Thomas of York Ltd. was conceived around the family table one evening in 1979. It was always John's dream to start his own family business, having held the role of Managing Director for a number of national and international bakery companies for some 20 years. His ambition was to build the business up to a 'Baker's Dozen' of shops; this was quite quickly surpassed.
A brief look back at Our History
At the tender age of age 25, John was sent off to New York by Warburton's Bakery to investigate the latest trends and developments in the baking industry. On his limited budget, John purchased the book 'How to live in New York on $5 a day', his daily budget for food and accommodation! John's photographs of JFK International Airport looked a bit different back then, and his visit coincided with the Premier of 'The Sound of Music' in March 1965 on Broadway.
The young couple spent their early years in London, Val's home city, where Gareth, the oldest Thomas brother, was born. From there they moved up to Blackrod in Lancashire, shortly followed by the arrival of son number two, Simon.
John, an exceptionally ambitious young man spent the next few years running businesses for other people and quickly gained the reputation of being a 'trouble shooter' with the ability to turnaround loss making businesses into profit.
John and Val went where the work took them. Their next move was to the two up, two down gardener's cottage near Gilling East in rural North Yorkshire in 1970. The next 10 years were spent working and saving hard to be in a position to start their own business.
Val and John located an industrial building in the small market town of Helmsley, just 7 miles from their home, and bought the freehold with their savings.
Prior to purchasing, the light engineering factory had been used to produce hand built record player decks. It had recently closed down with the advent of cheap Japanese imports. It was only some months later whilst refurbishing the building that a food grade tiled floor was discovered underneath parts of the tarmaced surface. A significant cost saving in the early years as it was ideal for use as a bakery floor! Later they discovered that Palethorps (a brand now owned by Northern Foods) used to make sausages in the Helmsley factory.
Gareth and Simon were involved in the business from the beginning, and prior to opening the first shop they were making Chorley Cakes in the converted garage at their parents' home to supply a national chain. They both attended 'Thomas Danby' in Leeds at the 'Baking School of Excellence' where they received a thorough grounding in baking skills.
Shortly after finding a suitable site for a bakery, the hunt was on for the first shop. Busy market towns within a short distance from the bakery were targetted. Malton became the first shop to open in July 1981. This was soon followed by the official opening of Helmsley shop in 1982 with the assistance of Lady Feversham.
Originally the shops were known by the towns they were located in like 'Thomas of Malton' above. However our customers so regularly referred to our shops as Thomas the Baker, that is what they became. See 'Thomas the Baker', Skipton below, the newest shop.
Now almost completely unrecognisable as the original building, the European-approved modern craft bakery is filled with state of the art ovens, retarder provers, mixers and pastry equipment. Further land and buildings surrounding the site were bought as they became available. The site now extends to 4.5 acres allowing plenty of development space for the future.
The bakery is located on the edge of the North Yorkshire Moors National Park, and adjacent to the river Rye. The bakery is in a fabulous location on the Southern edge of Helmsley which recently won 'The Great British High Street Award' for 'Market Town of the Year' in 2016.
Not one to be indebited to Banks, John purchased the freeholds of new shops where he could and paid down loans as quickly as possible. The principal of outright purchase also applies to machinery, equipment and vehicles: a strategy that pays dividends when the banking world is so often in turmoil. John frequently quotes his Mum as saying: "Look after the pennies, and the pounds will look after themselves."
In the early years, the company opened 2 or 3 shops a year and soon reached the point where it had representation in most market towns within a 90 minute delivery radius of Helmsley. Significant investment took place within both the bakery and continuously refitting of shops as they became tired. The business gained a reputation for fresh quality products at good value prices, a formula that is still as important today as it ever has been. The company is still on the look out for shops in good locations and within easy reach of Helmsley, but although there are many requests from visitors to Yorkshire, there are no plans to go national.
Thomas's gained an enviable reputation for multiple award winning products, and have frequently been seen and heard on television and radio with products like their 12 times award winning Sweet Mince Pies. The recipe for this is closely guarded, and has remained unchanged for more than 30 years. Only three people in the business know the exact recipe, many have tried to copy it, including Marks and Spencers and Greggs, but without success. The secret, as with many of the products, is down to the quality and freshness of the ingredients used.
Thomas the Baker remains very much a family affair. Simon's youngest daughter now works in the bakery and has brought a touch of artistic flair to the confectionery department. Bethany now helps to design and develop many of the higher finish biscuits and cakes available in the shops. Although older daughter Sian isn't directly employed by the business, she too helps out. Sian helps to keep us up to date with social media, using both Twitter and Facebook to tell our customers what's currently of interest as well as running our blog. Not forgetting Gareth's two daughters, but at 5 and 7 are still a little young to be kneading the dough!
Helmsley has always been an important part of the Thomas family business and is regarded as our home town. Our Helmsley shop lease recently came to an end and the Co-op wanted it back for their own use, but it was very important for us to have a shop and be represented in the town.
An opportunity to buy the deli-butchers directly across the market place came up and a quick decision was made to purchase. Since that time a lot of building work and refurbishment has taken place and we now regarded as our 'flagship' shop. A number of the products and ideas from this shop are finding their way into our other shops and are becoming firm favourites with our customers.