So there I was last week, driving up to Oxfordshire for the Towersey folk festival, when I remembered that I needed to stock up on a few basics. Happy as I am to shell out a fiver or more for an organic tofuburger, this gets expensive when extrapolated over an entire bank holiday weekend, especially with three children in tow, all expecting to be fed at regular intervals. So we thought we’d try to cook at least a few meals under canvas.
On the way I remembered that there’s a giant Tesco just this side of High Wycombe, so I pulled off the M40 and set about foraging for breakfast cereal, milk, vegetables, cheese and, er, bread. Yes, my ability to fail to bake enough for home consumption is legendary. I was pretty much resigned to buying some polybagged horror (the children, after all, aren’t known for their sophisticated bread tastes) or, at a push, what supermarkets like to call sourdough bread. What I wasn’t expecting was the Euphorium Bakery.
There, at the end of what had seemed endless aisles, was a largeish section set slightly back from the main store, devoted to the products of the Euphorium Bakery. Who they, you ask? Well, according to the blurb in the shop, which is repeated on their website:
The story of Euphorium Bakery began in 1999 when a simple bakery opened on Upper Street, Islington. Of course, at the time, we didn’t know that we were starting a baking revolution…
Euphorium Bakery quickly became famous for making as much as possible fresh from scratch every day (we still do by the way). Our lovely customers raved about outstanding cakes and pastries, the inspired choice of baked savouries and artisan hand-made breads. One food critic said our croissants were ‘iconic’ whatever that means.
That slightly fey, pretend-casual approach to marketing is something you see all the time with small, independent food producers keen to stress the hand-made, artisanal aesthetic. I dare say I’ve been guilty of it myself on occasion, but it always rings hollow. And this is from people who have got into bed with Tesco, for goodness’ sake. It seems this outlet in High Wycombe — we were privileged to be there on the opening day — is just the latest in a longish line of EB outlets in Tesco shops, mainly in London, but now extending into the home counties.
I have to be fair and say that the poppy-seed-topped malted loaf that I bought was not at all bad — on a par with good home-made bread and definitely a notch up, in terms of quality, from your usual supermarket bake-off loaf. It was also, however, a considerable notch up in terms of price: for a standard yeasted 500g loaf I was charged £2.90.
Now I have no idea what arrangement Euphorium Bakery has come to with Tesco in terms of revenue sharing (apparently Tesco now part-owns the bakery), but surely it must have achieved some pretty serious economies of scale since it first set out on the road to revolution from N1. And even without such economies, charging £2.90 for a yeasted loaf is urine-extraction of a high order, especially given that it’s highly unlikely to have been mixed, proved and baked on the premises, which is the way any normal small-scale artisan bakery works. Basically, it’s a posher, additive-free version of the bake-off loaves that supermarkets already provide, only with a far more muscular price tag.
You can certainly see the appeal of this set-up from the supermarket’s point of view. Tesco, faced with stalling market share and falling share price (you may have noticed the summary dismissal of Philip Clarke as chief executive last month, although the EB deal must have predated his demise), being undercut by the discounters and top-sliced by the likes of M&S and Waitrose, desperately wonders how to stop the rot, notices that at places like Borough Market price seems no object if the produce is suitably branded, and decides it would rather like a hand-sliced piece of the artisan action. In fact it already has form in this area, having bought a minority stake in the London/Brighton-based coffee chain of Harris & Hoole. As the Telegraph reported earlier this month, that doesn’t seem to have worked out too well for them.
In a determined effort to have their naturally leavened loaf and eat it, they come to an arrangement with a successful and ambitious outfit to produce bread, cakes, pastries, muffins, cup cakes, brioche, pizza, even sausage rolls. They don’t, so far as I know, make pork pies — but giving the strong impression that your hand-made baked goods are something other than plant-produced fare certainly smells like one to me. Those weasel words on the Euphorium website are what give the game away: “as much as possible made fresh from scratch every day”.
Part of the reason why people are prepared to pay a premium for independently produced food is that they don’t want to strengthen the supermarkets’ already totalitarian grasp on the nation’s food economy, and also because they appreciate knowing precisely where their food is coming from. That shortened supply chain forms a crucial part of any independent producer’s appeal to the market. For Tesco to attempt to cash in on it is really breathtaking in its audacity.
And what of Euphorium? “We don’t plan on becoming a faceless behemoth anytime soon (what’s a behemoth anyway?)”, its website proclaims in that repellently faux-nai f way. In that case, how does it come to be popping up in Tesco stores all over the south-east? It seems that the deal is an offshoot of something calling itself The Bakery Project, which may or may not have some sort of benevolent aims, though you’d struggle to discover what they are from its website, which manages the considerable feat of telling you almost less than nothing: “The Bakery Project is working to restore old school classics, support local suppliers and charities but most of all make simple, honest, great value bread and cakes. Developed by the award-winning Euphorium Bakery team and its founder Daniel Bear, we start every day with some fresh thinking.” Leave aside the ungrammatical sentence construction and the airy vacuities, and the statement is as fluffily insubstantial as a meringue. So we look elsewhere for answers.
Here’s what Grocery Insight (which clearly doesn’t see the need for a sub-editor) has to say on the tie-up:
It seems that the Bakery Project (first seen in Hackney) before being rolled to other London stores such as Kensington has performed well, Euphorium too offers a point of difference and I gather there are plans to roll this to around 100 Surrey stores, replacing the current core Bakery offer …
Crucially, nothing is baked in store within the Bakery Project, bar pastries and other part-bake lines, there is no scratch bakery operation …
Bakery is a labour intensive category, each product has to be handled, packaged and labelled before being replenished. That’s the ‘part bake’ range, scratch products take much more effort and labour to produce good quality bread and rolls from flour, water and yeast.
Therefore, whilst Bakeries may be profitable, it is hard work for the money that it takes. A very labour-intensive operation is required to produce goods and the quality can be variable too. Using a central bakery like Watford have does make sense from an economical viewpoint, a good quality level and ideally a good level of stock too.
Does that mean that the Project / Euphorium will replace scratch bakeries within Tesco? Essentially a ‘bake off’ operation is in place in Watford, so one can presume that this would be the case in stores to get the rollout …
I gather some theatre remains, with ‘moulding’ being another phase in the bakery plan. Delivering dough into store to allow some colleagues to mould the dough for the artisan lines. However, it seems the core bakery offer is changing in London and surrounding areas, using a ‘dark bakery’ essentially to produce and pack the range before delivery into stores.
The use of that word “theatre” seems to me to give the game away: this is a production that’s all about entertaining the punters and giving the illusion of something other that what it really is. And to judge from the comments below the line, a fair number of Tesco’s traditional bakery staff have lost their jobs with the rollout.
But what really stands out for me among the comments is one from a former Euphorium customer: “I have been a loyal and happy customer of Euphorium ever since it opened its first store on Upper Street. Since Tesco got involved it has changed a great deal and the people that have served me my coffee for years have been let go. They were part of the charm of the shops and have now been replaced with random staff. I am saddened and disappointed by that development. The quality of the products used to be better as well and the prices have gone through the roof. I want to support independent businesses not huge conglomerates. Will have to take my custom elsewhere unfortunately. Feeling sorry for all the loyal staff that is now out of a job.”
A baking revolution? If that’s what this is, it’s one of which Pol Pot would have been proud.