Meet the family run Yorkshire bakers behind the 'heavenly' award-winning mince pies

The verdict was emphatic. “This is the perfect example of what a mince pie should be like,” said the Great Taste Award judges about Thomas the Baker’s Heavenly Sweet Mince Pie, as they awarded it the first ever three star for a mince pie.

They are words that have the third generation Yorkshire baker’s general manager Simon Thomas, bristling with pride, as he watches the latest batch of mince pies come off the production line at the craft bakery in Helmsley.

In the run-up to Christmas, Thomas the Baker will sell around 250,000 mince pies – with half of these sold in the week before December 25, although they are popular with customers all year round with more than 2,000 sold every week, with demand growing from October onwards.

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More than 3,000 additional man-hours are needed to meet the Christmas demand. The extra time is needed to make, bake and box the original one-star luxury mince pies, with a great deal of hand finishing involved – and that was before work began in earnest on producing the new three-star mince pie.

Steve Simpson, production director, with Simon Thomas, general manager. (Picture: James Hardisty).

And all this alongside their stalwarts, including award-winning pork pies, Christmas Puddings, Bakewell Tarts, Eccles Cakes, their famous Yorkshire Curd Tarts and the two and a half million sausage rolls it sells every year. Thomas’s normal luxury sweet mince pies have won 14 independent taste awards.

The recipe which is closely guarded, and has remained unchanged for more than 30 years, has been passed down from generation to generation with only three people in the business privy to the exact recipe.

“Many people have tried to copy it, but without success,” says Thomas with pride. “The secret, as with many of our products, is down to the quality and freshness of the ingredients used.”

So why bring out a new mince pie?

Sam Wilson loading trollies with gingerbread men and mince pies at the Helmsley bakery. (James Hardisty).

“Our luxury mince pie is an award-winner and we wanted to bring out something that would complement rather than compete with that,” explains Steve Simpson, Thomas’s forward production director, and the man behind the new mince pie.

Simpson spent two years of trial and error perfecting the new recipe which was introduced into stores last year and sold around 5,000. This year they have sold more than 30,000 of them already.

He explains that the all butter pastry shell has the addition of finely ground almonds for added taste and texture and the sweet mince filling has apricots and brandy added with a couple of secret ingredients. The pie is finished off with a tender Viennese biscuit topping.

And Simpson isn’t just the brains behind perfecting the Heavenly Sweet Mince Pie. “We couldn’t find a machine to pipe the Viennese biscuit topping so it has to be piped by hand,” explains Thomas.

Beth Thomas, filling the Heavenly Sweet Mince Pies. (James Hardisty).

“But it is a pretty thick mixture and so you need some muscles to do it and so Steve ends up piping most of them.”

Simpson is responsible for all the bakery and production; he has been with the company for 38 years and has developed many of their award-winning recipes.

“I began as a Friday night baker to pick up some extra work and worked my way through the company.”

Following three years at Thomas Danby Baking College of Excellence, Simpson travelled widely around the UK and Europe, often with Simon Thomas who also went to Thomas Danby, visiting and working in international bakeries in France, Italy, Germany, Holland and Finland to develop their knowledge of baking.

Simpson still likes to be in at 5am every day to see the freshly baked bread and rolls coming out of the ovens and to oversee the quality of the pastries, cream cakes and scones as they leave for the shops. He is also heavily involved in the development and production of the artisan and sourdough ranges of breads.

Thomas feels the responsibility of carrying on the legacy started by his father, John Thomas, nearly 40 years ago and sticks to his ethos of only expanding within Yorkshire.

“If we go further than 90 minutes drive from the bakery then that could compromise the freshness of the produce and we are not prepared to do that.”

John Thomas always wanted to have his own ‘‘bakers dozen’’ of bakeries. For 20 years he worked for many big bakery companies. Married to Val, the pair travelled wherever the work took them including London, where eldest son Gareth was born, and Lancashire where Simon was born.

Their next move was to a two up, two down gardener’s cottage near Gilling East in rural North Yorkshire in 1970. The next 10 years were spent working and saving hard to be in a position to start their own business.

Eventually, the Thomases found an industrial building in Helmsley, just seven miles from their home, and bought the freehold with their savings.

Gareth and Simon were involved in the business from the beginning, and prior to opening the first shop they were making Chorley Cakes in the converted garage at their parents’ home to supply a national chain.

Shortly after finding a suitable site for the bakery, the hunt was on for the first shop and Thomas of Malton opened in July 1981. This was soon followed by the official opening of Helmsley shop in 1982.

Originally the shops were known by the name of the towns they were located in like ‘‘Thomas of Malton’’. However, customers so regularly referred to the shops as Thomas the Baker, that is what they became.

Now almost completely unrecognisable as the original building, the European-approved modern craft bakery in Helmsley is filled with state of the art ovens, provers, mixers and pastry equipment. The site now extends to 4.5 acres, allowing plenty of development space for the future.

“In the early years, we opened two or three shops a year and we soon reached the point where we were in most market towns within a 90-minute delivery radius of Helmsley,” recalls Thomas. The business gained a reputation for fresh quality products at good value prices, a formula that is still as important today as it ever has been.

Although Thomas the Baker now employs more than 400 people, it remains very much a family affair. Simon’s youngest daughter Bethany now works in the bakery and helps to design and develop many of the higher finish biscuits and cakes available in the shops. Although older daughter Sian isn’t directly employed by the business, she too helps out especially with social media, using both Twitter and Facebook to tell customers what’s currently of interest as well as running the company’s blog.

It has been a hard year for Thomas the Baker, as it has for many independent businesses, and they took the difficult decision to close six of their shops.

“People just didn’t want to go into town centres. We managed to keep 24 open during lockdown as we were designated as essential so we were still officially allowed to open so long as we made all our shops, and the bakery, covid safe,” says Thomas, who has managed to reopen almost all of the shops.

For everyone at Thomas the Baker the three-star award from the Guild of Fine Food Writers – seen as the pinnacle in the UK food awards scene ­‑ could not have come at a better time.

“It has, of course, been a very strange year and if our mince pies can help bring a smile to some faces this Christmas it will make all the hard work worthwhile,” says Simon Thomas.