‘When the big Tesco opened we thought it would kill us’: Inside Greater Manchester’s oldest family bakery

When you step inside Manchester’s oldest family-run craft bakery, it’s easy to see why the businesses has been a firm-favourite in the local area.

The smell of freshly baked goods, pastries and tarts stacked up everywhere the eye can see, and the warm and friendly greetings you get going through the door make Robinsons in Failsworth a magical place to be, and that’s before you even get a chance to try their offerings.

For people who come here often, it’s common knowledge that the site is a proper family-run shop, dating all the way back to 1864. But one thing that chief baker Grace Robinson, a sixth generation baker, didn’t know – until her uncle started digging into their family history – is just how far back the pedigree went.

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Even before the family went into bread making they were, well, bread making, with the Robinson roots going back to millers in Castlefield before they turned their attention to the actual baking. Clearly bread making is something they’re very good at too, with loaves from Robinsons being shipped out to many of the city’s best restaurants.

The loaves are pretty popular with local shoppers as well, with the sourdough variety alone selling more than 600 loaves a week. Add in the other varieties, the muffins, the sweet treats, the pastries, tarts, AND the butties, and lot of work has to go into stocking up the shop, which Grace and her family are more than happy to put in.

Grace always knew she wanted to be a baker, and asked her dad for a full-time job at the firm straight out of high school. Unfortunately, he said no, and she had to head off to college to finish her A-levels before she was able to ask again, and finally given a job at the family business.

Grace and her dad David have worked together at the bakery since Grace left college after finishing her A-levels
(Image: Manchester Evening News)

“When we were kids we spent all the time in the bakery, it was always a second home to us, and as I got older I was always making cakes for people and always trying to learn new things with my mum and dad, so when I left school I said to my dad ‘can I become a full time baker?’ and he said ‘no it’s too much hard work you don’t get a social life, you have no time'”, she said.

“So I went to college, got my A-levels in the sciences, and when I left college I asked again and he said yeah. It is early mornings and a lot of hard work but it’s all I know, for me it feels normal and I do love it. It’s a job you do have to love doing because it’s hard physical graft.”

When Grace joined the bakery she was the only woman in the organisation, but today sister Emma and a host of other women work alongside her in the bakery, which Grace has taken over since her dad David semi-retired from the business.

Although Grace was the only woman in the firm when she started, the shop now employs a number of other women, including Grace’s sister Emma
(Image: Manchester Evening News)

David still does deliveries and a lot of the paperwork for the firm, whilst Grace has been getting used to running the business – which is quite different to her life as a baker. Working so closely to her family, and then spending time with them outside of work, has been tough at times, but the family always make it work.

“When I started to take over from my dad I realised that being a baker and running a business were two different things and had to learn a lot about running a business alongside being a baker but I’ve managed to make it work,” she said.

“It’s not always easy, I lived with my sister for five years and we fell out – because we lived together and worked together – but we separated our houses and we get on so well now. It can be like a fireworks display with the three of us, but that’s less than one per cent of the time.

“We’re so passionate about what we think is the right course, but in the long run we all want the same things. I learned everything in Robinson’s bakery from my dad and I’m at the point where I’m teaching the next generation of people who aren’t related to me, we have young people from Tameside College, that’s the closest bakery college, which is amazing.”

The coronavirus pandemic was tough for the bakery, with the shop shutting completely for six weeks during the first national lockdown. Their customers were keen to see them reopen though, with dozens of messages asking when they’d be back, if they were closed for good, and telling the team how much they missed the baked goods.

After a while, Grace, Emma, dad David and mum Sue came back into the bakery and the four of them made and sold everything, before cleaning down the shop and closing the next day to ensure the site was disinfected and there was no chance of passing the virus on to others.

The site sells bread, pastries, butties, and hot pies
(Image: Manchester Evening News)

As the months went by, and restrictions eased, they slowly brought back members of staff one by one, increasing the size of the team until everyone was back at work. Throughout the pandemic, the team have been really fortunate, with only three members of staff catching covid-19 over the last two years, never passing the virus onto any of their co-workers or customers.

Grace added: “Going through covid, that was just awful, on that night we just went into panic mode because our bakery is tiny, there’s no way we could have had social distancing. My dad’s in his late 60s now, we were all terrified that if he got it it would affect him quite badly.

“Going through covid shook up everybody and made you think, if this was going to be your last week on Earth have you spent enough time doing the things you enjoy? I’ve learned how important it is not to just put 100 per cent into work and to make sure you’ve got that work life balance as much as possible when you run a business.”

The shop is stacked full of baked goods for customers at the start of the day, after hours of preparation
(Image: Manchester Evening News)

The team now only work five days a week, closing on Tuesdays to give an extra day off to staff. Part of that is to allow people to spend more time doing the things they love, with the family also getting to spend more time together outside of work and pursue their hobbies.

Even though David is semi-retired, he’s always in the shop helping out his daughter, with Grace ringing him nearly every day to ask him for advice. He’s still doing deliveries and a lot of the paperwork for the business too, but leaves the baking to Grace, as the manual work is very tough on people.

He still struggles to sleep after a lifetime of 3-4am starts to get baking so the shop had enough stock to sell throughout the day, but is enjoying a bit more free time to go golfing with friends, and even has a holiday lined up for the future too. It’s not always been easy for the family, especially after supermarkets started popping up in more locations in the early 2000s, but they’ve always weathered the storm and continued to produce high-quality bakes for their customers.

The Robinsons bakery team in 2005, including Grace on the back row, third from left, with dad David, grandmother Joyce, and mum Sue in the front row
(Image: Manchester Evening News)

“When the big Tesco was built in Failsworth within a quarter of a mile of the bakery around 2005, we though ‘this is going to kill us’ and temporarily our customer base did go down, but it didn’t take long for people to come back and bring people back with them. We must be doing something right that people want and that, for me, is the best job satisfaction.

“It’s something that I think we took for granted as kids, it was all we knew, we had a bakery to go to whenever we wanted. Within the 10-15 years where all these supermarkets popped up, a lot of bakeries did have to close their doors, same with fishmongers and greengrocers. Now it’s kind of gone full circle where the counters are all closing up but we’ve lost all these independent traders and it’s created a sort of niche market for really good quality people to come up and start new businesses.”

Robinsons is open on Mondays and Wednesdays-Saturdays from 7am-2pm each day. Alongside the bread and pastries, they also sell hot pies, and have a butty shop open for lunches too, with all sandwich meat roasted on site each day.

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Manchester Evening News – Oldham