Tell us a little bit about your background and where your love of food began.
Gosh, where do I start? Well first and foremost, I’m a Geordie through and through. I was born and educated in Newcastle, my grandad even played for Newcastle United in the 1920s. I guess I’ve always loved food as my mother was a great cook, and once I left school, I knew I wanted a career in food. I started working in a corporate job – sorting out distribution systems around Britain and then in China for global company GNT. But gradually I got more and more dissatisfied, I was a Geordie boy in Shanghai thinking ‘where am I going next?’ – I actually thought the next place would be Mars as I felt I couldn’t get further away from where I came from. My earliest childhood memory came back to me, which is where I was picking eggs from beneath the trees at my parents home in Wylam – so 20 years ago I came back to the North East, got a little house in Wylam and haven’t looked back since.
What sparked your interest in the environment?
I studied Environmental Approaches to Agriculture at Cranfield University in the ‘80s, which is why I have always had an interest in climate change and sustainability. In 2002 I went as a global activist to the World Earth Summit in Johannesburg, and realised change wasn’t going to happen from the top down. It then dawned on me that I wanted to make a real impact, and the way to do that is through local people getting together and making little changes. I thought very long and deeply, and I saw food as a great solution – I want the North East to be known across the world as being somewhere where food is affordable for everyone.
Is that the concept behind Big River Bakery? How did the bakery begin?
Yes, in a word. Trying to tackle global food wastage is pretty ambitious, so I wanted to make a very complicated thing as simple and as local as possible. I began volunteering at The Artisan Baking Community which was being run by a group of professionals, but they didn’t really want to grow the bakery or sell the produce, so I took over. About a year ago we found a place in Shieldfield which was big enough to hold a bakery, a shop and a designated area for bakery teaching, but it needed a lot of work done. We set up a crowdfunding page to raise enough money to renovate the derelict property, and in June we reached the total with just one day to spare! We moved all the kit over to the new shop and have been running the business there ever since. We changed the name as I felt the word ‘artisan’ creates tangible barriers, so we decided on Big River Bakery, which has a much more inclusive feel.
What does Big River Bakery do, and what’s the mission?
We want to create a fairer food system through developing the community, the people within it, and demonstrating that there is way a fairer way to produce food. We employ people from all backgrounds – ex-offenders, people with autism, those who are unemployed and socially isolated – helping them to make a living, training them to learn how to bake and, most importantly, how to make a positive impact on their own community. We also host fun baking workshops and courses for individuals, groups and organisations like our Brew and Bake Day, where you bake bread in our workshop in the morning before going to Tyne Bank Brewery in the afternoon to make beer. There’s too much pretentiousness in food – we wanted to strip all of that back and show just how liberating it can be, it should be for everyone. I like to think of our bakery as the school of canny scran and bevy!
What sort of things do you bake?
Our main focus is bread, but we bake lots of other stuff like cakes and biscuits. We also do proper Geordie stotties which don’t have loads of rubbish in them – there are lots of stotties in the North East that are bread buns masquerading as stotties, but we make the real thing.
What’s been the highlight of your career so far?
Looking back, it probably should have been the corporate award I was given for logistic solutions when I worked at GNT – I even ended up on the Hall of Fame in the boardroom! But when I received that award, the only emotion I felt was disappointment and emptiness. I didn’t feel it was the right thing to have spent my time doing, so I followed my values, and have found my passion through the baking community. Therefore, I’d say my career highlight was when we reached the total for the crowdfunding page to open the new bakery. The support that we had made me realise people do believe in it, and they want to help.
And the lowlight?
It’s been a 15 year journey which has been tough personally and professionally in lots of ways. It was a huge risk moving the shop to a bigger space – at one point we didn’t think we’d raise the funds in time, as the tenancy on our previous shop was running out and the contractors had already begun work on the new site. It was such a lot of pressure on me as people’s livelihoods were on the line, but thankfully we came through it!
Talk us through your typical day at work.
I have quite a strange routine… I get up at about 4am, and potter around in my garden and in my office, and just spend time thinking. I might go back to sleep for an hour, then I usually have porridge with honey from the bees I keep in my garden – I occasionally have toast using my own bread but, believe it or not, you can get too much of a good thing! At about 7am I’ll head to the bakery, where I do try to take a back seat, as I like our other employees and volunteers to take the reins in terms of leading the courses and workshops.
What do you like to do when you’re not in the bakery?
In September I had my first holiday in over two years, which was lovely! But that’s been part of the problem, I often struggle to find the balance between work and personal life. In January, I was on my way to the bakery in my van when I was hit by a huge juggernaut lorry, but miraculously I came out unscathed. I believe it was a little nudge from the universe that I needed to get more balance in my life. So now I try to spend more time at home with my partner and looking after my bees, as well as sea kayaking up the Western Isles with my mates. It’s so important to have some play time.
Where do you like to eat in the North East?
I don’t go very far as I travel quite a bit for work. I like to go out in Wylam where I live, there’s a great variety of places there, trendy pubs and nice relaxing restaurants. I just like to relax close to home.
We’re delighted that you’ll be coming to our Christmas Fair this month – what can we look forward to?
We’ll be showcasing our huge product range of homemade breads and sweet treats, which will have a Christmassy twist. As well as the products, there’ll be vouchers and the chance for people to find out more about our courses, which we’d love people to buy as a present for themselves or others. We really can’t wait to show people what we’re all about!
You can catch Andy and Big River Bakery at Living North’s Christmas Fair at Kingston Park Stadium, Newcastle, from 7th–10th November.