Who’s behind Gerry’s Bakery and Coffee House in Sheffield?
Sheffield Unchained contributor Emma Wells can’t resist the baked goods at Walkley’s independent Gerry’s Bakery and Coffee House and neither can she resist finding out who is behind this tantalising bakery.
Gerry’s Bakery and Coffee House opened on South Road in Walkley ten months ago. After sampling some rather delicious baked goods from Gerry’s, including a raisin and caraway loaf and a chocolate brownie, I decided to find out more.
I meet the owner Gerry at the bakery at 5 o’clock on a Wednesday evening. Whilst he makes a cup of strong black coffee I peruse the bakery’s shelves, which start the day fully stocked with fresh bread and have only a few loaves left by early evening. I spot a solitary olive bread made with rye and secretly hope no-one will come in and buy it before the end of the interview.
We sit down at a table in the window and Gerry, aged 65, jokingly tells me that most people think his surname is ‘The Baker’. Born in South Wales, Gerry has lived in Sheffield for the last 25 years, the first fifteen of which he lived in Crookes and the latter ten in Walkley.
I ask how he came to open a bakery and he explains that when he retired he got bored and needed a new venture. Gerry says he always enjoyed cooking and he had been baking cakes for a long time:
I got into bread and just couldn’t stop it, and neighbours, friends and relatives seemed to survive my bread, so bread got a hold of me, as it does.
Currently, the bakery is staffed by Gerry and his son, Gareth, but they will be taking on another baker soon. I ask Gerry about his training and he tells me:
I trained in the same place as Heston Blumental and Raymond Blanc, which is my mother’s kitchen!
I have always taken the view that it’s nice to have a piece of paper, but it’s actually about whether you can do it, or rather whether other people think you can do it. People seem to like the bread and as long as they do, I’ll make it.
Prior to opening the bakery, Gerry did a lot of test bakes and had a willing set of ‘guinea pigs’ to provide feedback. After signing the lease on the shop, he gave out samples of bread at the butcher’s shop opposite, Beeches of Walkley, and found that people seemed very keen on the idea of the bakery and supportive of his endeavour.
One lady who suffered with a wheat intolerance sampled a spelt flour loaf Gerry had made. Afterwards she wrote to tell him that he had changed her life by creating a bread that she could eat, which made her feel like she was part of society again.
Bread for all nationalities
I ask Gerry about the transition from being a keen baker to opening a bakery, and he explains that he did a lot of research, including going to look at different ovens, talking to other bakers, investigating ranges of breads and prices, and visiting mills to see what flour was available.
Although Walkley already has a bakery, Gerry saw an opportunity to bring something different, introducing interesting breads which are not readily available anywhere else.
For instance, on Fridays Gerry sells Challah, a special Jewish Sabbath bread which Gerry makes in vanilla, cinnamon and raisin flavours. The next nearest places to buy Challah are Leeds, Manchester or Nottingham.
Gerry explains that Walkley has changed a lot in the last ten years; from being a community comprised largely of people who had lived there for generations or students to a ‘phenomenally international place’.
I wanted to do breads that had provenance, without E numbers, and with organic flours where possible. You can make really interesting breads out of those flours and I’m amazed at the number of people that come in for rye; Germans and Poles.
Gerry tells me that the bakery also has a lot of Greek customers, who have developed a fondness for Gerry’s aniseed plait which uses a recipe from Guyana, in South America but tastes a lot like a Greek Easter bread called Tsoureki.
In fact they have told him it’s better, which he says ‘is a bit embarrassing!’. Czech customers are also fans of the aniseed bread as it is similar to a traditional Czech recipe, and Gerry says it has been interesting to learn that ‘bread doesn’t stop at a border’.
‘Wowish at a reasonable price’
It’s clear from Gerry’s interaction with customers that come in while I am there that the bakery has a loyal following, and that his relationship with them is very important. Gerry greets several people by name, and takes the time to talk to customers about the different breads available and what ingredients are in them.
He says that people mostly come to the bakery from Walkley, Crookes, Broomhill and Hillsborough, but also from Ecclesall and Hunter’s Bar, ‘which is weird because there are two nice bakeries down there’.
His furthest-flung regulars are from Hull, who always stop by for bread when visiting family. Gerry says:
I think it’s because ‘the small bakery’, the kind of bakery that does the things that I do, had become almost extinct but it’s got a little bit of a revival now.
I ask about the rising popularity of artisan bakeries. Gerry is quick to tell me that he does not like using the word ‘artisan’, as in his experience it ‘means I’ve added another pound to the price’. However he acknowledges;
I guess I am an artisan baker because the definition is that most of it is done by hand.
Gerry goes on to that explain his mission has three parts:
I want to sell interesting breads, today’s bread is all I sell, I want bread to be accessible price-wise.
With regard to the third part of his mission, Gerry explains:
If you’re going to charge a lot of money for bread you want it to be ‘wow’. I want my breads to be ‘wowish’ at a reasonable price, so I don’t charge vast quantities of money.
Gerry admits he can’t compete with supermarkets on price, but says he knows they can’t compete with him on quality. Everything the bakery sells is made on the premises, from breads to delicious-looking cakes, and is baked freshly each day. Almost everything is sold, but anything left at the end of the day is given away.
‘When you add water it’s like the tide’s come in’
Gerry loves to experiment with ingredients and is very open to customers asking him to create new types and flavours of bread. He tells me the most unusual request he has had so far is for chocolate and Marmite bread, which proved to be surprisingly popular.
He also made a batch of fennel and cumin seed bread, which had all sold before it even made it across the shop to the shelves. This is now one of his most popular loaves. Gerry says his favourite bread to make is Challah, because ‘the dough is amazing to make and handle’.
He also likes to bake with Khorasan flour which is from Iran, and like spelt, is easier to digest.
Khorasan is soft like sand and when you add water it’s like the tide’s come in.
I ask Gerry whether he supplies bread to other local businesses such as cafes, and he explains that although he has had a number of requests, his ‘regular customers are loyal and very important’, and that satisfying them is the priority. Supplying bread to others may be possible in the future, when they have another baker as part of the team.
Given the interest from other businesses in his bread, I ask Gerry what he thinks of the independent scene in Sheffield. He tells me he thinks it is strong, and that the independents are generally supportive of each other. An example is the complementary relationship between Gerry’s and Beeches, both of which are contributing to the availability of high quality locally produced food in Walkley.
Gerry also plans to run bread making courses when the bakery’s capacity increases, starting with beginners’ breads and moving on to more difficult flours such as rye. I ask him what his top tip for aspiring home bakers is and he has two to share:
Don’t give up – it took me eight or nine attempts at first to create decent bread – and be patient with the process.
Luckily when we reach the end of the interview, the olive loaf is still there and I snap it up. Gerry tells me it will be good today but even better tomorrow; I know it will be a real test of my willpower to wait that long.
Photos courtesy of Gerry’s Bakery and Coffee House.