We Meet John Foster of Fosters Bakery
For over 65 years, the family-run Fosters Bakery has been a staple part of village life in Mapplewell, filling the Barnsley air with the unmistakable aroma of freshly baked bread.
But what began as a simple cottage bakery with a means to give local residents their daily bread has since risen to an internationally renowned commercial company under the leadership of its current managing director and third generation Foster, John and his cousin Ian.
For John, his chosen career has always been ingrained in his DNA; his childhood memories are dusted with flour, the familiar feel of dough embedded under his fingernails. It was perhaps pretty cut and dried that he would one day earn his crust within the family firm as he is quite literally a baker born and bred – having been born on the bakery’s Towngate site in 1961.
Throughout John’s childhood, Fosters Bakery was part of the daily grind in Mapplewell thanks to his grandmother, Emily, who first launched a small café in which to sell her freshly baked wares back in 1952.
Like many women of her generation, Emily was no stranger to baking. While still living at home, she cared for her parents which gave her the opportunity to develop her baking skills. For her wedding to husband Arthur in 1929 aged 23, Emily did all the catering for the reception and even made her own cake.
After her three children had grown up and with more time to spare after raising her family, Emily decided to try her hand at business with a simple desire to provide people with quality goods and a friendly service. With £40 savings, Emily was given the premises – a disused blacksmith shop – for free which Arthur and their son, Donald, fitted out.
They had just the one oven which could only hold two loaves of bread, but the Fosters name soon spread around the village. It became a real family affair with Emily and Arthur’s two daughters also helping where they could; Betty worked with her mum in the shop while Audrey created leaflets to spread the word.
“It opened at a time when rationing was still around but community spirit was in abundance. Villagers would pool their limited supplies so my grandma could produce baked goods including her speciality scones which were a particular favourite among her friends and neighbours.”
As the café’s popularity grew and people developed a taste for their breadcakes and loaves, Emily branched out and started to distribute her goods locally. John’s father, Donald, turned mechanic and scoured scrapyards to find and fix up old cars for transport.
To cope with demand, they added another oven – effectively doubling capacity – and, in September 1959 the limited company was founded and a new bakery built on Blacker Road.
Rolling out the Fosters brand, the family launched a mobile shop on Barnsley’s Market Hill, acquired two more bakeries, opened various shops and developed their commercial accounts. It was a developing theme of gradual expansion that would continue for many years to come.
By the 1960s, Fosters fever had firmly hit Barnsley. Dinner tables were laden with freshly baked goods at teatime. Packing up boxes filled with two thick slices of cut loaf housing a tasty filling. Schoolchildren were even given tours of the bakery to have a sneak peek behind the scenes.
One of John’s earliest memories is of joining his fellow classmates at Mapplewell Primary School on a said trip to the bakery. But I imagine his friends would have been filled with a far greater sense of anticipation and excitement that day than young John could ever muster. The bakery walls had been his playground and he knew the daily happenings like the back of his hand.
While other kids his age were enjoying jam or dripping sandwiches after school, John was helping his family to put bread on the table, beginning an unofficial apprenticeship aged five. Cutting his teeth in the family trade, a young John was tasked with everything from moulding dough to sweeping up
As he got older, John was given more responsibilities such as making deliveries to their mobile shop on Barnsley Market or painstakingly judging when the egg custards were properly baked.
When he started Darton High School, John was charged with the important task of lighting the ovens at about 4am before the bakers arrived for their shift.
The idea of lighting ovens at that age would worry people nowadays it was very different then and no one thought much about health and safety. Now you need a five-day course just to flick a switch,” John says.
But at least he didn’t have far to make his bleary-eyed journey each dawn as the bakery had relocated to its current Towngate premises by then which was basically at the bottom of the family home’s garden.
Over the course of the last 40 years, John has tried his hand at almost every job in the bakery and today is very much at the forefront of the successful global business, having progressed from that young unwitting apprentice to the current managing director since his father Donald retired 30 years ago. Cousin Ian is the ingredients buyer with his eye eon world commodity markets.
But while John may now spend less time baking bread and more time breaking it, he’s still not afraid to get his hands dirty.
“Quite recently, I joined in one of the daily cleaning shifts and found getting back to basics very therapeutic.”
Some might think there’s little left to learn but rising to new challenges has always been John’s bread and butter.
To keep up with modern practices and the changing economic climate, John regularly picks up new skills ranging from the smooth operation of new machinery to the complex trading rules of Europe and the Middle East.
While the shops have since closed, today, Fosters Bakery focuses purely on commercial customers in Barnsley and beyond, having grown from the small, fledgling bakery into a multi-million-pound company that exports its products across the world.
Their customers include some of the UK’s best-known pub groups, coffee shop chains, restaurants and airlines and, given the extensive reach of the customer database, it’s highly likely that we all regularly indulge in a Fosters product – be it a panini, teacake, burger bun or muffin – without even knowing it was made here in Barnsley.
