How Dorset charm helped sell my biscuits

By 1989, the bakery business set up by Steve Fudge's grandfather was in trouble. But with new products and an emphasis on the charms of Dorset, the business is going strong.

Steve Fudge's grandfather Percy started his family bakery business in West Dorset in 1926. It had survived pretty much unchanged for more than 60 years, but by 1989 it was in trouble. Competition from supermarkets and the gradual erosion of farming were taking a toll on traditional shops, such as butchers and bakers. Fudge's brother, Graham, 54, who had taken on the business, found himself "struggling to make ends meet". So the two brothers, and Graham's wife, Sue, "put our heads together" to try to save the company.

They hit on two ideas. Firstly, they needed to make a more innovative, higher-value product, which "could be transported with a longer shelf life than bread". That got them thinking about biscuits and crackers. Watching the stream of cars heading back to London each weekend, they came up with a second idea: to make the most of the attractions of Dorset. "As far as we were concerned," says Fudge, Dorset's charm "was all to do with green pastures". That meant adding butter, cream and cheese to a range of sweet and savoury biscuits.

There was one problem. "We had no money." So "everything we did had to be based on the existing business, rather than a total alteration over night". But they soon had a stroke of luck. Through a local food group, they heard that Harrods was looking for Christmas cakes. They gave them a call, and ended up making 3,000 cakes for the Kensington store, which resulted in their biscuits going on the shelves too. "That was a big turning point. Buyers switch jobs, so it wasn't long before Fortnum & Mason and Harvey Nichols came along."

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Within three years, they'd abandoned the old business and were simply making biscuits and seasonal items, such as mince pies. "Then we got to an awful point where we ran out of space." So in 1998 they decided to buy a bigger, but ailing, bakery called Dorset Village, 15 miles up the road in Stalbridge. It cost them £750,000, and was a disaster. Fudges had 30 staff, but they'd inherited another 100, and a bread-making business losing £5,000 a week. "It was just haemorrhaging cash." They decided to scrap the whole operation and dedicate the Stalbridge bakery full time to biscuits. That would mean increasing production four-fold. The Fudges had to remortgage their homes to raise a total of £1m. "There was nothing left. If it had gone belly up, the whole lot would have folded."

But with production ramped up, they were now able to make enough stock to supply supermarkets. Marks & Spencer and Waitrose took their extra bulk and, "amazingly, by 2001 we'd come back into profit". Fudges now turns over £8m a year and exports to nine countries, but there's still "a lot more to get from the brand and the company". And there are no plans to change the name, even though it is "very confusing to people who don't know the brand. When we produced a Marmite biscuit, people thought we were making Marmite-flavoured fudge. But they never forget it."

Jody Clarke

Jody studied at the University of Limerick and she has been a senior writer for MoneyWeek for more than 15 years. Jody is experienced in interviewing, for example in her time she has dug into the lives of an ex-M15 agent and quirky business owners who have made millions. Jody’s other areas of expertise include advice on funds, stocks and house prices.