A bakery and beacon of hope re-opens its doors

When Liverpool lifted the Premier League trophy at Anfield late last Wednesday, the shutters of the Homebaked café and bakery, a stone’s throw away from The Kop end, were down.

Despite making a Champions’ pie – packed with chilli beef with red onion and peppers – Homebaked wanted to keep fans, keen to gather outside the stadium to celebrate the team’s first triumph in English football’s top league in 30 years, away.

“We opened a little later than usual – to 5pm, instead of 3pm – but were closed well ahead of the match starting,” says Sally-Anne Watkiss, who works for Homebaked. “We didn’t want to be a reason why people were hanging around Anfield. People’s homes are here, you need to show some respect.”

A social enterprise in an inner city suburb that, for all Liverpool’s glories on the pitch, is one of the most deprived parts of the UK, Homebaked was set up in 2010 to train and feed local people. It shut up shop in March, just before the government ordered all eating establishments to close, but continued to bake throughout the pandemic, supplying loaves of bread to local food banks – made possible by a £14,000 grant from the Steve Morgan Foundation – and pies to essential workers around the city (more on which here).

The premises re-opened for take-out on July 6 but staff numbers, opening hours and sales – a huge chunk of which come on matchdays – remain way down on their pre-Covid figures. For Watkiss, who is Homebaked’s treasurer, the numbers matter less than ensuring the social enterprise does not become a vector. “Our primary responsibility is to our community and our staff; the economics are second to that.”

Anfield is an area where many people and businesses exist in close proximity to one another in terraced housing and narrow streets, some dating back to the 19th century. Infection rates in all of the six boroughs of the Liverpool City Region are higher than the national average. A report authored by the local The Women’s Organisation, a social enterprise that’s the largest developer and deliverer of training and support for women in the UK, views this as a likely consequence of deprivation.

The social enterprise model, where businesses are governed as charities but generate income which is then invested in local communities, is worth almost as much as tourism for the Liverpool City Region and employs 45,000 people – about a tenth of the workforce. “It’s one of the hidden secrets of the economy,” says Maggie O’Carroll, founder and chief executive of The Women’s Organisation. “Because [Liverpool] has had such economic turmoil over the past 50 years, there does seem to be a culture of doing it yourself, of rolling up your sleeves. Homebaked is a perfect example – it’s a beacon of hope that teaches local people to better themselves and gives them decent pay and terms and conditions.”

The pie celebrating Liverpool’s first Premier League win. © ps://www.facebook.com/HomebakedA/

The focus on catering to the community has meant that, in addition to five bakers who continued to work throughout the pandemic, just three staff members have returned so far. They’re protected from customers by plastic screens, alongside rules to remain two metres apart.

Regular customers have returned – a feature of an area where ties between mostly small local businesses and residents are strong – and more staff members and volunteers are expected to come back in the coming weeks. The bakery hopes to get back to its full complement of 20 full-time employees by the autumn. “It’s actually been a really pleasant experience,” says Watkiss. “We want to take it slowly, but we also know that a lot of our staff and our volunteers have found being stuck at home very tough. Some of our staff are carers, and some of the volunteers are very socially isolated and we are the main stabilising force in their lives. So we are just trying to get them back as quickly as possible.”

Watkiss says Homebaked’s approach for the re-opening and its strategy for the months ahead is guided “by the scientific advice and not the government advice”.

“There was a lack of trust in the government advice and a lack of clarity. There was a disconnect to what was in writing – the government website, for instance, was really good – and then you’d get some waffle announcement,” she adds. National and local government inaction on track and trace is stymying efforts to reopen. “If there was more honesty and clearer instructions, there would be a lot less stress. It just feels really chaotic.”

Homebaked has used the UK government’s furlough scheme, where chancellor Rishi Sunak covered 80 per cent of wages until October. While the measure has been helpful, Watkiss viewed it and other policies as rather too “blunt” and “catered more for big business than smaller ones”.

She adds: “A taper would have been better. Rather than do everything to October, finish furlough for some in August and then carry others on until the end of the year. It all feels sort of wing and a prayer, [Sunak] could have been much more analytical.”

Maggie O’Carroll agrees: “The government has done a lot, but social enterprises have often fallen through the cracks. They are not able to apply for the relief on business rates, for instance. Some have struggled in terms of their capacity to manage cash flow. The sector itself has a bit of a problem of being lumped in with other charities and has been hard hit – though many have been very nimble in changing direction.”

Homebaked’s bunting on Anfield’s Kop terrace © https://www.facebook.com/HomebakedA/

The closed-door policy on Premier League football has had a drastic impact on Homebaked’s revenue – even though it is something, for community reasons, Watkiss supports.

