IT takes a lot of loaves for a small bakery to turn over more than £1million a year. Yet Aidan Monks does just that.

The 8,000 to 10,000 sourdough loaves made every week at Lovingly Artisan are distributed to some of the best restaurants in Cumbria, Booths in Kendal, Tebay and Rheged farm shops and direct to discerning shoppers across the UK.

The heart of the operation is still in Cumbria though, where Aidan, his wife Catherine and their 22-strong team make the bread at Lakeland Food Park at Crook, better known as Plumgarths.

The business has picked up numerous accolades over the years. It is currently named the Best Bakery in Cumbria and later on this month they will hear if they have won the overall National Bakery of the Year award.

Aidan bakes every day using mixers, a machine that divides the dough and a wood-fired bread oven. “We were one of the first people to get this oven in the UK. It has steam tube technology, so the heat on the bread is completely different. We can bake at a hotter temperature, it has a thin crust and seals the moisture in.

“We were using 3,000kw hours per month and we reduced that to 800kw. As soon as the Russian crisis hit the price of wood pellets went through the roof so we were making a significant saving but now it balances out. But it’s far more environmental to be doing this,” he says in a rush.

He speaks quickly, full of information and enthusiasm. Anyone who knows Aidan knows of his passion for natural food and how good nutrition aids good health. Many foodies talk about their ‘passion’; he doesn’t use the word but it’s revealed in every sentence utters. “It’s not a trend, it’s not a fashion, it’s how bread was always made, he says, talking about sourdough. 

“The modern growing of wheat involves fertilisers, which include herbicides, fungicides and before they harvest they call the contractor who sprays the crop off to kill the crop. Our belief in organic is that modern farming practices are a part of the cancer problem… so that belief in organic is one thing but these ancient grains contain considerable nutritional properties.

“We have always said we would make bread which is fit to be at the centre of the table. Our loaves will last all week in our specially made waxed bags. They can be used for a variety of things, there is no waste. We add rye flour into even our white sourdough as it has natural properties which helps the bread keep longer. And gives it a better taste.”

The grains he is referring to include wheat, spelt, emmer, einkorn and many others, all grown near Hadrian’s Wall, although they are also liaising with the couple behind Eden Valley Rapeseed Oil to grow some test strips on land near Penrith.

Liaising with and supporting local businesses is important to Aidan and Catherine. When one of their employees recently set up the Northern Pasta Company they were the first to stock it.

His conversation is all about the present and future, rather than how the business began. Born in Lancashire, he remembers his grandfather Francis O’Neill, who had a bakery in Ambleside, and how he helped him out at events like Grasmere Sports.

“I remember thinking one day I will be a baker when I grow up,” he says. His breadmaking really started after studying at Kendal, Blackpool, then a scholarship to the Boston College of Culinary Arts in the USA. “When they go to college in America they have a different approach, it’s expected they will open their own business,” he says.

When he returned to the UK a visit to Paris inspired him to start a small bakery, Le Pain de Paris, selling French bread. “In Kendal in 1988 you couldn’t get a proper baguette in the town,” he says. They moved into bigger premises in Mill Yard, Staveley, but it burned down in 2007 due to a problem with the fitting of a wood-fired oven. Within a year Aidan had to file for bankruptcy. “It was traumatic at the time, but I learnt more during those few years about business than I had the rest of my life.”

Because of the bankruptcy he couldn’t borrow any money, so he started baking at their home in Gatebeck and the Lovingly Artisan business began to grow organically. They rented a former garage at Oxenholme Railway Station, making bread for a few wholesale customers. Then customers on the station started visiting and buying bread, so they started supplying coffee too.

“The people who came to us were the right type of customer for sourdough,” he says. One of his first customers was Prince Charles, now King Charles III. 

“He strolled into the bakery and chatted about food and production for more than 15 minutes. It was a memorable day after a difficult couple of years. We had this fantastic conversation about food. His knowledge about food and farming is incredible. I had this magical 15 minutes. He wrote saying how nice the bread was,” remembers Aidan.

About nine years later they relocated to Plumgarths. When Storm Desmond hit in 2015 Aidan says it was like the Lake District ‘turned off’ and they lost all their wholesale customers. They knew the couple who had opened Altrincham Market so they rented a stall there and also developed a bread round in Manchester. Now they have two stalls in the market which sell double the amount of bread sold in the Plumgarths shop every week.

Catherine, who had her own business as a professional photographer/marketeer, joined Lovingly Artisan just before the pandemic. “She wasn’t a natural fit,” says Aidan. “Everything in her world was beautiful, styled and baking is not necessarily like that. With lockdown though there was a total change and the importance of everything online, the importance of Instagram, the importance of communicating online. Catherine found that’s where she fitted and an enormous part of our success now is Catherine’s ability to share what we are doing. We have a national presence even though we are a tiny bakery.” She is also chair of the Farmers’ Market in Kendal where they have a monthly stall.

Lockdown was a real turning point in their business. Before Covid, 75 per cent of the business was wholesale, which they lost overnight. They had to stop doing their bakery classes but did online bread courses instead. They set up a nationwide delivery service, stopped their own delivery service with four vans delivering daily around Cumbria and now use food service company Caterite to manage that aspect of the business. They also looked at reducing office administration.

“We had not borrowed any money so we didn’t have high running costs. When lockdown came we realised we had one opportunity to reset the business. We started the business and it had grown. We realised there were lots of modern systems which we could use so instead of having someone sat in the office contacting all our wholesale customers we got them to order via an app… and pay by PayPal so it automatically reconciles on the account.

“We took mostly card payments so we didn’t have to count all the floats every day, go to the bank and pay bank charges. Now we have an office but it’s empty, we do as little as possible. We all bake, it changed the way the business worked. We are all involved with the product every day and we want to keep it like that.

“In the 1980s/90s there was this massive availability of cash, so you could literally pick up the phone to the bank and say ‘can you add £50,000 to the overdraft?’. It was that simple. It created a culture of laziness, it felt it was fine to give credit because we could borrow money. Now we have a totally different approach. We don’t work 90 days credit, we allow 20 days credit.

“We designed this business so we are at the coalface, we always will be. As an artisan business we have identified that we need to be at the front. I look at some of my favourite businesses in the Lake District like Grasmere Gingerbread, my favourite food in the whole world! It has been there forever, they have not spread themselves, there’s a beauty in that. There’s only one Chesters, one Higginsons, all the good ones are one-offs. The tendency these days is that newer businesses are very keen to expand.”

The business is evenly split between retail, wholesale (through Caterite and direct to wholesale customers) and online. “All those elements create a sustainable business. We learnt from lockdown you have to be flexible, you have to move quickly,” he says.

Their latest innovation is a mobile bread truck which they will take to various markets this summer to promote the business.

Aidan is 62 and despite long working hours (on Saturdays they get up at 2am and return home about 7pm) has no plans to retire. On Sundays – their one day off – they like to walk, garden and enjoy homelife with their two adult children and Border Terrier.  He says: “I am massively excited at the moment. Catherine and I have all this experience, all this knowledge and actually it’s more exciting now having a vibrant business than before because it’s much easier to make decisions.

“Someone said ‘Turnover is vanity, profit is sanity, cashflow is reality’. We have learnt to make the turnover profitable. The different revenue streams have given us the cashflow element.

“What’s nice about this business now is you can feel that we are establishing something which continues on… that we are known as this is where you get your bread, we are not trying to do anything else. We make bread.”