A CONVERSATION WITH MICHELLE JONES: CO-OWNER OF RED LION BAKERY, A LEGACY BRAND
August 14, 2020
It’s 2020, through changing times and in the middle of a pandemic, and true to form, RED LION BAKERY has blazed the trail with the launch of a new website featuring an e-commerce storeto serve families with an assortment of bread and branded items, ticking the convenience and innovation boxes so well. We couldn’t let this milestone pass us by, without getting up close and personal with the co-owner, Michelle Jones, to learn about their recipe for taking over a legacy business and growing it.
What made you venture into the E-Commerce Space?
MICHELLE JONES: It took me three months, starting in March of this year — and this was even prior to the lock downs, and the ensuing throngs of people clamoring for bread at our bread shops –to make this a reality. I had engaged a web designer to update our existing website and at that point I wasn’t even thinking e-commerce, but after the first lockdown when tons of people descended at our bread shops, and we had to call the police in to avoid a stampede, a lightbulb went off in my head, and quickly changed strategies, in an effort to avoid more of the same. Mercifully, the Police showed up and helped calm the crowd down. Through the sale of such an essential commodity, we were risking the lives of our employees, and I became deeply worried about our staff and our brand’s reputation. This pain point triggered a positive change through technology. What we have is a basic website for people to order online for pick up at our bread shops or for delivery, and pay via Orange/ Africell money, Rokel Commercial Bank’s Sim Korpor or in cash. It’s still pretty new for our existing customers but we are proud, if even only one person successfully makes an online order/purchase daily. The goal is to encourage more people to do so because even the paper money or coins in circulation can also be a public health risk. We really want to get booming on electronic transfers, and that’s why we have made the minimum amount for delivery so small. We also engaged a Logistics provider – UNIMAX that’s doing doorstep deliveries.
What other things would you say are baking in the Oven?
MICHELLE JONES: Well in these changing times, I think it’s time to try out new ideas and be innovative. We are thinking of starting a cold chain basically to offer pre-fermented frozen dough to meet the demand for bread, especially over holidays/long holiday weekends and other emergencies, where we are stretched to meet the demands of freshly baked bread. Yes, our bakers can bake and produce large quantities, and yes I can actually pay them any amount of overtime money, but you know “me grannie kin say body noto ayen”. When they get tired, the quality of bread suffers. Offering pre-fermented frozen dough is one way I thought of solving this need that would show up from time to time and introduce it as a solution to the market. A product that can be baked at home, so customers can buy and store the frozen dough for a longer period of time (up to 3 months) and can bake when they want to. Now, I guess I will not be the only one who gets piping hot bread on demand anymore. This initiative would also be fulfilling my grandmother’s dream when she started Red Lion Bakery, which was to go outside of Freetown but capacity was (and has been) the biggest obstacle. At this point, we are putting in the work (i.e. research & development of the product), and getting different partners onboard, in some major towns and cities to serve as in-store bakers. We are going to target a few high density areas across Sierra Leone where these partners become wholesale retailers and also distributors. They will bake bread in their stores so people can get it on the go and so that almost everyone can actually get to taste this famous RED LION bread.
We are curious to know based on your current set up, what do you think makes a good collaboration? Share the journey with us.
MICHELLE JONES : Don’t think that it has been all rosy not for a moment because in every family there is always drama but for some strange reasons we have taken this business so seriously that it’s above all the drama. We have conflicts, but at the end of the day, the business’ progress is what we are all looking for. That’s been the rationale from generation to generation — and I think that’s why the business is still the pride of the family. We put all our differences aside and we get things done for the business. Right now, my cousin Cyril and I came into this venture with different skill sets. He is hardly here –as he has a full time job with the Government –but I could not do this on my own. On Saturdays when he is home, he gets everything else done. For example: facilities wise — that’s an area, I save for him. I don’t want to be putting a nail up here or there or trying to call a carpenter who might not take me seriously. I will say let’s wait for my brother! Cyril is also an architect by profession so he is very particular. Those are his strengths and because I know that, I keep away. I will not dare mess with any of his work, because in terms of layout and designs he has got it all right; I just get to order all the equipment. Now, we all grew up in this business and our grandmother had the benefit from all of us helping out in something. However, in the early 80’s when most of us (her grandchildren left and went abroad for studies) and after she passed away in 1988, then it was only my mother and her three sisters who were running the business. Way past those years, and after the war when I would come home on holidays, I would do my bit. Our folks were getting older and they could not be on the ground so to speak to monitor the Supervisors, who literally did what they pleased and so yes I (we all) saw the decline of the business. But as grandchildren we could not interfere. Whomever was running the business at that time, might see it as you coming in, or trying, to take over. We had to wait until it was our turn. Everything is just timing. My mum passed away in July 2013, followed by my aunt, almost 8 months later in March 2014. Their surviving sisters are now in their 80’s and had registered their desire to retire from the business and hand-off to the grandchildren.
