Flour power: how milling enjoyed a lockdown revival
PUBLISHED: 04:07 23 September 2020
Who could have predicted at the start of the coronavirus pandemic how quickly the country would go back to basics?
When it came to stocking up, two items disappeared particularly fast from supermarket shelves – toilet rolls and that traditional food staple, wheat flour.
Such a phenomenon suggests something deep-seated in our culture, but whatever the roots of the sudden surge in demand, it was up to flour millers like Essex-based Marriages to answer the call.
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And answer they did. It was all hands to the mill as orders came flooding in from armies of new buyers – all desperate to get their hands on bags of flour during lockdown.
The family-run mill – which still sources wheat from local fields – was established in 1824 in Chelmsford by twin brothers William and Henry.
Today it is run by the fifth and sixth generation of the founding family, and retains a strong sense of identity and a traditional ethos which aims to keep the family heritage at its core.
Hannah Marriage admits it has been a hectic time, but says the workforce rose to the challenge and worked “incredibly hard”.
“We have been super-busy,” she says. “Lockdown has just been totally unprecedented for us. Dad (George, also a director) says there’s never been anything like this.
“It’s just incredible – our online shop sales increased tenfold.”
Some were simply stockpiling, others wanted to teach their children how to make food. It was clear a number were novice bakers. At the same time, the mill also saw business from some of its established catering customers disappear overnight as hospitality and catering venues were forced to shut down. “There was a big drop-off in their demand,” says Hannah.
As a result, Marriages switched its focus to the home baking side, doubling the output.
“We were running extra hours - 24 hours six days a week for months,” she says. “Some days there were hundreds of phone calls every day. We actually had to stop our online shop for two weeks and close the orders just to get through the backlog.”
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Flour mill workers were classed as essential workers which meant the mill not only kept its 100-strong plus workforce on but took on some temporary workers too – as family and friends of staff were drafted in to help manage the workload.
It was “crazy”, but the huge spike in demand was a worldwide phenomenon. The challenge Marriages faced was that its packing lines are aligned to different size bags - catering and smaller consumer-sized ones – and they couldn’t just swap them over.
Instead they restricted some of the lines they produced so that they could streamline their operations. Milling is quite a well-connected industry and they helped each other out to ensure that bakers could get the flour they needed, says Hannah.
She can see how baking at home took off during lockdown. “It’s relaxed and it’s a nice thing to do, to have your hands on some dough. It’s a lovely activity with children.”
With the ending of lockdown, the catering side of the business started to return, boosted by chancellor Rishi Sunak’s Eat Out to Help Out scheme in August.
It’s hard to predict whether the baking at home trend would be a lasting one, but lockdown has raised the profile of the £25m turnover business, says Hannah.
“It’s been good for us because more people have used our brand and managed to get hold of it,” she says. “We think the future is going to be more of the home baking so I think that’s going to be an increased focus.”
It will be a year to remember, and the team had taken pride in rising to the challenge. “I think people really pulled together and it was a reminder of why you do what you do,” she says.
Meanwhile, the majority of the mill’s wheat comes from within a 30-mile radius – and this year’s harvest has been a difficult one for some farmers who have seen big drops in yields.
Director George Marriage, who has been with the business for 40 years and is involved in the finance side, and wheat buying, says so far yield isn’t looking great – unlike last year’s bumper crop. “The wet weather affected what could be planted, then once wheat was planted in the spring it was then very dry,” he says.
But in general the local wheat was looking good from a quality perspective, even though yields are significantly lower, he says.
“The picture seems to be very variable from farm to farm and field to field,” he adds.
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