Shortbread lovers are getting a flavour of the heritage, success and modern-day tribulations of one of the north-east’s best-known food producers in Provenance Festival events at Huntly firm Dean’s.
Those signing up for a “Cuppa with Bill Dean” are getting a potted history of the company and a lot more besides from the company’s owner and managing director.
Surrounded by framed photographs depicting the firm’s story so far, “Cuppa” guests get to see manufacturing in action from a viewing gallery overlooking the production hall.
Currently, many stacks of boxes of Dean’s products are being filled with products destined for China.
A huge consignment of tiger-shaped shortbread and other items will soon be making its way to the Far East country.
It is due to reach its destination in good time for Chinese New Year, with the 2022 celebration ushering in the year of the tiger.
But exporting produce anywhere in the world right now is fraught with problems, including the potential for delays, Mr Dean explained.
A severe shortage of shipping containers and the supply chain impacts of Covid-19 have pushed rates through the roof, he said.
Just one single container-full of shortbread is now costing Dean’s nearly £14,000 to ship, compared to around £2,500 at the start of the year.
Shipments involving multiple containers, such as the one that will soon be making its way to China, are costing the firm a fortune.
Addressing his “Cuppa” guests yesterday (September 27), Mr Dean said: “What was a business strategy 18 months ago is no longer fit for the world we are now living in.”
Dean’s MD highlighted a string of other challenges facing the business, which was already facing soaring butter and other input costs before Brexit and the Covid-19 outbreak.
About 60% of the company’s output ends up on supermarket shelves and margins are being relentlessly squeezed as Britain’s major retailers try to keep their prices down.
A quick look at the production floor reveals two other issues.
Gone are the eastern Europeans who have seemingly deserted the UK since Brexit and Covid.
Mr Dean said it was proving difficult to find replacements.
University students are being bussed in from Aberdeen to fill the gaps – allowing them to earn some money to support their studies.
Future doctors on the production line
Part-time employment opportunities for students have been few and far between during the pandemic.
Dean’s now has future doctors and anaesthetists among its workforce and they are doing a good job, he said, adding: “They have taken to it very enthusiastically.”
But the cost of transporting them to and from Huntly is another overhead the business could well do without as it battles “just to stand still”, he said.
Another sign of the times is the stack of cardboard being procured at much greater expense than in the past because “all the cartons we produce in this country are now going to Amazon”, Mr Dean said.
The MD’s mother, Helen Dean, launched Dean’s in her kitchen in 1975.
Friends and family loved her homemade shortbread so much that her husband, also called Bill, encouraged her to bake to help raise funds for the local pipe band, for which he was drum major.
The band’s touring ensured the fame of Mrs Dean’s produce spread far and wide, and the family-run enterprise took off from there.
Mr Dean hopes it will become an annual celebration of north-east food and drink following this year’s inaugural event to boost producers in the region.
Dean’s is one of a raft of businesses hosting “visitor experiences” this week and, in Dean’s case, next Monday too.