Joe & Dawn Reade have been baking in some form or another on the beautiful island of Mull since 1994 - first baking bread for the local population, and then opening a deli on the colourful Main Street of Tobermory. Keen to make something that could travel beyond Mull, the Reades thought that Organic biscuits could be an excellent product to introduce to places beyond the island’s shores, and so, in 2001 Island Bakery Organics was born! They've expanded the range since then to include a variety of tempting flavours and savoury biscuits, and they've been one of our biscuit bestsellers for some time now. We asked them some questions to find out a bit more about how Island Bakery make their fantastic biccies, and they told us all about their background on the Island, and the care that has gone into everything that they do; from the green credentials of their current bakery, to the careful consideration they've given to their distinctive biscuit packaging, as seen on shelves up and down the country.
1. When and why did you start your organic bakery?
I grew up on Mull (except for the first bit of my childhood) and after leaving university and coming home, Dawn (now my wife) and I needed to find a way to make a living. Mull is an island of just 3,000 people, and is dominated by the tourism industry. It’s not an easy place to build a career unless you are self-employed or in the very seasonal tourist trade.
My family are dairy farmers, and at the time, we delivered fresh milk around the island, going door-to-door each morning. Fresh bread seemed like a natural accompaniment to the milk deliveries, so we learned how to bake! We first started baking in 1994, in a borrowed garage on the end of my brother’s new house. We stayed there for many years – I think he might have regretted lending it to us once we started baking through the night just through the wall from his bedroom! We learned on the job, not just how to bake bread, but how to run a business. Night shifts and the feast-to-famine nature of catering for a tourist island made it a tough job. We persevered, and over time we developed the business to include the range of organic biscuits that are now sold through Greencity.
2. What production methods do you use to set you apart from other bakeries?
Firstly, we only use organic ingredients* in all our biscuits, and focus on simple recipes with real flavours – we don’t use ‘flavourings’ of any sort. So for example our range of citrusy Melts contain only pure citrus oils for their flavour, and our Apple Crumbles get a natural baked apple flavour from a combination of apple juice and apple pieces. Simplicity and honesty is what it’s all about.
Environmental and sustainability issues are very important to us, and that extends beyond the use of organic ingredients. When we built our new factory in 2012, we took the opportunity to incorporate green principles, by installing a wood-fired oven system. There is an abundance of managed renewable forestry on Mull, most of which leaves the island to go for furniture and paper production. Whilst there are few opportunities to use Mull-grown ingredients in our biscuits, the one local resource we can use is renewable energy. So we buy low-grade local timber from the conifer plantations that surround us, and use it as fuel in our wood-fired ovens. This is a super-low-carbon cycle, and a sustainable way of heating our ovens – as well as resulting in a slow radiant bake that makes a real difference to the biscuits.
We are the worlds’ first and still the only biscuit producer to do all our baking in wood-fired ovens.
Our other energy is also generated locally and sustainably – we’re connected to a small-scale hydro-electric turbine that is powered by the river that runs past the bakery, as well as a wind turbine on the hill beside us. So long as the wind is blowing or the rain falling, we are using 100% green local energy. So that’s a lot of the time!
We are always working to improve what we do – as technology and practices improve, there will be more opportunities to further reduce our environmental impact. But there are always compromises – some things we would like to do, but are just not possible. For example, we recently re-worked our packaging and removed an internal tray that was made of plastic, replacing it with a paper ‘boat’ instead. At the same time we looked hard at the options for swapping the plastic film that the biscuits are wrapped in with a non-plastic alternative. We found one suitable film that would have enabled us to say that our packaging was ‘plastic free’, but we didn’t go for it because it felt dishonest. Although ‘plastic free’ the material was cellulose-based and had massive imbedded energy, as well as being just as much of a litter-risk as plastic films because it would only decompose in very specific circumstances. We felt the more honest and (on balance) less environmentally-damaging choice was to keep using plastic film. But we see those same films commonly in use and the term ‘plastic free’ being used – but we know that it’s not as simple as that. Just because its plastic-free, it doesn’t mean the environmental impact is less.
That is an example of the kind of quandary and compromise that all manufacturers with environmental concerns face, and it’s something we think about a lot. Environmental and sustainability issues should be foremost in every food producer’s mind. The fact is that most modern agriculture is not sustainable, and is of course a huge emitter of carbon. We all need to get better at choosing the least-impactful ingredients and materials, and for us, being organic is central to that.
* OK – there is one exception! Our new cheese biscuit range uses Isle of Mull Cheese, made on the family farm right beside the bakery. Isle of Mull Cheese is one of the only remaining cheeses in the UK made from the milk of a single herd, as well as being produced by my brothers! How could we not use it?!
The Island Bakery Factory, built with green principles in mind in 2012
3. How has the global pandemic affected your business?
It’s been really tough. About a third of our business was with food-service customers – airlines, coffee shops, contract caterers and so on. Overnight, we lost all of that custom. But it hasn’t been as bad for us as many other businesses – we have seen quite how difficult it has been for all the tourism businesses on Mull, who have missed an entire year of trading.
We used the time productively though – we put all our efforts into developing new products, and now we have four entirely new ranges ready for sale. First is a range of cheese biscuits that are made using Isle of Mull Cheese from the family dairy farm just across the road where I (Joe) grew up. They are phenomenal! As I write this, the bakery is full of the smell of cheese biscuits baking… We also created a range of oatcakes made with extra-virgin olive oil; five different gift tins with some moreish new shortbreads in them, and most recently, an entirely new brand of gluten-free cookies devised by our development baker Fiona Aitali. Fiona’s initials are FA … so they are called Sweet FA of course!
4. What motivates you?
Ooooh difficult question! Establishing and growing a small business is fundamentally a big creative project. The satisfaction comes from seeing it grow, and doing things to the best of one’s ability. It can be a challenge though, with significant ups and downs. It’s far from a secure way to earn a living – if money was my motivator I would be doing something else. We’re also quite proud of bringing stable job opportunities to the island. But of course the biggest satisfaction comes from producing a product that people enjoy and appreciate. I would certainly get less satisfaction from making anonymous widgets! Food is a fundamental way of connecting people, and every message of appreciation we get from customers is valued.
The Island Bakery Team
5. Is there an individual or organisation, current or in the past, who inspires you?
Another difficult question! I think I’ll plump for my Mum and Dad…that sounds like an unimaginative choice, but in many ways we here on Mull and doing what we’re doing because of the choices and influence of my parents. It was they who had the idea of moving to a Hebridean island (together with four sons and a hundred cows!), because of the satisfaction, perhaps even the romance, of producing milk for people rather than a company. They got immense satisfaction from producing milk for the people of Mull and delivering it to their doors – whereas in Somerset (where we farmed until I was 12) each day a tanker would drive it off the farm to be added to a butter mountain somewhere. So they definitely imbued in me the idea of doing something that was of value to people, that was ‘worthy’ if you like… of doing something that was about more than earning a living. For many farmers there is that sense of ‘mission’, of fulfilling an essential role in society. We’re just baking biscuits, but a part of me hopes we are doing our little bit too.
6. Apart from Greencity, which other three or more people, living or deceased, would you invite to make a dinner party entertaining?
Stephen Fry, Tommy Cooper and Peter Cook. Should be entertaining!