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Department of Engineering

The Students, The Bakers, The Chelsea Bun Makers...

The Students, The Bakers, The Chelsea Bun Makers...

Cambridge bakery Fitzbillies

How lockdown, a Lego model and a group of Cambridge students helped turn a 100-year-old Cambridge institution into a thriving online business.

We designed a new layout for the bakery, and then made a Lego model of it and took it down to the production floor and said ‘play with it, make changes’, so they could really have a feel. We showed them every step of the changes. You can have the best idea in the world, but you need a team who are happy to receive it.

Despite a few challenging years as a result of COVID-19, legendary Cambridge bakery Fitzbillies has emerged triumphant, with the help and insights of a group of students from Cambridge’s Institute for Manufacturing (IfM).

Founded in October 1920 by brothers Ernest and Arthur Mason, who wanted to put their demob money to good use, it is fair to say that Fitzbillies is something of a Cambridge institution.

Its 100-year history has seen the bakery face war, bankruptcy and a fire ­(not to mention competition from larger high-street bakery chains), yet the bakery has endured. Its delicacies – most famously its ever-so-sticky Chelsea buns – continue to satisfy students, locals and tourists alike.

Today, the business consists of a café behind the cake shop in Trumpington St, a second branch in Bridge St and an off-site bakery, which makes artisan bread and cakes.

But like many other small businesses, the COVID-19 pandemic threw the bakery a curveball, forcing the shop and cafés to close and leaving the team with no choice but to reconsider the way they did business.

“For the first few weeks of lockdown, we didn’t know if we’d even have Chelsea buns to sell,” explains Alison Wright, Fitzbillies’ CEO. “Just before lockdown we had decided to improve our website, but because the business was always super busy on the shop floor, we’d never put much effort into it. We never promoted it and the customer journey was probably rather terrible.”

Chelsea buns Baked by hand 362 days a year, Chelsea Buns are Fitzbillies' most popular product (credit: Sam A. Harris)

Armed with a new website and some unexpected thinking time, Wright and the team set about acquiring a warehouse space next door to their bakery, and planned to use it as a packing space if they could make more of their online offerings. 

“Just as I was thinking about how I was going to put enough strategic thinking time into the online business to justify paying for the new warehouse, the IfM got in touch and asked, “Would you like to take some students?” I replied instantly – 'Yes! Please can they come and do a project on how to grow an online business?!”’

“We have achieved much more than we ever would have done under our own steam.” Alison Wright, Fitzbillies’ CEO

Solving problems beyond the factory floor

The MPhil in Industrial Systems, Manufacture and Management (ISMM) at Cambridge’s Institute for Manufacturing (IfM) is a one-year programme designed to help prepare students for careers in industry. Two groups of students were placed at Fitzbillies – an unlikely choice for an industrial placement, given the bakery’s size and lack of ‘traditional’ manufacturing processes. 

“We try and give students as wide a range of opportunities as possible by working with lots of different-sized companies,” says IfM’s Vanessa McNiven. “Manufacturing isn't just about making stuff, it’s about everything that goes around it, and marketing and sales are part of that.”

The Students: Alistair Chan, Wassim Ezzaddine, Sangamithra Selvaraj and Hassan Yusuf. Absent from photo: Ben Purkis and Mark Taylor. Credit: Hassan Yusuf.IfM students: Alistair Chan, Wassim Ezzaddine, Sangamithra Selvaraj and Hassan Yusuf. Absent from photo: Ben Purkis and Mark Taylor. Credit: Hassan Yusuf.

Against a backdrop of sharp rises in the costs of labour, ingredients and fuel, Wright was keen for the student teams to tackle both online growth and potential shop-floor inefficiencies, which she believed would be central to the bakery’s post-COVID recovery and growth.

“We did a survey, and two thirds of customers weren’t aware Fitzbillies even had an online store, so our first task was increasing awareness,” explains team member Hassan Yusuf. “We encouraged the bakery to focus on their online product offerings, rather than the parts of the business that were well-established. We also suggested that they make more use of the shopping features of their social media accounts; and we identified Cambridge alumni as a key new audience for them to market to.”

Alison has described the student’s suggestions as having a ‘transformational’ effect on the business. Thanks to the suggested changes, as well as a social media revamp and an advert taken out in the alumni magazine, Cam, online product sales grew by 30%.

“We have achieved much more than we ever would have done under our own steam,” says Wright. “It has given us a new focus and a new lease of life when we really needed it.”

“Alison and her team were always open to our ideas,” adds Yusuf. “They were generous with their time and energy and were willing to put their trust in us – this allowed the project to be as successful as it was.”

Fitzbillies staff

From left to right: Alison the Boss. Born in Cambridge, with fond childhood memories of Fitzbillies, Alison left her career in London to rescue and relaunch the much-loved but ailing bakery in 2011.
Kirsty the Cake Seller. Front-of-house veteran Kirsty Chapman says she can sniff the air and predict if it’s going to be busy indoors or whether sun-seeking customers will want a takeaway.
Gill the Bun Maker. Gill Abbs joined the business in 1971. Since then she has made about 5 million Chelsea buns – enough to stretch from Cambridge to the International Space Station.

Part of the team

In March 2022, students Ben Purkis and Mark Taylor were tasked with improving suspected day-to-day inefficiencies. They began by basing themselves in the bakery for a night shift, watching and timing each baker’s task. Over the next two weeks, they spent time in the bakery and the cafés, sourcing as much information as possible about the operational set-up, as well as doing lots of number-crunching.

“The amount of work they did in two weeks was just incredible,” says Wright. “They helped us to make some quite bold decisions because we understood just how long some products were taking to make. We have reorganised the bakery, implemented a newly reviewed pricing model and are using an extremely accurate forecasting model, which is now almost accurate to 0.01%.”

“We spent the first few days building relationships with the bakers – we got in early to bake bread with them, and we went on delivery runs with them so we could really understand the business and the key areas where they needed to improve,” says Purkis.

Lego model of the new bakery layoutLego model of the new bakery layout (credit: Ben Purkis)

“We designed a new layout for the bakery, and then made a Lego model of it and took it down to the production floor and said ‘play with it, make changes’, so they could really have a feel. We showed them every step of the changes. You can have the best idea in the world, but you need a team who are happy to receive it.”

“Ultimately, we are committed to making sure that Fitzbillies is fit for the next 100 years.” Alison Wright, Fitzbillies’ CEO

Good for the next stage of growth

Even now, after the project has finished, Alison still communicates with the students, and they are still making some tweaks to the forecast.

“They clearly made an impression and genuinely felt like they were part of the team,” says John McManus from IfM. “They were able to help the company look at things they knew they had to do but could never find the time to do because they were so busy with today's priorities – a common problem for so many small businesses.

“The great thing about a company like Fitzbillies is the ownership. It was a wonderfully welcoming environment for the students, and they are able to see that their help has made a difference.”

Thanks to the help and insights of both sets of students, Alison feels confident that the future is bright for the bakery:

“The students have helped us to transform our online business. They gave us the direction that we needed and the confidence to make bold decisions. Ultimately, we are committed to making sure that Fitzbillies is fit for the next 100 years, and getting this kind of cutting-edge help has made sure that we’re good for the next stage of growth.”

Written by Elizabeth Tofaris
Edited by Sarah Collins

This article originally appeared on the University of Cambridge website
 

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