Essential to the survival of the business was a grant from Power to Change, a charitable trust which stepped in to cover the loss of its matchday revenue. Watkiss put the loss for each game at £5,800, split between shop takings and LFC’s order for the stadium, when she spoke to us in April, compared with around £700 for an average day in the café. Liverpool play 19 games in the Premier League a season at Anfield, with legs of Champions’ League, FA Cup and League Cup matches also held there.

“Furlough has been really good for us, but had we not had the grant from Power to Change we would have fallen off a cliff – eight of the 20 jobs would have gone,” Watkiss says. “If you depend on football, then you would have gone to the wall. Footfall is still really low.”

Football means a lot to businesses in North Liverpool, with Premier League rival Everton located close by. And unlike more prosperous parts of the city and beyond, it is unlikely to benefit from people in the UK opting to holiday at home.

“Liverpool is a bustling city. Manchester is the same. Newcastle is the same. The staycation economy will benefit the centres of these cities,” says Tom Cannon, emeritus professor at Liverpool University. “Although there have been some really exciting developments, Anfield is still a very deprived area and it’s not likely to receive much of that business. There are an awful lot of small shops and cafés with not a lot of outside space.”

The outlook is unlikely to change in the months ahead. The new Premier League season begins on September, the early fixtures behind closed doors. Some games will take place with social distancing measures from October, but it’s unclear what that would look like in terms of capacity. In cricket, Edgbaston – home of Warwickshire – has started to let in 1,000 spectators, against a maximum of 25,000. The Oval, Surrey’s ground, will allow 2,500 – a tenth of the ground’s capacity. Anfield can hold just over 54,000.

Cannon says: “It’s going to be very hard in the short and medium term – even if crowds are allowed, you’re not going to have full stadia and I doubt the mingling that goes on in pubs before the match will be as popular.”

Homebaked on a pre-Covid matchday © https://www.facebook.com/HomebakedA/

However, businesses here may have more natural resistance to economic shocks and be less over-leveraged than those in more prosperous locations. “If you’ve been running a business in Anfield you’ve learnt to cope in difficult times – they will be steelier, more resilient than somewhere in Borough Market that have only known boom times. The local economy was picking up before Corona. But Anfield has never been buoyant, it’s never been easy,” adds Cannon.

The social enterprise model and charitable trusts will also aid the recovery here. “Liverpool has always relied on matriarchy – when the men went out to sea, it was the women who had to run the house. Now what you’re seeing is that this [culture] is leading to women getting involved in starting and growing social enterprises in areas such as Anfield where historically there has not been a tradition of this,” he says. “I expect that established institutions and other organisations to make more inroads in those areas after the pandemic.”

Significant among those organisations are the clubs themselves. Everton in the Community, the club’s charity, set up Blue Family in early March, donating £50,000 to provide relief to families in the Liverpool City Region hit by the pandemic. During the worst of the outbreak it distributed food parcels to 10,000 households and provided financial support for prescriptions and utilities, along with mobile phone credit for those living alone, to around 1,000 people. It also made 8,000 calls to vulnerable people, set up online mentoring for vulnerable student’s and is in the process of adding a mental health facility, called The People’s Place, to its campus. Richard Kenyon, Everton in the Community’s chief executive, says: “We know the impact of the pandemic is going to be profound and ongoing and the need for the support we provide arguably greater than ever before.”

Homebaked after its re-opening © ps://www.facebook.com/HomebakedA/

So does Watkiss still think – as she did in April – that Homebaked will emerge stronger from the pandemic? In some ways, it has. With the grant from Power to Change, it is financially stable until the end of this year. It plans to expand a frozen pie line and is also tabling bids for grants to alleviate social problems that have worsened during the pandemic. “The positive side of it is that we’ve kept the business running and had a massive social impact – and we’re now reopening and what we can do for the future that supports our community. We’ve also made more contacts with local suppliers,” she says.

However, Watkiss also views elements of the policy response to the virus as a missed opportunity. “Local businesses such as our butcher have done really well. But the big food bank operators, and to an extent the council too, have gone back to how they were operating before, relying on the big suppliers,” she says. “As for the government, it feels that they’re looking after their mates, after property developers, landlords and big employers. Furlough aside, the choices they’ve made force the economy back to where it was before.”

She adds: “My fear is that things are going to get even worse for people in poverty. Particularly in terms of food poverty.”

Related links:
Why an Anfield bakery thinks they can emerge from the pandemic stronger – FT Alphaville
Roasted – a small business’ diary of the pandemic – FT Alphaville

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