The Big River Bakery in Newcastle is – depending on your point of view – either a classic example of the Quadruple Helix model of innovation, or just a good place to get decent stotties.
For founder Andy Haddon it is both, as well as the culmination of a journey that has taken him thousands of miles and the best part of a decade in an attempt to show a way of doing business that accentuates sustainability and social impact, rather than simple profit.
That journey was recently highlighted with a TV appearance with Hairy Bikers Si King, a long-time supporter of the bakery, and Dave Myers, who declared “there’s not enough Andys in the world” after hearing of his mission to make good food more accessible in areas of deprivation. (Fellow TV star Carol Vorderman has also visited as part of an initiative to promote social enterprises).
What Andy hopes is that the bakery, tucked away amid the concrete sprawl of Shieldfield can be both a “living lab” that demonstrates that different method of doing business but also somewhere that makes a direct impact on its local community.
Testimony from customers suggests that mission is being fulfilled.
“A wonderful ethos of nurturing, caring – and the best stotties ever,” one says. “They provide a high quality produce in one of the poorest wards in Newcastle and training to people who may have slipped through the net,” adds another.
The story of the bakery began after Andy turned his back on a corporate career in food distribution that had seen him rising through the ranks, with his progression measured in rising temperatures, starting out work in a frozen food facility before moving to refrigeration and finally office roles.
Despite lucrative jobs in Germany and China, the corporate world left Andy increasingly unfulfilled and he returned home to Wylam in Northumberland, set up an environmental group and began thinking about practical actions that could help him avoid a feeling of helplessness when confronted with the threat of climate change.
“I got a bit sick of the whole thing,” he said. “At one point, when I was working in Germany, I won a prize and I was put on a wall with a photo in the boardroom, but the emotion I had at the time was sadness. I didn’t feel proud because it had affected my life in other ways. I had just been concentrating on work rather than family and friends.
“I still went to China but I went on a bit of a journey. I got a bit sick of the corporate world. I was walking down a street in Shanghai thinking, ‘Geordie boy, where are you going to go next?’
“My earliest childhood memory was picking up clutches of eggs from my uncle’s farm in Wylam. We used to go as little kids and it was a magical thing to find eggs.
“So I thought I needed to follow that, go back to Wylam, so that’s what I did. I did an MBA at Durham and then I got more involved in volunteer activity in climate change and sustainability. I went to the climate summit in Johannesburg as an activist and got more involved. Over time, our climate group had some good projects but it was never going to get momentum and scale without shifting to a trading model.”
The initial volunteer project, Wylam Green Street, evolved into Earth Doctors Ltd, a trading body whose mission – that “the North East becomes globally recognised as a place where a local food system is operating at scale which provides healthy and sustainable food to all” – still drives Andy to this day.
Along the way Andy worked at Newcastle University, helped establish the National Renewable Energy Centre and set up a gin company. He has also amassed five degrees (in subjects as varied as psychology, bio-aeronautics, computing and renewable energy and enterprise.)
But after settling on food, and then baking, as a means of making an impact on his local community, Andy set up projects first in Wylam and then Gateshead to test his ideas. A crowdfunding project then helped raise enough money to convert a derelict former supermarket in Shieldfield into the bakery’s first permanent home, which combines both a training area and a shop.
As well as selling its famous stotties and other baked goods to people in the local area, the bakery offers employment programmes to people in hard-to-reach areas, including former offenders and people with autism. It has also hosted academics studying food systems, helped undergraduate students studying subjects as varied as broadcasting, business, marketing and psychology, and supported other start-up businesses. The youngest person it has worked with is two and the oldest 102 (on a project with people in a care home suffering dementia).
It is this wide range of activities that brings in mention of the Quadruple Helix and Andy’s description of the bakery as a “living lab”.
“What’s a living lab anyway?” he said. “We’re exploring solutions that involve academia, commerce, the public sector but also the community. Community is the important strand of the helix that’s often missed.
“There are some living labs in universities and that’s fair enough. I think we’ve got a living lab here but it’s a trading entity rather than something supported by Government funding for academic research. We’re directly socially impactful but we want to work across those four strands of the helix and we can – we’ve been involved in three PhDs, there’s affordable food for the community, we’ve got an employability programme, we build confidence.”
With the pandemic affecting the way the bakery could operate, the business increased its wholesale operation. Now back open, it still has ‘pay what you can afford’ days and is growing turnover to make it into a sustainable, long-term business. Earlier this year a second bakery was opened at Teesside University to provide a link between the institution and its local community.
And Big River has plans for growth as a way of increasing its social impact, hoping to deliver more training programmes, work with schools, create more jobs and continue to innovate to find ways of addressing local issues.
As those plans take shape, the bakery’s star turn on the Hairy Bikers Go North – and in particular its much-loved stotties – can only help.
“We’ve got stottie baking kits and we’re exporting them all over the country,” Andy said. “The stottie has gone national, if not international.
“That’s our intention because I think there’s a strong food culture in the North East that we haven’t yet capitalised on. If the stottie is the spearhead to build this awareness of what we do, that’ll do me.”