mission was to bring it back into what we’re doing now in terms of quality of ingredients, freshness of the product, and just the whole passion for baking,” he says.
Products are at the heart of this. “That was our focus,” he adds. “We wanted to make them best in class, and the feedback we’ve got from customers has been outstanding, with cards, letters and social media posts.
“A lot of the customers are having a tough time living through Covid without much to look forward to, but they say at least they know they’ll get a Bertie’s product and it will give them a lift for the day. So that’s advocacy.”
Pandemic? No problem
You might think starting a new venture during a pandemic would be especially challenging but according to McErlain, Covid-19 has hasn’t proved much of an obstacle. “Two people in the business got the virus but were well isolated,” he says.
“All in all, we escaped any major impact whereas this time last year, all the bakeries that were working in confined spaces were closing down, and we were picking up some of the slack and helping our customers to fill that gap when others weren’t able to supply.”
The pandemic has influenced some of the 35 new products the company has just unveiled, however. “The large group gathering doesn’t happen now so whole cakes aren’t as strong in sales as they were,” McErlain explains. “So, we’ve created a range that’s five slices in a pack.”
The idea was to take existing cake recipes and simply convert them into smaller portions to suit the social trend. “So, you have traybakes like five rocky roads, and you have cake slices like five lemon bakes, five strawberry creams or five jam bakes.
“We’ve also introduced a range of sharing slabs featuring on-trend biscuits like Biscoff Rocky Road and Oreo Brownie, and they’re really catching the imagination,” McErlain adds.
As for the future, the founder says the plan is simply to grow. “We’ve got a successful first year under our belt and over the next two years we’ll scale it as best we can and as far as we can.”