That said, we have also been blessed with having great employees. We had eight bakers at the time we reopened in November 2015 (all of whom had previously worked with us before the business closed down in May 2014). In fact, some of the Red Lion vendors who returned wanted to see if it was the same RED LION in terms of taste and service. I think it was the bakers who made it happen again. Cyril and I have hardly moulded bread in our hands even though we know how to bake bread. But in terms of quality of some of the mixed dough, it was the bakers who helped us to shape and chart the new course. So, apart from premium ingredients used, we give them the credit for enabling us to get the same taste. We have been hiring more bakers since, and we are now up to 26 bakers and the rest of our employees comprise of shop and distribution staff and security.
Let’s talk about the challenges.
MICHELLE JONES: They are few, but not insurmountable. Prior to the outbreak of Covid-19 we had scheduled a customer service training session for staff with a certified trainer but had to postpone it. We are finding ways to navigate through and make it happen within Covid-19 guidelines. I hope that it will make a difference, as we are constantly trying to train our staff on different processes. Every now and then, I will receive a WhatsApp message or call with complaint and I often wonder about those who are not calling or writing to give us feedback. And you know sometimes it’s not really bad. Most people who know this business, knew my grandmother, my mother and now me, and they are expecting a certain a level of service. I am hoping that after this scheduled training, our team will buy into our vision, our values and the culture that we want at Red Lion Bakery. We are definitely going to invest in training and development opportunities for staff and see what happens after that. There are other constraints, especially with the supply chain. But on the whole, I would say this business is like taking the baton and running with it. We love it and the challenges are things that we can manage — that’s the advantage of 75 years.
What are you doing to document your company culture, the experience, ensure continuity and serve purpose?
MICHELLE JONES: Ah! That’s one of the reasons why I do not say no to interviews such as this. I try to get our name out there and to document stuff for posterity. Recently we worked with Dr. Wahid Awonuga, creator of Be Inspired TV, and I appeared as a guest on Mamdi’s Lounge in March last year, and we were featured in an episode of The Vickie Remoe Show which was taped in 2018. I think we have little to show on film for the years my mum and her sisters ran this business. First of all, we didn’t have Facebook and other social media, nobody was walking around with smart phones, and it probably didn’t occur to anyone to document the business on film. It helps to do so. Another aspect that I know you and I are mindful of, is the fact that Red Lion may end with this third generation. So we are thinking about the next phase and whether that would include opening up the business to the public – i.e. offering shares, franchise options etc.
It seems that you are very dedicated to RED LION, committed, hardworking and passionate. We are curious to know, how do you balance your time?
MICHELLE JONES: That’s my weakness … not having a healthy work-life balance. I am sad to say that even in my professional life abroad, my bosses always cautioned me that my contribution at 80% was good enough. I cannot do anything haphazardly or without all the finishing touches. I get that trait from my grandmother. She was like that too. I don’t think that we are perfectionists per se, but she prided herself, the business and everything else on quality. Like her, I’m at the helm of this business –day in, day out– six nights a week, from Sunday to Friday. Working hard is in my DNA, hardly-working ain’t.
I do feel tired sometimes, but then the passion for what I do takes over, and I love what I do. It’s my business to serve the community, every day I wake up I don’t get to worry about my market. I know it’s there, so I have to be thankful for small things like that.
But it’s not all work and no play. I enjoy travelling abroad, and one of my favourite destinations apart from Canada (where I was born and lived for most of my adult life) is Cuba. I have been there three times and loved it each time. I love the history, culture and music and enjoy Salsa dancing very much. I honestly can’t wait for COVID to end so that I can pack my travel bags and visit Cuba again and/or another destination!