An actor, a philanthropist and a baker walk into a bar… all three of them are Sam Barriscale.
Most of us are blessed with one talent we can offer the world, but Sam – the owner of Ma Baker’s in Warndon – has at least three. When I sit down with him for a chat over drinks, the conversation could start almost anywhere; the arts, community work, formulas for the perfect loaf, each of these could form a jump-off point. We start, though, on the family business.
Trading since 1966, Ma Baker’s is a shining example of how businesses can prosper in the long-term while remaining focussed on serving the community. Handed down through generations, the family bakery was founded in a world of small shopkeepers and local grocers, but continues to thrive half a century on, despite the presence of three supermarkets within half a mile of the premises.
So, what was it like growing up with a small business in the family?
“I’ve got three brothers, we’d all worked in the bakery… My first memories were, at around 3 or 4 in the morning I’d be brought to sleep on the flour sacks by the oven, or in a sleeping bag… Dad always taught us that if you learned this trade, no matter where you end up in the world, people always need bakers. We were always taught that [in life] you go out and you work for your money. [Dad] came from nothing, he was a little Irish immigrant coming over to Britain.”
The concept of working for a living seems to have almost literally been baked into Sam’s identity from birth. Still, when his father passed away and his mum grew older, the time came for him to take over the family business, and he admits to a certain level of naivety about how hard running the business would be.
“I thought, ‘I can just fill it with staff and leave it alone, it’ll be fine’… and everyone who ran a small business laughed in my face. I learned after a year that you can’t do that, so I set it up as wholesale again.” Success followed, as Sam grew a customer base using contacts that he had in small business locally, alongside bolstered by the loyalty of his customers in Warndon.
What’s the secret of Ma Baker’s success?
“I’ve always been one for building a relationship with the customer. If you don’t have some sort of connection, if it’s purely a monetary transaction then it’s not really enjoyable to me. A lot of my [wholesale] customers have been with me for seven years, since I started. They know that if something’s wrong then I sort it out and they’ve got me as the contact.”
Having grown the wholesale side of the business so well, Sam has become embedded within the local small business community. In bringing local small businesses their daily bread, he’s also able to bring moral and practical support to other small business owners. “We’ve had times in business where we’ve been up and down, we’ve been through Brexit and had price increases and staff shortages. If [customers] are looking for a particular member of staff, I can share it and ask around. If a customer has been quiet and thinks they’ve done something wrong, then I can say ‘don’t worry, everyone’s been quiet today,’ – or not.”
When he speaks, it’s clear Sam isn’t in business solely for the money. For too many of us, the idea of the baker as a key figure in the local community seems like something dated, something from the old ‘Happy Families’ card game, or rhymes about the butcher, the baker and candlestick maker. Nevertheless, here he is, thriving in the 21st century with that time-honoured, community-based approach.
“That’s what makes it worthwhile, if you have that connection. We’ve got that connection with customers who come into the shop, because we’ve known 3 to 4 generations of them.”
With that in mind, does he feel pressure to do things his dad’s way?
Well, not really, it seems.
“Dad was military, he fought for the British Army in Africa. He was very organised, meticulous… whereas me, being an actor, is much more fabulous really.” We share a laugh at this, contrasting the rigid soldier with the freewheeling thespian, but it’s immediately clear both approaches have merit.
“[I’m] much more, do-it-on-the-fly, if you can make it creative make it creative. I’ve always liked working with customers and making new products for them. I love food anyway, I look at worldwide stuff, I look at things that are happening in the world and think ‘how would that work for us?’ That’s probably one of the reasons The Sunday Times put us in the Top 25 Bakeries in the UK.”
That top 25 spot, in no less a paper than The Sunday Times, is testament to the power of what a provincial small business owner can achieve. Jostling for position with a range of national talent, including a slew of London-based firms, Ma Baker’s triumphed in 2016 and continues to experiment to this day.
“I think it comes from trusting your instincts; have a good creative eye, know what you want…” Of course though, there are practical considerations too. “One of the things I do get from my dad, as he was a scientist, everything was percentages. Once you break everything into percentages, you go ‘this ingredient has this chemical reaction and does this to the bun, so if I move this up and down, I can create something that’s lighter and holds together and does what I want.’” In some ways then, his Dad’s rigour and his own creativity have come together to create something exceptional.
It’s not just the baking that’s remarkable though. Last year, when the government voted against providing free school meals for children during October half term, Sam stepped in, providing free meals, no questions asked, at his own expense. He also crowdfunded another £6,000 in donations. It was, and is, a heartwarming thing to have done for his community – and he rightly drew national recognition again, this time from England and Man United star Marcus Rashford, who retweeted Sam’s offer of support.
What drove him to step in after the government didn’t provide free school meals?
“I just hate bullies, and I’ve always hated bullies. That’s all it is, it’s the bullying of the poor. It’s making people feel bad that they haven’t got money, through no fault of their own. It’s not the kids’ fault… and it wasn’t just the families you would think.”
Sam tells me, no personal details mentioned, about individual people who approached him to take him up on his offer. In some cases, they lived in more affluent areas, and may have appeared relatively comfortable, but circumstances – particularly sickness and lack of sick pay – had left them without the money on hand to feed their kids. They were mortified at having to ask for support.
“We’d go ‘that’s OK, just come in and say “I’m here to collect my lunches,” you don’t have to ask for anything for free,’ and we were able to take the shame away. And that’s all shame is, it’s a form of bullying… and it’s wrong.” As he speaks, Sam’s vision once again comes to the fore. It’s about being a humble champion for people; using the tools and the skills at your disposal to ensure everyone is looked after, without judgement. “All you can do is help people at your level. If you change things locally… that’s what I wanted to do with the bakery. You can do that at a community level, and you can help the people that need it.” There’s a message not just in what Sam says, but in how he actually puts his money where his mouth is. Your supermarket might talk about ‘corporate social responsibility,’ and they may even think they mean it. Still, if you want to enjoy best-in-class baking made by a real community champion, then get in touch with Ma Baker’s.