Fosters first began to export their products in the early 90s and today they sell frozen goods, mainly bread, to an array of countries including Germany, France, Spain and Portugal; Sweden, Denmark and the Netherlands; Cyprus; Singapore; and Dubai.
Surprisingly, it costs less to deliver goods from Barnsley to Singapore than it does to deliver from Barnsley to Rotherham but, as John explains, it’s all about logistics.
“A local coffee shop might order two dozen teacakes once a day whereas a Singapore customer might want a container full of goods every two months. With 2,500 bread rolls per pallet and 26 pallets per container, the overseas order translates into a hefty 65,000 bread rolls.”
Likewise, when it comes to the firm’s biggest seller, a staple white loaf, at 400 per pallet, a container full represents an order of more than 10,000.
His native dialect might be broad Yorkshire but John also speaks French and German plus a smattering of Chinese which can only aid his sales tactics.
“The international language of the world is English so there are no real communication difficulties with international trade. Plus, a lot of our deals are conducted over Skype or email,” says John.
Much more of a challenge is learning the very specific laws, customs and trading rules of individual countries but he and his team have embraced that too.
“Wherever you deal in the world, the rules are different. In Germany, for example, loaves must be unenriched. Here they have to be enriched with vitamins and it’s illegal not to so straightaway it’s entirely different.”
Poppy seeds are a major concern for exports to Dubai and Singapore due to their opium content which could see a life imprisonment sentence for importing them to Dubai. Even one seed could be used to grow the drug so all export goods must be poppy seed free which involves rigorous manufacturing processes to avoid cross contamination.
In Hong Kong, alcohol carries substantial duties on export goods so mince pies, for example, are baked to a different recipe at Christmas.
“There’s no end to the things you learn about places,” says John, who clearly relishes each new crumb of knowledge.
And these lessons have proved very worthwhile as Fosters’ healthy export trade has helped it to weather some economic storms in which competitors have fared less well.
To move with the times, research and product development are a major part of the Fosters ethos and a team of six people are employed to examine everything from flavour balancing to allergens and enzymes.
While still serving up the rolls, scones and split tin loaves from Emily’s heyday, today the product line also includes a variety of trendy breads such as ryes and sourdoughs, continental focaccia and brioche, as well as baps flavoured with beetroot and pumpkin or topped with glitter.
They also produce a gluten-free range along with a luxury selection of mince pies, hot cross buns and their speciality football baps, as named as their tops resemble the hexagons on a football.
Retaining its original ethos at heart, Fosters is still very much a family affair. Heading up the technical team is John’s wife Elaine who he poached from rising rival, Warburtons.
“Elaine and I met at bakery school in Manchester when we were just sixteen and married at 21. She was technically very competent so I knew she was the best woman for the job here at Fosters.”
It’s a nice slice of luck that they can still work side by side. The 200-strong workforce also includes John’s cousins Mark and Ian who run the business with him, alongside a team of professional managers, while his engineer son Thomas also shares his mechanical expertise when needed.
John remains just as keen to break new ground as he does to preserve some old traditions but the days when he regularly completed an 80-hour week with long tiring shifts are mostly over – with the exception of a recent trip to visit Polish bakeries which included a 5am start and a very late finish.
Away from work, John has long been involved in a number of charitable causes with an emphasis on helping disadvantaged people to fulfil their potential..
Supporting and training young inmates at Doncaster prisons led to the prestigious award of an MBE in 2011 and the year previous was awarded an honorary doctorate from Sheffield Hallam University after working closely with students looking to progress into food manufacturing.
He was also seconded to Barnsley’s Work and Skills Board which aims to increase local employment numbers and skills.
He also somehow finds time to be a judge at the annual World Bread Awards. And is a season ticket holder at the Sheffield Steelers Ice Hockey.
But a whole new experience came in 2015 when John donned false sideburns and an old-fashioned smock to take part in the BBC2 programme, Victorian Bakers – an experience that turned out to be painfully true to life and not for the faint-hearted.
Starring alongside three other brave bakers from across the country, our Barnsley businessman experienced working life as it was in the dark days of Victorian England when workers regularly risked their lives to earn an honest crust when the average survival age of a baker was just 41 due to the health and safety barren conditions.
“It was as an extremely accurate representation of the times and we sure were tested to our limits. The gruelling tasks were exhausting, so much so I actually fell asleep while standing up and a fellow baker dozed off in a coal barrow.”
For John, however, 21st century methods are definitely much more appealing and, at the age of 57, he still gets a buzz from being in the bakery.
But perhaps among his fondest memories of working life are the carefree early days of learning the ropes when his hard-earned wages of ‘two bob’ (10p) would pay for a Saturday matinee and a portion of fish and chips from Jackson’s at Mapplewell with just enough money left over to buy some sweets during the week.
What more could anyone want?
See more about Fosters Bakery on their website www.fostersbakery.co.uk