Copyright © 2015 Feast Norfolk Magazine

The Heart of Holt
In a corner of the wine cellar at Bakers & Larners of Holt, which dates all the way back to the 17th century, Michael Baker is locating a 19th century bottle of Madeira.

‘It’s indicative of the breadth of wines and spirits on offer at the department store that it has stood the test of time,’ says the managing director. ‘We’ve got more than 2000 square feet of wine cellar, housing everything from the 1894 Madeira at nearly £1400 a bottle, to an everyday wine at £8.99 a bottle.’ Mr Baker has been the man in charge at Bakers & Larners for more than 40 years. Sitting in the store’s Number 10 Restaurant, the Norfolk born and bred businessman recalls: ‘I was born and brought up on a farm over at West Beckham, where we had a sizeable market garden - we used to grow anything from Brussel sprouts to carnations.’ The Gresham’s School pupil had gone off to university to study chemical engineering, and then worked as a chartered chemical engineer, but ended up returning in 1973. ‘The opportunity arose to come back to the family business, which in those days was an old fashioned ironmongers shop,’ says Mr Baker. Back then, the CT Baker business had 17 staff (whereas nowadays it’s just short of 300). ‘The business had been through a number of ups and downs over its 200-year history. I suppose my initial vision was to get back to some of our former glory.’

A series of renovations and acquisitions followed, including the purchasing of the Larners property in 1977 and then clothing retailer Betty’s of Holt in 2003. The result is a rather exceptional department store with an award-winning Food Hall, which has been described as the Fortnum and Mason of East Anglia. Walking through the hall, Mr Baker picks up a bottle of premium Italian extra virgin olive oil which costs nearly £9. It’s new to the store and customers keep coming back for more. ‘There’s very much a market for good quality stuff,’ says Mr Baker, although he adds: ‘One might think, because we have upmarket food here, we only have upmarket people here,’ but he adds: ‘We sell good quality cheese to people who don’t have very much money.’

The Food Hall underwent a major renovation in 2008, and that same year the Cheese Counter won the National Dairy Crest Cheese Retailer Award. Did Mr Baker have a favourite cheese? ‘Quicke’s Mature Cheddar, quickly followed by Colston Bassett Stilton and, just to show I’m not totally anti-European, Brie de Meaux,’ jokes the UK Independence Party County Councillor, who is wearing a Union Jack bow-tie. In fact, the deli offers more than 100 varieties of local (Mrs Temple’s Binham Blue, for example), British and continental cheeses. Around the time of the deli renovation, Mr Baker was presented with an opportunity to acquire Budgens of Holt. The supermarket, which was refurbished and extended in 2011, happens to be the biggest Budgens in the UK. And under Mr Baker’s direction, it’s a very different supermarket. Clearly inspired by the fact that his family used to run two fruit and veg shops, in Sheringham and Cromer, he says: ‘I couldn’t walk into Budgens every day and see supermarket fixtures with fruit and vegetables on, so if you go in there you’ll see that they are on purpose-made timber counters.’

The acquisition of Budgens of Aylsham then came about in 2013. ‘Because that’s far enough away from Holt, it is a cross between the Budgens here and the Bakers & Larners Food Hall,’ explains Mr Baker. Nowadays, there are nearly 30 local suppliers in Budgens of Holt, alone, ‘keeping food miles to a minimum and freshness to a maximum,’ he comments. Every year, both Budgens hold a local suppliers’ dinner and award ceremony at the Feathers Hotel. And there’s an equally strong local flavour back at Bakers and Larners. For example, it is a proud stockist of Winbirri Wines. ‘We’ve been dealing with Lee Dyer since before Winbirri Wines became a business,’ says Mr Baker. ‘We stock the Bacchus, of course, but we also stock his nine other wines, which we’ve always stocked. It’s not a question of jumping on the bandwagon - we were there before the bandwagon even happened.’

Does he have a favourite wine? ‘My favourite is, I suppose, the old style Rioja. I also like Chateau Musar from the Lebanon. We stock about three or four vintages of it and I have four or five vintages at home in my wine cellar.’ How does his cellar, at home in West Beckham, compare to the one here in Holt? It’s about 500 square feet, so it’s sizeable.’ Reflecting on his career change, he says: ‘It’s not difficult - anyone could have done it. Retailing is common sense. You have to identify your market and go for it.’ He praises his staff for, first and foremost, the service they provide: ‘They know what customers want.’ But he adds: ‘The whole time we’ve got to keep looking at new things.’ So this month, the builders are in. Mr Baker explains: ‘We’ve decided the Food Hall needs an update again, so we’re putting in a new floor, new ceiling, new lighting, new heating and new air conditioning.’ Moreover, the fine wine department is being refitted, complete with a state-of-the-art, eight-bottle wine dispenser.

‘Oh, I nearly forgot,’ concludes Mr Baker, ‘we are putting in a new department which we don’t have at the moment, which is a bakery and patisserie. Basically we are just reinforcing our position as the leading Food Hall in East Anglia.’