Never Standing Still
He welcomes us with a firm handshake and a smile and invites us to try his produce. A tempting tray of hot pies, sausage rolls and bridies is placed before us and coffee delivered. John Gall, Managing Director of Brownings the Bakers ushers us into a room full of goodies (as well as the pies and friends) there are various cakes and biscuits laid out, which we will, admittedly, try in due course. We are in his factory in Bonnyton to conduct an interview, difficult with a mouthful of world class pie. Brownings’, of course, won the 2017 Scotch Pie World Championship.
“Then it comes out,” Gall sets the scene for the moment he discovered Brownings had won the title. “The winner of the best Scotch Pie, the World Champion Scotch Pie is – (drum roll) – Brownings the Bakers. I was absolutely taken aback by it all. That is unbelievable. I had plans that afternoon to go and do this and that, and that was it, ended up… I was on STV’s News At Six…it’s fantastic.”
Gall’s delight at the win is reflected in his eyes, he laughs at the memory. Incredible to think that an Ayrshire headquartered company formed as a small bakers in 1945 could take on and beat the best butchers and bakers in the world, but they did. The win also confirmed Gall’s decision to stick with the ‘Kilmarnock’ pie brand, ending a dispute over the ‘Killie’ pie name.
“We felt that we owned the trademark ‘Killie’ pie, and we got into a bit of difficulty when Kilmarnock Football Club objected to it,” He told us candidly. “So, we…made a decision. We do the Royal Highland Show every year and everybody comes in, and you’re talking thousands and thousands of people…and they are all sampling this ‘Killie’ pie and they are all saying ‘what does ‘Killie’ mean?’ What’s ‘Killie’?’ So, we had a thought to change it to… ‘Kilmarnock’ pie, to make it synonymous with the town. Everybody knows it’s the ‘Kilmarnock’ pie, just like Melton Mowbray (pork pies), the Forfar bridie…Lockerbie cheese.”
There is passion in his voice, but he puts it down to business, plain and simple. He has not the time nor the inclination to meditate on such things, he moves on, he
is resilient, there is steel in his soul.
John Gall’s first years were spent in Newmilns, the family moving a few miles down the road to Galston when he was ten. He loves Ayrshire, and when he speaks there is an undisguised enthusiasm for the business he, officially, joined in 1980.
“The business was started by my gandparents,” Gall revealed. “My mum was in the business… she looked after the shops. A working bakery, even though it was small, and I was working in the bakery in the summer…October and Christmas holidays. I was in there from the age of about 12 until I was 16 years old. I left school and I was straight into the business. I did a year full-time at Glasgow College of Food Technology and then I went to Thomas Danby College in Leeds for year, I learned all the ins and outs of the flours, and how things happen. I came back to the bakery, and when I was about 25 I took total control of the whole bakery.”
Some might describe this rapid rise as meteoric, but John Gall takes it all in his relaxed stride. He was young, ambitious and had a strong desire to develop Brownings the Bakers. He is proud of his heritage, proud of his part in the development of the business, proud of his place in the Ayrshire business universe.
“We were still in an old bakery…in Hurlford,” He recalled. “In 1999 we moved and came here to our site in Bonnyton, and ever since then – that’s 18 years ago – every two or three years we’ve extended the building. In 2003 I was British Baker of the year, the first Scottish guy to ever be British Baker of the year.”
He is, to date, the only Scot ever to have won that title, and it proved a turning point in Brownings development. It was also, coincidently, the year that Brownings made the famous ‘Killie’ – what they now call ‘Kilmarnock’ – pie. The Baker of the year win attracted a lot of good publicity and interest from a small but growing German company called Aldi.
“Aldi…were a small concern in Scotland,” John remembered. “They only had 16 stores and they came chapping on my door. They said ‘we’ve been to your shops and we like your products is there anything we can do for each other?’ Let’s have a look at it, everything had to be wrapped and pre-packed, so a year later we started six products into six stores on a trial basis.”
The relationship quickly grew and Brownings expanded under the business wing of John Gall.
“I now supply 72 Aldi stores in Scotland with 16 products, every single day, seven days a week” he tells me proudly. “So, this factory now runs 24/7, we close for Christmas Day, we don’t close on New Year anymore.”
He jokes that, when in America, he checked his smartphone app to make sure his team were at work ‘after the bells’, as he puts it. Of course they were, did he really have any doubts? We laugh, weirdly, as if on cue, the aforementioned smartphone bursts into life with subdued ringtones. He switches it off, he decides it can wait and we return to the interview.
“We’ve got bigger and bigger and bigger,” he starts up again. “We are an employer of nearly 200 people, (and) the employees are no different from me, we’ve all got debts to pay, whether its mortgages, cars and things like that. It’s got to be continued growth. As well as Aldi we’ve got 13 Tesco stores…we do every Waitrose in Scotland, we do the Dobbie Garden Centres, 30 odd Spars a load of Scotmids. You’ve just got to keep growing, you can’t stand still.”
He pauses, his words ‘you can’t stand still’ ring like a mantra. ‘You can’t stand still’ and Brownings certainly have pushed on. Baker of the Year, Best football pie, Scotch Pie World Championship 2017.
We listen, he talks. He wanders passionately through his business years, his roots in Newmilns and Galston and moving to his new home in Troon, his children. He tells us proudly about his part in an Ayrshire food delegation to the Houses of Parliament in London. He speaks very highly of the directors at Kilmarnock Football Club, but reminds us of his bumpy estrangement from his favourite football team, and his new involvement with Ayrshire side Darvel Juniors.
“I bought Darvel Juniors Football Club and this is my first season,” he says cheerfully. They’ve been scrambling about for years, they’ve struggled and I’ve came in the summer and put a structure in place, this is where we are going, this is what we want to do. We are sitting almost at the top of the league and we are going…for promotion.”
He claims, half joking, that he has already got the flagpole. But also points out that the club’s new found success has less to do with money than togetherness.
“We’ve got a small playing budget,” He explains his role at Darvel Juniors. “The same as we had last year when we were nowhere. But it’s not all about money, it’s all about putting things in place, it’s about team spirit which I brought from Brownings the Bakers. Everything that works in here should work in a football club.”
John Gall is also a member and sponsors Loudoun Gowf Club, where he plays and socialises with many of the friends he grew up with and went to school with.
“My son’s in the business, so he’s the fourth generation,” Gall is obviously proud of his children. “My daughter’s got her own wee nail place in Kilmarnock : Pretty Little Parlour, which she opened up this year.”
We eventually drag ourselves away from the pies, sausage rolls, bridies and luxury cakes, all delicious, and leave John Gall to ponder on his next move, his next success. After all, and as he reminded us, ‘You can’t stand still’.