The Indie Series – Dr Andrew Wilkinson, miller at Gilchesters Organics

Gilchesters Organics is a Northumberland Miller, and a pioneer in the production of organic flour. In normal times, they supply some of the UK’s leading restaurants with flour, including Holborn Dining Room, The Dairy, Great Scotland Yard, The Portland, Quality Chop House and The Clove Club. They all supply well-loved North East restaurants such as Six at The Baltic, Café 21, Dobson & Parnell and Northern Rye. Dr Andrew Wilkinson, miller at Gilchesters Organics, discusses the business and how they have adapted in light of the coronavirus pandemic

Tell us about Gilchesters Organics

At Gilchesters Organics, the only commercial flour mill in Northumberland, we produce stoneground strong flour from rare-breed cereals grown on our 600-acre organic farm in South Northumberland, near Corbridge. In 2004, after three years of detailed academic and practical research work on the farm, we found the modern chemically dependent hybrids available from plant breeders in the UK were struggling to meet the grade.

We tested varieties from across Europe and found the old tall straw wheat and spelt plants as grown 100 years ago were producing the best results. Our wheat and spelt grains are from the only organic plant breeders in Europe specialising in these tall varieties and who only allow their seeds to be grown on organic farmland. These seeds are now grown exclusively by Gilchesters Organics in the UK.

What is the most rewarding aspect of running an independent business in the region?

Being able to retain the value created from our landscape within the community. Using the produce from our and neighbouring organic farms to generate food security and provide job security for those helping us to produce and deliver our grains and flour throughout the region and beyond.

And the most challenging?

The weather is always the biggest challenge in agriculture and never more so than over the last seven years of climate change. Therefore, continuing to develop cereals that are capable of providing milling quality grains up here for an ever more discerning customer base is a big challenge, whether it is for the home baker getting more adventurous or the Michelin star chef looking to develop new products in their restaurant. The grains we mill for our flours need to perform consistently well and each season will affect that performance differently.

What are the short and long-term plans for the business?

Short term to continue to supply our old and new customers coming out of lockdown. The national flour shortage during lockdown challenged all of us in the milling industry and at Gilchesters we worked tirelessly to keep homes stocked with baking flour when the supermarkets were unable to resupply.

With the easing of restrictions, bakeries and restaurants will be increasing their orders whilst the home bakers continue to put bread on the table. In the long term we need to train up the next generation of young millers to carry the business forward, solidify our new found customer base and capitalise on the opportunities the last four months has given us to make our products more widely known outside the region.

What advice would you give to anyone with a business idea?

Find a trusted mentor, not necessarily from your field of expertise. Someone with experience in the pitfalls of setting up and establishing a business. Be prepared to hear the truth. Make a realistic business plan, one the bank will get behind. Be prepared to put the hours in, it’s 10% inspiration and 90% perspiration. There are three disciplines in business; the product (production), marketing and finance. Know which one is your strength and play to it, but the most you can do is two of them. Three is not possible. You have to get assistance for the business to run.

How has your business been affected by the coronavirus pandemic?

Thankfully there was no negative impact on the business. We had to adjust our employees shift patterns very quickly very early on, but with a national shortage of flour in retail bags from March 16, it‘s been flat out right through lockdown. Meeting the demands of local households and smaller retail outlets (farm-shops and delis) whilst helping to keep our bigger customers supplied as they adapted to the changing economy was a challenge. But one we rose to and met.

Have you adapted your service in light of these challenges?

We already had a great business relationship with our suppliers, most of whom are local in the North East as well. So our ability to package and deliver our flour was reliant on our packaging suppliers, hauliers and delivery drivers to stay safe and stay in business. That required us to give them plenty of warning for order dispatch bookings and resupply. They never missed a beat. Throughout lockdown. It was impressive teamwork by all of us and we have to ensure we keep those lines of communication sharp to keep our businesses efficient and productive.

Gilchesters Organics