A slice of life at Bettys: Behind the scenes at a Yorkshire institution

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It’s a Yorkshire institution and with sales and profits on the up, Sarah Freeman goes behind the scenes at Bettys.

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Confectionery team leader, Sam Hartley, sprays the Grand Cru Chocolate Rasberry Square. PIC: James Hardisty

Confectionery team leader, Sam Hartley, sprays the Grand Cru Chocolate Rasberry Square. PIC: James Hardisty

Maybe it’s something in the water. Or perhaps they bribe the staff with unlimited supplies of Fat Rascals and Christmas stollen. Whatever their trick, it’s one that other companies struggling with staff turnover would like in on, because when it comes to staff, most of Betty’s employees are there for life. Or at the very least a large chunk of it. Take the craft bakery which employs 77 staff. Of those 22 have been there for more than 15 years and a couple, like Robin Kendall, have notched up more than four decades of service. Robin joined the Harrogate firm as a 15-year-old and 40-odd years on he’s about to become the chocolate department’s longest server.

“I was going to be a panel beater,” he says, midway through a busy morning shift as he delicately prepares the moulds for a set of chocolate bears. “But I came here as a bit of a stop gap and I never left. Over the years I’ve worked in every department and tried my hand at everything, but it’s chocolate where I’ve always felt at home. Not many people, hand on heart, can say they love their job, but I honestly do love mine. Part of that I suppose is the heritage. Bettys is a company with a really rich history and I certainly feel that in my own small way I’ve contributed a little chapter to it.”

The history Robin talks about can be traced back to 1919 when Swiss baker and confectioner Frederick Belmont left his home country and travelled to England in search of business opportunities. He found the opening he was looking for in Yorkshire, opening his first Cafe Tea Rooms in Harrogate in 1919. No-one knows why he called it Bettys. Some say it was after the late Queen Mother. Others have claimed it was a nod to a former manageress of the Harrogate Spa, Betty Lupton, and another story suggests it was in memory of a young girl who died of tuberculosis. Her father was a doctor in the town and Belmont opened the first cafe in the same building that had housed his medical practice.

Whatever the reason, Bettys quickly became an institution and by the 1920s, Belmont had opened his own craft bakery, complete with its own orchard. Today there is no orchard, but the extensive site, tucked away behind Morrisons, is home instead to a cookery school, extensive tea and coffee tasting suites for the Taylors arm of the company and the kind of craft bakery that Belmont would have given his right arm for.

It’s inside a few small rooms, known as the research and development centre, where the real magic happens. It’s here where Bettys’ new afternoon tea was devised, where the plans for Hallowe’en and Easter are hatched and where every new product is rigorously tried and tested before it is given the green light. It’s all top secret stuff – ahead of our visit a giant chocolate egg, a prototype for next Easter, has been discreetly turned to the wall to ensure no images of the decoration are leaked.

“We are always trying new products, but we also know that there are some things that you don’t touch,” says confectionery team leader Sam Hartley. “The new Lady Bettys Afternoon Tea has been great to work on, because it’s something completely different to what we have done before and that’s good for all of us. It’s a new challenge.”

The afternoon tea comes with a miniature selection of cakes and patisseries, including Battenburg slices, fresh berry meringues and every Great British Bake Off contestant’s nightmare – perfectly turned-out strawberry macaroons.

“Yep, it is all about precision,” says Sam as he turns a chocolate raspberry square – another element of the afternoon tea – a particularly vivid shade of pink using a spray gun. Next up are the orange religieuse, a small feat of engineering in choux pastry. Filled with custard and decorated with iced leaves, it’s a wonder any of these mini-towers make it from bakery to tea rooms intact.

“We can make up to 600 of each element a week,” says Sam, who has swapped the spray gun for a piping bag, while across other side of the kitchen, her colleague, chocolatier Kirsty Mitchison is making the twirls that decorate the chocolate and praline slices. “So that’s 1,200 afternoon teas. A few years ago, afternoon tea was seen as a little old fashioned, but it’s had a real renaissance and it is a real lovely way to treat someone.”

Creating little slices of patisserie perfection is hard work. The first of the bakery’s three shifts starts at 2am, when all the fresh cream work is completed for that day’s batch of eclairs and the like. When those workers have already completed half a day’s work, the next shift starts at 6am, with the final bakery staff arriving at 8am.

“We do tend to operate on a different calendar to everyone else,” says Kirsty. “We are preparing for Christmas when most people haven’t even started thinking about Easter and by the time the first festive chocolates hit the shelves, we have already moved on to the next big event. Things are definitely changing in the confectionary market. Hallowe’en is now one of our busiest times. It may only be technically one day of the year, but every year the build-up becomes longer and longer.”

While Bettys’ heritage has played a vital part in the company’s continuing good times – the traditional waitress uniforms in the tea rooms hark back to a simpler, more elegant age – history alone doesn’t guarantee success. The last 10 years has seen a coffee shop boom on the high street and yet despite increased competition in an ever-more crowded marketplace, the Bettys & Taylors Group, which employs 1,400 people, is on the up. Earlier this year, the family-owned company reported a five per cent increase in turnover to £156m and pre-tax profits rose 7.3 per cent to £10.8m in the year ending October 2014.

Part of that may well be due to some pretty savvy marketing. The company has embraced social media, particularly when it comes to promoting Yorkshire Tea, and some high-profile cricket sponsorship means it’s now impossible to watch an England game without seeing the company’s distinctive logo.

Yorkshire Tea now has almost 90,000 followers on Twitter, 200,000 likes on Facebook and even the unapologetically traditional Bettys has more than 15,000 Twitter followers and has proved that heritage companies have a lot to gain from social media.

“It’s about being relevant, while ensuring the company remains true to the traditional values of quality and craftsmanship,” says bakery director Caroline Grant. “When you work here, you learn to associate different times of the year with different smells. It’s lovely wandering into the bakery at the moment because while it may be sunny outside the first of the Christmas puddings are just going in and that is when the countdown for us really begins.

“Before we opened the new craft bakery, all the research and development was done on a table top made out of an old door. Of course having the new facilities makes a difference, but really it’s about the people. You can spend thousands on expensive equipment, you can build lovely environments to work in, but if you don’t invest and nurture staff, then you won’t have a sustainable business.

“Whenever I try baking at home it always make me realise just what fantastic crafts people we have under this roof. I’ve been at Bettys a while now and quite quickly when it came to making biscuits or baking the perfect fruit cake I realised that I should probably leave that to the experts.”