Her great aunts began a bakery more than a century ago, but it’s Lottie Shaw who has reinvented the business. Sarah Freeman meets the woman behind the brand. Pictures by James Hardisty.
You can smell Lottie Shaw’s bakery long before you see it.
It’s tucked away up a side street in Elland, but on a cold November morning the aroma of mince pies is unmistakable. Christmas has arrived in this small corner of West Yorkshire.
Behind the anonymous green door, Jackie Cordingley has been cutting out pastry stars for the tops of the pies for more than an hour. By the end of the day, she’ll have completed 5,000.
It’s a small, but well-oiled operation and some things haven’t changed since Stuart Harrison and his son Richard moved to the bakery 21 years ago.
A couple of the mixing machines still in use, date back 40 years or more, many of the customers have been regulars for decades and most crucially of all, the recipes have remained the same for more than a century. What has changed though is the brand.
“I grew up in the bakery and while I went off and did other things, I always had an emotional attachment to the place,” says Lottie, who returned to take over the family business eight years ago. “Things had been ticking along, but it was still operating on a very traditional model, making cakes and bread and sending them out to sandwich shops. It was clear to everyone that we needed to diversify, the question was how?”
Lottie had previously worked for the drinks company Diageo where one of her projects had been to find a way of boosting sales of Baileys outside of the Christmas period. New flavours were introduced, recipes for cocktails and cakes were devised and the net result was that the drink did find a new non-festive audience. Back in the bakery, Lottie reckoned she could do the same for that most Yorkshire of confections – parkin.
“We knew we had really good products, but what we didn’t have was a brand. There has been a big resurgence in home baking in recent years and I knew I wanted something that looked quite traditional and vintage. I wanted it to be true to the philosophy of the business, but it also had to be something which would look attractive and catch people’s eye.”
That philosophy is encapsulated on the back of one of the old paper bags, used by the bakery when it was known as Watson’s Confectioners. It reads simply, “We don’t turn our backs on the past because that is where we learned our skills, that is where the recipes were created, that is where the tradition of quality was born – in the kitchens, the homes and shops of yesteryear.”
“It also described itself as ‘the bakery that could afford to look back’ and I thought that was quite lovely,” says Lottie, who spent much of her childhood watching her father at work. “There is a growing appreciation for heritage brands and while the business has had a number of name changes over the years, that’s what we are. We have a 100 year history, but for a while maybe we underplayed it.”
Using her own name for the brand and having settled on a simple, yet striking design, inspired by traditional brown paper packaging, Lottie believed she had an attractive product. What she didn’t have was any customers. With two small children – Thom is now eight and Evie is six – for a while Lottie juggled childcare with nursing a fledgling brand onto the market.
“I can’t believe I did it now, but when Thom was at nursery and Evie was just one-year-old, for weeks I would be down at Hebden Bridge market at 7.30am selling Yorkshire Parkin,” says Lottie, whose husband Ian now looks after the production side of the business. “We had to be sure that there was a market for what we were doing. I used to turn up at places like Chatsworth and Fodder in Harrogate armed with Yorkshire Parkin. I just needed them to try the product and tell me what they thought.”
Fortunately, Lottie Shaw’s Seriously Good Yorkshire Parkin lived up to its name. It’s now stocked in farm shops and delicatessens across the county, along with a range of biscuits, gingerbread men and flapjacks and a recently launched online store has allowed the family to reach markets further afield.
“One of the selling points is that we don’t add any of the usual chemicals to give this sticky ginger cake a longer shelf life, instead the sugar acts as a preservative. I always knew that if we could get people to taste the parkin we would be able to sell it, but the real trick has been persuading people that it doesn’t just have to be served on Bonfire Night.
“We’ve been working with the chef Stephanie Moon on different serving suggestions and it really is about giving people ideas and then letting them run with it.”
Lottie admits that not every experiment has been a success. The parkin sausages, she says, were a particular disaster and a chocolate version needs some work. However, the brand has helped transform the business which was begun by her great aunts Mary and Edith. The pair, later joined by Lottie’s grandfather Herbert, opened the family’s first bakery in Queens Road in Halifax in 1913. The cellar was turned into a kitchen, the sisters lived above the shop and next door, Lottie’s great aunt Cissie ran a milliners. Originally known as M&E Harrison, it was the arrival of their younger brother that raised the profile of the business. In a newspaper article in 1938, Herbert was described as a “cheery optimist” whose had singled-handedly saved the Halifax Master Bakers’ Association with a quiet determination and unrivalled passion.
In 1945, Herbert acquired Watson’s Confectioners and from 1964 the business was gradually passed on to his son Stuart. Together, with his wife Lynda, the couple grew the business and at its height it employed 550 people in the bakery and across 50 shops.
However it struggled with increased competition from supermarkets and by the time Lottie moved back to Yorkshire from Newcastle the number of independent bakeries had dwindled.
“We’ve kept the sandwich shop side of the business going and if you come in here late afternoon it can be fairly chaotic because that’s when we’re baking both the bread and the Lottie Shaw range. It would be a shame to think that we would have to leave these premises behind because they are part of our history and for me, the place holds so many memories, but if we get much bigger then I think we might have to.”
They are currently getting through 25,000 slabs of parkin a year and now also selling through the Not on the High Street website, this Christmas looks set to be the busiest ever.
“This is one of our new ranges for this year,” says Lottie, pointing to a box of gingerbread reindeers. “We were looking at a way of getting more use out of our cutting machine and suddenly we had a brainwave. If you turn an average gingerbread man upside down you have the perfect shape of a reindeer.”
While new machines like the one which fills the mince pie bases with mincemeat have speeded up production, much the process is still done by hand and Lottie knows that there is a balance to be struck between expanding into new markets and retaining that handmade feel.
“One of the great things about being a family business of this size is that we can adapt really quickly. The other day we got a call from one of our regular customers who had just won a contract for a big order of corporate hampers.
“They wanted 700 fruitcakes within a couple of days and they came to us because they know we can deliver. The last couple of years have been a bit of a whirlwind, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.”
In fact the only problem with the Lottie Shaw’s range is that people have certain expectations when they meet its creator and are invariably disappointed.
“For some reason people think that Lottie will be this slightly rotund, ruddy cheeked woman and I can see they are slightly crestfallen when they find out its me. Although a lovely man stopped me in Fodder and asked me to autograph a box of our Mince Pies because his wife loves it so much. That’s what I call fame.”