The Bridge Interviews
When you hear the name Huffkins, the image that probably comes into your mind is that of the charming tea rooms halfway down Burford High Street. That is perfectly understandable but, when you start to dig a little deeper, you find that it is only part of a large and growing enterprise.
This month The Bridge went to meet Jacob Taee who, together with his brother Josh, is part of the remarkably youthful management team of this business.
Huffkins traces its history back to 1890, although that was not the original name. It was established by a local baker, George Titcomb, in 1890. Photographs still exist of him delivering bread with a donkey cart. It was bought in 1999 by Jacob’s parents, Richard and Topsy Taee. The business was already called Huffkins by then. (A huffkin is a traditional Kentish cake). Since then they have gradually expanded, first by adding no. 96 in the High Street to the original site at 98 and then by opening branches in Stow, Witney, Cheltenham and Stratford. The baking was all done at the back of the Burford shop until 2012 but was then moved to a small industrial unit in Witney when a bigger place was needed. Jacob’s parents also run Abbot’s Grange, a bed and breakfast business in a 14th century manor house in Broadway. Mark Twain, Henry James, Edward Elgar and Oscar Wilde have all stayed there (but not while it was a B&B).
The family are steeped in the Cotswolds. Jacob’s mother was born in Chipping Campden and both brothers went to school in Cheltenham. Josh, who recently became a father, lives in Moreton-in-Marsh. Jacob lives in London but often stays with his parents in Broadway during the week. Neither of them studied business. Both qualified as lawyers, Jacob as a barrister and Josh as a solicitor, but neither practised as such as they always intended to go into the company.
Since 2011 Josh and Jacob have gradually been taking over management of the business although their parents are still closely involved. In such a small enterprise it is necessary to multi-task but Josh is managing director and looks after wholesale business while Jacob looks after finance, systems and processes. Topsy’s area is human resources and training, while Richard takes care of the distinctive design aspects such as the company’s packaging.
What changes have taken place in recent times? Like many businesses that in the past have operated by selling over the counter in a high street, Huffkins have moved into online trading. Look on their website (www.huffkins.com) and you will find a wide range of gifts, gift vouchers and other produce available. They have also moved into wholesale business and this is going from strength to strength. The customers are a select group. They include Fortnum & Mason, Historic Royal Palaces, the Royal Collections Trust, Highgrove and some top end delicatessens and cheese shops. Some, like Fortnums, are allowed to sell them under their own labels but the products sold in the delicatessens bear the Huffkins brand. So, if you order a slice of cranberry and fruitcake when taking tea at Fortnums (as we are sure that practically all of our readers do), remember that it probably came from Huffkins.
For big customers Huffkins will provide fully bespoke recipes but these involve months of careful development. For any product is it necessary to have detailed scientific analysis to record the exact amount of every ingredient as well as to identify possible allergens. They are helped in this by another local business, Campden BRI, who specialise in scientific services to the food and drink industries.
The company is now starting to export as well. It attended a trade fair at San Francisco in January and another in Tokyo in March. The first shipment of goods recently left for Japan, comprising items such as fruit cake and shortbread which have a long shelf life. They hope to sell things of this sort through Japanese department stores. They are also developing links with an offshoot of the Migros supermarket chain in Switzerland and a speciality food chain in Canada.
The marketing of Huffkins’ products is of heritage, hand made goods and is specifically linked to the Cotswolds. “The appetite for the Cotswolds in Japan is incredible” says Jacob. He attributes this in part to the fact that so many people in Japan live in densely populated modern cities so rural Britain has a strong appeal to them, as can be seen from the many Japanese visitors here. In some ways Japanese culture is like ours, for example in the importance of tea. In other ways it is very different. “The majority of Japanese homes do not have an oven and a wok is the principal source of hot food”. So baked items like scones are a novelty to them. The name of Huffkins gets put around on Japanese blogs and the brand is very strong there. Visitors often come into the café and buy as many as ten of the distinctive jute bags with the Huffkins logo on them and nothing else.
How does he think Burford is doing in business terms? “It is doing very well compared with other high streets”. There is an aversion to large businesses and chains here, he says, and support for independent stores. In order to survive it is necessary to do something different from the high street chains. He welcomes other quality businesses here such as the “superb” cheese shop. Other successful local businesses such as the Oxford Shirt Company and Scotts of Stow have managed to establish points of difference from competitors.
Brexit is a something which may well affect them, particularly in respect of their export business. It has already had an impact on their costs as the prices of raw materials have gone up. The prices of coffee (which is traded in US dollars) and butter are particularly volatile. It is essential to develop strong relationships with suppliers in order to try to avoid the extra costs being passed on to customers.
Huffkins employs around 150 people, although this varies during the year. August is the busiest month. Heatwaves and cold snaps can both reduce business. The staff are very diverse. Many come from overseas including an HR officer from Guadeloupe in the French Caribbean and a number of Polish bakers. Both head bakers are women. Their management style is that everyone has to contribute and feel pride in Huffkins’ success. People need respect for the organisation as well as the customers. They closely watch reviews on TripAdvisor. “It is a positive tool, not an annoyance. If there is a good review, great. If not, we learn from it”. The approach certainly seems to work. In the 2017 West Oxfordshire Business Awards they won for Employer of the Year, Hospitality, Leisure and Tourism Business of the Year and, best of all, Business of the Year.
Do customers come up with unusual requests? “Do you sell cakes?” is their first question surprisingly often.
Will they consider opening at new locations? “We are open to it. We are only interested in prime locations in the Cotswolds. Nowhere else has come up so far. We don’t intend to open 50 or 100 places or in other parts of the country.
What is the best selling product? “Lardy cake, actually made with margarine so that it is vegetarian, followed by the Chelsea bun rolled with cinnamon and sugar. It is wonderful to watch that being made. It is laid out on a table in one big, flat piece, then the whole thing is rolled up sideways, and then it is cut into sections. The shift starts at 4pm and by 2.30am it is ready to be delivered to the various tea rooms. An individual product, handmade locally and not frozen”. Sounds delicious. Save one for us. ……