Roberts Bakery celebrates its 125th anniversary

PUBLISHED: 23:35 07 October 2012 | UPDATED: 22:01 20 February 2013

Roberts Bakery celebrates its 125th anniversary

Roberts Bakery celebrates its 125th anniversary

Roberts Bakery, one of Cheshire's most successful family businesses, celebrates its 125th anniversary this year. Mike Roberts, deputy chairman of the company talks about the early days and their recipe for success. WORDS BY MARTIN PILKINGTON

In 1887 Robert Roberts opened his own corner shop in Wellington Street in the Castle district of Northwich. Robert sold groceries and the bread he baked himself. Today, 125 years on, the family business bakes 80 million loaves a year and 50 million bread rolls.

The founder had worked nearly 20 years in the trade before, aged 30, he could afford his own place. The original premises just off the Chester Road were very modest, very small, theyd been owned previously by a salt dealer, says Mike Roberts, Deputy Chairman of the company and one of the fourth generation of the family to work in the business: At the start it was Robert Roberts and his wife, and that was it. We employ 800 people altogether across the business now.

Over the years bread baking gained in importance against the grocery side, which was eventually dropped. In 1900 the company moved to bigger premises in Lostock Gralam, with a separate bakery on site. Frank Roberts joined his father, and under his leadership in 1937 the business acquired a second bakery from a family friend wanting to retire. Then in 1952 it moved to the current site in Rudheath. Franks sons succeeded him, and today their sons and daughters are in charge.

I am very proud of what has been achieved not just by the current generation, but by the previous generations as well, without whom we wouldnt have the business today, says Mike Roberts.

Mike has been full-time in the business for more than 30 years, but wheat-flour is in his blood and his recollections of the bakery go back to his childhood: My earliest memory of the business goes back to the late Fifties. We lived in a house next to the original building. The house has long since gone, subsumed by the bakery itself, but I used to go into the bakery when I was about six years old just to see what they were doing and have a look at what was being made.

I joined in 1976. I was a student for four years prior to then so I was involved in my holidays then, loading vans, driving vans, brushing the floor, all the stuff you do when youre a student and I did that a bit after 1976 too.

Though it has grown enormously the company is still very much a family affair. The business is totally owned by the family. As far as involvement is concerned there is Lindsay Occleston my cousin working in the business, and weve two other family members who are directors but who dont work in it; and we have three others who are shareholders, so seven shareholders in all.

They are determined that control wont change: The intention is to pass on the business to the next generation that is very important, says Mr Roberts: We have nine members of generation five, most of whom are still in education, and were working to find opportunities for them to work in the company in future.

What the fifth generation involvement is likely to be is difficult to know. It doesnt mean they will necessarily have to work every day in the business but we want the business to be continued by the next generation, though we still have my generation for quite a few more years yet!

It is not just family involvement that reaches back across the decades: We had a couple of people who retired last year and the year before having done 50 years service, and weve others who have done 40 or so. I think that as a local company it helps to have that sortmof continuity.

The companys centenary was celebrated with a bit of a party, but for the 125th anniversary things have been kept low-key: What we have concentrated on for the 125th is more of a promotion for the business rather than having any great razzmatazz, he says, but there one special event this year stands out:We did get a visit by the Countess of Wessex at the County Show recently, and have a good photo of her cutting our 125th anniversary cake, says Mike.

Founder Robert Roberts might have been surprised not just by royal visits but other aspects of the company that evolved from his humble starting point: the grocery element for instance ended 50 years ago. And where his little shop supplied bread to the streets nearby, his descendents sell throughout Cheshire and much of the Northwest, with an eye to new territories: We are extending our reach ever further were hoping to
move further eastwards and southwards in the years to come, says Mr Roberts.

The bakery also supplies the major supermarkets in the region, along with catering companies and not just locally: We export, predominantly to Italy at the moment, and to Japan - Sapporo on Hokkaido in the North of the country for sandwich makers, because whilst overseas bakers are very good at making their local style of bread they are generally not very proficient at manufacturing sliced bread which in the main is the preferred product for making sandwiches. It is frozen a few miles away before it goes off overseas.

Some things about bread-baking dont change though ask Mike Roberts: Even after so many years I am not at all desensitized to the smell both outside and inside the building, which is really so nice.

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