Rising to the challenge
- By Elaine Bird
- 27 May 2020
- Great Bircham
Twenty years ago Elly and Stevie Chalmers took over the business of Bircham Windmill.
They had interesting careers; Stevie in International transport and Elly as a shepherd travelling the world helping the gangs of sheep shearers who work ten months of every year from the U.K. to N.Z.
They took over from Elly’s dad, Roger Wagg, who is part of the Wagg family of bakers from Docking. He had originally renovated the site after purchasing it as a near derelict Windmill in the 1970’s. This iconic building has been part of the local landscape for hundreds of years and the challenge of restoration together with viability as a business enterprise has undergone many changes over the years.
In the early days it was a curiosity with many visitors both local and holiday makers alike enjoying the views from the top of the mill, the excellent local fare on sale, the bakery, consuming the home made products available in the tea rooms and much more.
When the Chalmers took over they continued with what dad had started but also added their own ideas, so along came the summer events. These became very important to the overall business model especially the Bank Holiday sheep event, craft fairs and bike events. A huge development was the opportunity for visitors to ‘bake your own bread’ with individuals and groups producing their own bakery products, either as a part-prepared, or from completely from scratch, under varying degrees of supervision.
This year, a year most of us will never forget, saw all the standard leisure and tourism events cancelled, curtailed or generally abandoned, Covid 19 saw to that with regular business dropping off a cliff.
Then the Chalmers had their brainwave. There was a national shortage of baked bread ready to eat, and flour and the other ingredients to make this staple food. However, their suppliers had ample stock of the raw materials, but they just didn’t have the packaging or the retail outlets to distribute bread products, or indeed bake.
They worked out that if they promoted that the mill had fresh bread and other pastry products baked each day on the premises, plus all the ingredients for customers to bake their own, there was a huge potential market. Bircham Windmill now bags up flour, sugar and baker’s yeast ready for sale to home bakers whilst the bake your own continues for individuals under strict 2 metre distancing with pre-weighed ingredients.
The next challenge was how to keep themselves and the public safe and this was done by creating a take away drive through system, whereby customers could place their orders by telephone and then collect pre-prepared goods. Initially they arranged 10 minute slots for people to arrive and collect but this was soon reduced, due to demand, to 2 minute slots. The range of products available was developed in conjunction with their wholesale suppliers, Barsby of Kings Lynn, so eggs, vegetable boxes, flour and many other kitchen necessities became available.
So the old Bircham Windmill has succeeded again, yet again the business is transformed with new developments almost weekly, the business has become innovative and resourceful, long may it continue. It makes you proud to be British.
Elly and Stevie wanted to say thanks to family (the two younger Chalmers are helping daily), staff for their help in these difficult times, and most of all to their customers, old and new who have been so supportive over the initial period, tolerant to a fault and many of whom have become friends.