A flair for festivals

03 July, 2009
A growing number of bakery businesses are discovering the fringe benefits of attending music festivals, with a largely young captive audience hungry for the baked goods they offer. But what are the pros and cons? Patrick McGuigan investigates
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Honeybuns' cafe at Glastonbury has always been a good spot to shelter from the howling wind and rain, and dry out your boots before trench foot sets in, so bad has the weather been at Britain's largest music festival for the past few years. This year, however, the Dorset-based cake company provided sanctuary for festival-goers in search of some shade from the glorious sunshine that bathed the campsite over the weekend, not to mention a civilised cup of tea and cake.

"We put table cloths and vases of fresh flowers on the tables, and serve our tea in proper tea cups," says Honeybuns' owner Emma Goss-Custard. "It's a little oasis of calm opposite the jazz tent, when everywhere else is chaotic. People can sit down on a deck chair, read The Guardian and have our cakes with a proper cup of tea."

Honeybuns is one of a growing band of bakery businesses taking advantage of Britain's love affair with music festivals to make a quick profit, promote their brand and have some fun in the process. Bakeries keen to jump on the rock bandwagon, egged on by the thought of tens of thousands of festival-goers hungry for pies, sandwiches and cakes, should be warned, however, that selling at festivals is not all sunshine and flowers.

"Two years ago, there was a really bad lightning storm at Glastonbury and most of the site lost electricity. It was fine for us because our products don't need refrigeration, but it was heartbreaking to see people with meat products having to bin everything," says Goss-Custard. "A lot of people invest masses in product and kit, but if the weather is bad or the product is not right, you stand to lose a lot. We are delighted if we cover costs and make a small profit."

The company started at Glastonbury six years ago with just a basic stall selling its gluten-free cakes, biscuits and flapjacks and has since grown to a full-blown tearoom, which has a 3m frontage and can sit 14 - although lots more squeeze in and sit on the floor.

"The pitch costs a couple of thousand, then there's hiring catering equipment and our time, and we have to pay full price for tickets, so we're lucky if we make a £1,000 profit," says Goss-Custard. "We think of Glastonbury as more of a holiday and a chance to get people's email addresses and find out who's buying the product. We use it to tweak and polish the brand and trial new products. In many ways, it's a luxurious brand-building exercise, which is great for face-to-face customer feedback."

Stuart Oetzmann at Norfolk-based artisan Metfield Bakery has exhibited at many music festivals, including Bestival, Secret Garden and Download, but has cut back this year because of an influx of wholesale orders.

"You can make a decent profit, but you have to be careful that your core business doesn't suffer because all your best staff are off at a festival," he says. "Margins are good, but it's staff costs and wastage that are the overheads to watch. You have to watch out for young members of staff in particular. You don't want to take staff who are just going to get 'bollocksed'. The last thing you want is to be setting up at 6am with someone who is still nutted from the night before. Even worse is when they just disappear into the festival and you don't see them again." Pitch charges depend on the festival, he adds, ranging from £1,000-£2,500, while some festivals take a percentage of your turnover - usually 10%.

"The biggest lesson I've learned is not to have a big product range. We've done hog roasts, bacon butties, pies, sausage rolls, cakes and bread, but what you really want is one product that you can just knock out quickly. By far and away the best seller is our handmade sausage in focaccia with apple chutney. We do a few cakes and loaves of bread but people just want something they can eat while they walk," he says.

One bakery company that is held up by many to be the expert in the festival field is Bristol's Pieminister. It attends around 30 events a year and has got the pie-selling process down to a fine art, thanks to two dedicated festival teams that tour the country in specially designed trailers.

"We've become famous for our huge queues that can get up to 100m long, but on average, customers don't wait longer than 10 minutes," says director Tristan Hogg. "We train all our staff to be as quick as possible in serving up and it helps to have bespoke trailers, which were made to our specifications so that they have the best lay-out for making and serving pies. They don't come cheap though. A brand new trailer will cost around £30,000 and that will take three to five years of festivals to pay off."

Pieminister charges £6 for pie, mash and peas and this year is launching three new flavours: Henny Penny (British free-range chicken with mushrooms, white wine, cream and herbs); Beefy Shamrock (steak and Guinness); and Moo & Blue (steak, red wine gravy and Stilton).

"We look at festivals as a good platform for marketing and trying out new products. The trick is not to be too greedy - don't go with loads of stock thinking you're going to make millions. That said, as a pie manufacturer it's good for our cashflow as the season drops off after winter."

You might think a pie-maker like Hogg would be cursing the weather at this year's Glastonbury - after all a hot pie is not an obvious choice on a summer's day. But sales remain fairly constant regardless of the weather, he says. "If it rains we obviously tend to do quite well, but equally, when it's sunny we get longer trading hours. People get up earlier and get hungrier quicker, so we're not really affected by the weather."

The same cannot be said of the festival-goers, many of whom are only just getting over their sunburn now. At least it's better than trench foot.

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=== Top tips for festival trading ===

l Don't go expecting a huge profit. Taking a stall at a festival is a valuable marketing opportunity and a great way of trialling new products

l Keep your stall simple and easy to set up and take down. Likewise, hone your product range so that you can serve customers quickly and efficiently

l Be prepared for whatever the weather throws at you. If it's hot, soft drinks, sausage rolls and salads will sell well; if it's cold, pies, pasties and hot drinks will be in demand

l Choose staff carefully. Your core business should not suffer, because your best staff are off running a festival stall. Equally, young staff can catch festival-fever and be tempted to party too hard

l Check what kind of napkins, bags and cutlery you are allowed to use. Glastonbury, for example, has a strict policy on traders only using recyclable materials

l If you're hiring catering equipment, ask your supplier whether they would be able to deliver directly to the festival site. Some may even be willing to set it up for you





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