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Fitzbillies owner: How we’re meeting the challenges faced by independent businesses in Cambridge city centre

Alison Wright, who combines her role as owner of Fitzbillies bakery with a seat on the Cambridge BID board, considers the future of the city’s independent businesses.

Alison Wright at Fitzbillies in Trumpington Street. Picture: Keith Heppell
Alison Wright at Fitzbillies in Trumpington Street. Picture: Keith Heppell

I’m about to go to the airport for the first time in three years and, as an obsessive small business owner, I know that everywhere I visit will inspire new thoughts about doing business in Cambridge.

It’s an utter joy to run an independent business in a city that millions of people would love to visit or live in. Like Dubrovnik or Siena, we enjoy a small jewel-like historic centre – but we also have the massive high-tech and biotech presence found in places like San Francisco.

Our world-class university and education brand cross-fertilises with the historic attraction and high-tech brands, that bring in business investment and knowledge workers. The result is a wonderful mix of culture, interests and people.

At Fitzbillies we have customers who pop in each morning for coffee on their way to work on the university museums site, global visitors who make a once-in-a-lifetime trip to see King’s College Chapel, corporate employees who order Chelsea buns for a company coffee morning and local shoppers who come into town at the weekend.

On the demand side, I’m so grateful to have the opportunity to do business here. There’s no doubt, though, that the city has some major challenges on the supply side.

Individual pressures

In the bakery at Fitzbillies. Picture: Keith Heppell
In the bakery at Fitzbillies. Picture: Keith Heppell

This morning I spent an hour persuading a talented career baker to stay with us. He drives in every day from Newmarket and his petrol costs have just rocketed to more than £3,500 per year; unsurprisingly, this has made him question the viability of his job. While we can’t reduce the price of petrol, we can make changes that will help to make our bakery an even better place to work.

Following our conversation, we are changing our production system so that our bakers no longer have to follow the traditional model of working overnight in order to ensure that fresh croissants and other baked goods are on our counters every morning.

Instead, we’ll make our dough during the day and use special fridges called ‘retarders’ to hold the dough overnight so that it’s ready to slide into a pre-heated oven when bakers arrive for work at 5am to 6am. It’s a new way to produce our artisan products to the same high standards, while improving conditions for our staff.

That we have developed this by sitting down and working it out with our bakers, is characteristic of the spirit of independent businesses and the wonderful way that they can respond to staff and make changes that help employees feel part of something bigger. These days, most of my time and mental energy goes into finding new ways to make my business a great place to work.

Accommodation for artisans

A Chelsea bun tray. Picture: Fitzbillies
A Chelsea bun tray. Picture: Fitzbillies

Many of our staff live in Peterborough, St Ives, Bury St Edmunds, Ely and Newmarket because of the cost of accommodation in Cambridge.

Driving an hour to work is normal, at times when there aren’t any buses and the Park & Ride isn’t operating. Every month, unfortunately, we lose potential hires because they discover that they either can’t afford to live in Cambridge or they can’t get into the city in time to open up.

After investing in a three-stage interview and trial only for a promising applicant to discover that they couldn’t afford to live in the city, I now make a point of asking applicants early on if they have looked into the price of rentals. I have even given serious consideration to buying a small block of studio apartments in the city for Fitzbillies’ staff to rent, but I’m not convinced it’s healthy to be the landlord of the people who also work for you.

The council is doing a certain amount to make accommodation more affordable, with supported rent schemes in Longstowe for instance, though I wonder if more could be achieved, given the proliferation of building work in Cambridge. Shared ownership schemes are currently not workable for a single person or someone in a non-supervisory role and it feels discriminatory that most young people can’t afford to live in the city unless they can keep a bedroom in their parents’ home.

City centre access

A Fitzbillies Cambridge hamper box
A Fitzbillies Cambridge hamper box

Transport and traffic concerns need creative solutions. In Siena, for example, locals display a permit in their car that enables them to drive into the city centre. Visitors are asked to walk or travel in by bus from one of the many car parks on the city outskirts and they face a hefty 50 Euro fine if they drive in without a permit; coaches are not allowed to park anywhere near the heritage sites.

Electric bicycles could help to solve some of our city’s access issues, enabling people to travel what might otherwise be an unrealistic distance. We’ve seen this work in practice, supporting one of our bakers to buy an electric bicycle so that he can get from Milton Road to Hills Road every day for work.

Within the year, we may also have an electric delivery bicycle for the business. It won’t cover all deliveries – imagine a wedding cake on the back of a bike – but we could use it for top-up deliveries during the day, in addition to our morning van delivery for large, heavy or delicate items. It would also be a useful way to cross the historic core of the city, with its limited access.

Like other retailers, we have a host of retainers for vital support services such as air conditioning, plumbing and bakery equipment.

All these trades need to get their callout done and move on as fast as possible but, unfortunately, it’s clear that working in Cambridge city centre is almost not worth their while because of traffic and parking issues. The demand is there, but difficulties with daytime access can lead to repairs being delayed, which can affect customer service.

To be honest, I’ve just learned a kind of terrible persistence with suppliers. I’m way beyond taking no for an answer! I don’t give up after the 5th, or even the 20th ‘no’, but I’ve learned to keep trying until I find a workaround.

Business as an economic buffer

Fitzbillies' fruit tarts
Fitzbillies' fruit tarts

I believe that businesses in Cambridge are currently acting as a buffer between the joyful demand side and the more challenging supply side.

The prices of all our ingredients have increased by 40 per cent since 2019 and our power costs will increase by a staggering 90 per cent on August 8. We signed the latter contract last autumn, well before the Ukraine war had any impact.

We’re also paying staff significantly more than before the pandemic. This is one increase that I welcome because, historically, bakery and hospitality staff have not been very well paid. For me, paying good people more is an aspiration, expectation and business objective.

As a boss, I want to create value so that I can pay people well in return for great work.

In response to all of these increases, we have put our prices up a little. Thankfully, this hasn’t affected demand, but we are conscious of needing to keep prices reasonable, while recognising that we offer a premium, artisan product.

Overall, I think that most businesses in Cambridge are buffering increased supply costs without increasing prices too much because of the cost-of-living crisis. Those businesses that don’t maintain this balance will, sadly, collapse in different ways.

It’s an exhausting position to be in – but I’ve learnt that you can do a lot on goodwill and adrenaline.

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