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Issue 84 - Meet the Producer

Scotland Magazine Issue 84
December 2015


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Meet the Producer

Roddy Martine looks in on Stag Bakeries

It was perhaps an act of fate that, just before I set off on my annual visit to the island of Lewis in October, I was handed a packet of Stag Seaweed Water Biscuits.

Delicious with both cheese and savouries, I was intrigued to discover they originated in Stornoway and, with well placed friends among the Western Isles intelligentsia, I promptly set out to make contact with Donnie Macleod, the former General Manager of Stag Bakeries, now acting in a consultancy role.

What I discovered was a thriving island business which has been operating since 1885, albeit in different locations and under different names.

Stag Bakeries, in its current manifestation, was established in 1968 following the merger of Malcolm McLean & Son and John Mackenzie, and the creation of a purpose built bakery on Stag Road. The current owner Charlie Macdonald, a former hotelier, took over the business in 1993. The company remains independently owned with several family members involved, and it has been at its current location on Cannery Road since 2007.

However, the storage and despatch facilities are currently in the process of being extended by one third. When Charlie took over the business, Stag Bakeries had 19 employees. It now employs 60, providing an important boost to the local economy.

“The workforce is our most important asset,” insists Donnie Macleod, who kindly came to collect me from where I was staying on the island to introduce me to General Manager Donnie Matheson.

Committed to creative baking at its best, Donnie Matheson has been with the company for ten years, starting out with quality control before becoming Technical Manager. “Being based on Stornoway, the Minch is an inevitable barrier, and it’s costly to take the raw materials and finished products both on and off the island,” he admits, but adds, “Of course, that's why we are dedicated to the higher quality products.”

And that is where Stag Bakeries is truly on to a winner. Touring the spotless state-of-the art production facilities with Donnie Matheson, the sheer versatility of the operation was brought home to me, even with the modest creation of a personalised birthday cake.

With over 200 products, ranging from water biscuits, oatcakes to shortbread and cheese or blackberry straws, Stag Bakeries now supplies a range of up-market food retailers throughout the UK, notably Marks & Spencers, Fortnum and Mason and smaller outlets such as Earthy in Edinburgh. However, it still provides what amounts to an almost 24 hour bread making service for the island community, with two mobile vans servicing the remoter corners of Lewis and Harris. “It's important to us to maintain our roots,” explains Donnie Macleod.

It was Colin Daniels, previously in charge of product development but now retired, who led the way by introducing spices and flavours to the products, placing Stag in the vanguard of biscuit innovation with blends of seaweed and salt and pepper, and oatcakes with smoked butter. He still remains active as an advisor on a consultancy basis.

Colin was brought up in a family bakery in Nottingham and although he subsequently embarked on a variety of roles within the food industry, baking was his first love. “We were looking for something local to give a genuine taste of the island,” he recalls. “There's no barley here but plenty of seaweed. I'd already done some work on seaweed from a beach on South Uist, but it hadn't worked. However, when the Hebridean Seaweed Company opened at Arnish in 2006, we began to experiment again and somehow everything just fell into place.

“In addition to a natural savoury note, we were also hoping for something visual to help with the marketing. Seaweed was perfect. It achieved the required balance of flavour and cost and worked really well for the water biscuits. Then somebody suggested seaweed shortbread and although we were uncertain at first, that also worked.”

Winning both the ‘Great Taste Golden Fork Award’ for Best Scottish Speciality for its 3 star Stornoway Water Biscuit with Hebridean Seaweed and the Nigel Barden Heritage Award for the use of heritage and rare breed ingredients two years ago was a tremendous boost for Stag Bakeries. Given that they were up against a record number of 10,000 entries says it all.

“It put us on the map in the food industry,” says Colin proudly. “Before that there was an inclination for some people to think of us as a croft industry on a remote island. Nobody does that now.”

While being aware of the developing trends in the food industry is essential, Stag Bakeries continues to innovate rather than to follow what other manufacturers are up to.

With the runaway success of Stornoway Seaweed Water Biscuits, I suspect that those other manufacturers are more likely to be following them.

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