‘Pay what you can afford’: Newcastle bakery combats rising cost of living

<span>Photograph: Richard Saker/The Guardian</span>
Photograph: Richard Saker/The Guardian

“They are absolutely food of the gods,” said Andy Haddon after a few minutes eulogising about the simplicity, slight chewiness and fabulous taste of the stottie, the round flat loaf that is as much a part of north-east England as football or T-shirts in winter.

Haddon is speaking in front of the Big River Bakery, which he opened in 2019 on a housing estate in Shieldfield, a diverse, disadvantaged but also buzzy and communal part of Newcastle. It does what countless bakeries do: makes and sell loaves, sandwiches, croissants, pies, pasties, scones and cakes – and, of course, stotties.

What makes the Big River Bakery different is that it is run as a social enterprise with a mission to help as many people as it can, particularly now the country is facing a cost of living crisis.

The bakery aims to bring communities together and find solutions for local issues. Its many projects include bread-making classes for the long-term unemployed; period poverty awareness; and most recently providing free breakfast bags to hungry school children.

It is committed to making its food as affordable as possible – including holding “pay what you can afford” days. Often what many local people could afford, said Haddon, was nothing at all. “People come in who are struggling, often homeless.”

Money raised through this year’s Guardian and Observer charity appeal will support – through our two partners, Locality and Citizens Advice – scores of local charities and social enterprises like Big River Bakery, which help people on the frontline of the cost of living crisis in some of the UK’s most deprived neighbourhoods.

Big River Bakery recently started a daily delivery of breakfast bags to a school after teachers voiced concerns over the number of pupils who arrived hungry each morning. A song with a geordie folk vibe was released to support a crowdfunder to help pay for the breakfast bags, which contain muffins or croissants as well as fruit, juice and yoghurts.

Megan Power, a teacher at Christ Church primary in Shieldfield, said: “It is about giving children the best start … We’re trying to level the playing field and make sure the children have everything they need to succeed and become the very best versions of themselves.

“I know what I’m like without breakfast, we all do. It’s clock watching, thinking: ‘When’s break time when I can get something to eat, or when’s lunchtime?’. Nobody wants any child to be in that situation. We want them to succeed, we want them to be happy not hungry.”

The bakery is working on a project with Newcastle University to develop a range of baked goods that can improve the health of people as they age. “Tyneside and Teesside are top of the league for people having an unhealthy life and a short one,” said Haddon. “We’ve got to get off the top of the table.”

The bakery has evolved from a concept Haddon first came up with in 2013. The road hasn’t been easy and there have been mistakes along the way, he said. “Although I don’t call them mistakes. They’re rehearsals. It has been an emergent strategy, as they say in business schools.

“Sometimes you’ve got to step off the cliff and believe it will happen if you put some energy into it. That’s what we’ve done repeatedly. It has been high risk but it has sort of worked so far.”

Finding a derelict building to trade from was crucial, and then serendipitous things happened, such as bumping into one of the Hairy Bikers, Si King, near the Heaton Sainsbury’s. That led to the bakery featuring on the Hairy Bikers Go North BBC series – “ham and pease pudding stotties obviously” – which was a pivotal moment, said Haddon.

As well as the community projects, the bakery does corporate work, offering team building and problem solving through baking. It also supplies events, includingat the Sage concert hall and the Baltic contemporary art gallery in Gateshead.

“It is quite an innovative business model with multiple income streams,” said Haddon. “It has to be. How do we keep our prices right when the cost of butter has gone from £40 to £90? We have to innovate.”

Those innovations include selling a soft toy called Scotty the Stottie; a children’s book titled The Adventures of Scotty the Shieldfield Stottie; honey from Haddon’s own hives; and sourdough and stottie making kits. “The furthest we’ve posted a stottie making kit is Portland, Oregon, USA, which is fantastic.”

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