The Knead for success

Knead Bakery owner Graeme Niblock tells Neighbourhood Retailer what it really means to run a family-owned business at the heart of the local community

For Graeme Niblock, owner of Knead Bakery in Newtownards, becoming a baker was a natural transition. Having grown up watching his father have two successful bakeries – the Golden Crumb in East Belfast and the original Harlequin Patisserie – Graeme developed a flair for the practical side of the business and became a full-time baker after leaving school.

“My family immigrated to Australia while I was in secondary school and during my time there I thought I might train to be a chef,” says Graeme. “When we returned to Northern Ireland, and after I finished school, I started training under my father whilst also studying a few Open University courses, but baking was always a constant presence in my life.”

“One day I turned round and said to myself I want to make this a career and really put my all into it. Being a baker is not a job – it’s a lifestyle and something you’ve got to be completely immersed in. You’ve got to like it otherwise you wouldn’t get up at 3am!”

In 2016, with the support of his wife, Graeme bought the Harlequin Patisserie from his parents and set about refurbishing the premises and rebranding. After 22 years on Newtownards’ bustling High Street, changing the name may have seemed like a risk to some, but the bakery’s customer base remained loyal to the family behind the operation.

“I just wanted to make it my own and the re-fit is probably the best thing we’ve done. Footfall has increased exponentially since the refurbishment. It was a big investment but it’s paying off,” says Graeme.

With family values very much at the heart of the business, Graeme tells Neighbourhood Retailer that relatives were and still are, members of the 13 strong staff

“My brother helped us out while he was doing his schooling and my sister worked in the shop when she was at university. We’ve had my Granny, aunties, uncles, and cousins all behind the counter – everybody has had a go but nobody has taken to the baking yet.”

And while Knead bakery may have a new brand identity, it is the trusted standards and product ranges that prevail. Having stood at the same site for over two decades, Graeme has been privy to generations of the same family coming into the bakery to buy their everyday favourites and weekly treats.

“I’ve seen school kids who used to come into the shop, who are now parents bringing their own children, says Graeme. “Everybody is looking for a taste of something they remember from their youth – traditional things that our customers would remember their granny or their mum making.”

Classic items, like Graeme’s personal favourite, the pancake, is particularly popular with children who are fussy eaters.

“We get parents coming in saying that their kids won’t eat any other pancakes. The same with sausage rolls – which is good because I know what goes into them. I’d give my children our products over anyone else’s simply because I know the quality of our ingredients.”

While there is plenty of inspiration for the new product ideas on the internet, Graeme favours his extensive collection of recipe books at home – much to his wife’s dismay – for finding ideas from yesteryear to put his own unique twist on. However, it’s not just traditional products that customers are seeking out.

“People want different flavours, so you just have to be on the ball and keep trying new things,” he says.

The internet and social media certainly have their place in a modern bakery and since taking over the operating of the shop Graeme has grown Knead’s Facebook likes from 100 to 1,400. Last year a post showcasing their Kinder Bueno fresh cream slices received over 10,000 views with Graeme reporting they were selling out faster than he could bake them.

Treat products are best-seller for this Ards baker who reports there is a growing trend for more extravagant flavours alongside traditional tray bakes.

“Cakes have slowed down over the years,” says Graeme. “In the past, your Granny would have bought a Madeira cake on a Monday and by Sunday it would have been in the trifle. Now people want a bun, more as an indulgence for themselves. Although, trends come back around again, and reusing food and reducing waste is very popular at the moment, so we could see the return of the cake.

However, it is the hot plate goods – potato bread and soda bread – that ex-pats request from overseas.

“Our breads have gone all over – to England, Canada, New York, and Australia. People have even come in with a suitcase and asked us to fill it with products.

“We have had some requests to Fed-Ex our breads but we don’t use a lot of preservatives so it’s not really feasible.”

As for the future, an expansion could be a possibility, but would the family-owned business venture out of Newtownards?

“No,” laughs Graeme. “This is our home. Plenty of places are crying out for us – customers who travel from Holywood, Derry/Londonderry, Belfast, and further afield always ask when we’re coming to their area – but if we opened up where everybody wanted us to there wouldn’t be enough of me to go around. We want to be able to keep our standards high, because if you increase output without being able to maintain the same standards, business can fall to the wayside.

“In 2019 we’re going to concentrate on increasing the bakery’s reach and adding new products to our range.”

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