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Scotland's Larder: Fraser Gow of Harry Gow's Bakery

Cat Thomson talks to Fraser Gow, the youngest of five siblings running Harry Gow's Bakeries about making the sponge awarded Best Individual Cake in Scotland

Published: June 29, 2022

Harry Gow's is a family run bakery based in Inverness, although Harry is now aged 87 and retired, all five of his children are involved.

Fraser, the youngest has been volunteered by his siblings to talk to me, and he explains his role is marketing, product development and technological improvements.

His brother, David, is the managing director, while sisters, Jane and Sara, are both directors and Pamela is the latest recruit in charge of customer relations.

Family history

Harry Gow's Burnett brothers
The Burnett brothers, John born 1870 and William born 1872 were originally from Dundee but opened a bakery buisiness in Inverness.

The Gows are descended from a long line of bakers called Burnett. In 1955, brothers John and William, were in charge and that is where Harry learned to bake everything from scratch and developed his own recipes.

But the family decided to sell the business, so in 1979 Harry decided to strike out alone and opened his own bakery. Fraser explains; "He always had that burning desire to start his own business."

Harry Gow
Young apprentice, Harry Gow, learning his trade

Taking after Dad

Growing up, Fraser explains neither he nor his siblings felt pressurised by their father to join the business, they were all just inspired by watching the effort he put in, working 6 1/2 days a week and putting his heart and soul into the firm.

Fraser remembers thinking; "look at the effort he has put in to building this up, surely it would be a good thing to continue it. We can make a good living and build on the work that Dad has done."

Harry is now retired but lives close by and likes to pop in to see how things are going, Fraser said, "he likes to mingle with the staff and he comes to the monthly meetings to keep us all right."

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Harry Gow
Sara getting hands on baking

Fraser said, "we are making a good fist of it and carrying on the tradition and the standards that he set. We are pretty determined bunch and quality is definitely one thing that isn't compromised."

That means when things aren't gong to plan, with recruitment issues or during the pandemic when they had to all be 100% hands on, he said, "We all just got our sleeves rolled up and mucked in."

Knowing the trade from the inside out was one of the things that their father had insisted on.

Pandemic

In lockdown he admits they had a few difficult moments due to self isolation but the furlough scheme was a lifesaver.

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He admits, "With only 20% of staff, we couldn't make everything so we had to make a core range of products. If it wasn't for the furlough scheme there would be an almighty hole in our accounts. You have just got to be thankful but it was tough nonetheless."

Harry Gow's
Harry Gow's pineapple tarts

After school, Fraser studied Food Science at Heriot Watt University, but soon realised that looking down a microscope wasn't for him, so he skewed his degree more towards management and marketing and then came back to join the family business.

Fortunately, all the siblings get on, he said, "by nature we are quite chilled out so we tend to get on 95% of the time."

He chuckles, "Don't get me wrong though we have disagreements and when we don't agree sometimes things can get heated and it might just have to go to a vote, but generally speaking we are all singing off the same hymn sheet and moving in the same direction."

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Family values

Fraser explains they are continuing their dad's ethos which is to create the best for the customer.

Their production facility and main shop are in the same place which ensures they can receive feedback directly from their customers.

He said, "If we have a new product, but we maybe do not have the capacity to launch it fully in all our stores, it means we can dip the toe in the water to see how it performs here before we gradually roll it out."

The industrial unit is where they bake all their award winning products which are then delivered to the outlying stores in time for opening, 6 days a week.

The company has grown to a total of 17 shops across the Highlands with latest being within the Asda store in Elgin.

Harry Gow's bakery
Harry Gow's bakery

Fraser really enjoys the challenge of problem solving, either working out how to make a product better or how to make the process more efficient, but he admits, "the whole recruitment thing is demoralising, we struggle to get staff and I'll be honest that is a constant battle."

Baking begins in the early hours with a later day shift coming in to make cakes and other goods, so he said, "It is a pretty demanding round the clock set up."

The Dream Ring

Fraser explains the story behind their most famous product; "Dad would bake in the morning and then take the products around the housing schemes in his van. One day, a lady came up and she said, 'Oooh I'll have one of your cream rings I've been dreaming about these all night.'"

Hence the name became, 'The Dream Ring.'

Harry Gow The Dream Ring
The Dream Ring

It is a fermented soft brioche bun with a hole in it and filled with cream and vanilla fudge icing, he jokes, "It tickles most peoples' taste buds if I'm perfectly honest."

Award winner

Another award winner is a vanilla and raspberry slice, known locally as 'birthday cake slice', it has recently been named as Best Individual Cake in 2022 at the Scottish Baker of the Year Awards.

Fraser said, "it is a very good, lovely light sponge, with everything made from scratch, so the butter cream and jam all made here rather than bought in, "

Harry Gow Birthday Cake Slice
The Best cake in Scotland the Harry Gow Birthday Cake Slice

Another sweet treat is their Pineapple tart which has 7 separate recipes to produce it, Fraser adds, "I don't know if we make much money on that one but we make it out of passion."

But the bread and butter of the bakery, are morning rolls and sausage rolls and pies, in particular their multi award winning curry pie.

Harry Gow Curry pie
Harry Gow Curry pie

Recently they have launched a vegan sweet chilli and chickpea pie, Fraser said, "we are testing the water to see what the customer makes of it."

Their best selling breads are a light rye sourdough bloomer and a ciabatta which they use in their hot takeaway products, with the chilli chicken panini proving to be popular.

Local produce

At Harry Gow's they use Scottish ingredients where possible, their flour is high quality, Canadian wheat which is milled in Kirkcaldy. He said, "It is the best baking wheat you can get, it gives you the best performance, and the lightest possible bread."

Harry Gow
A display at Harry Gow's bakery

Their free range eggs come from Highland Eggs in Buckie and Perthshire raspberries go into making their jam, while beef is sourced locally.

He adds, "But you can't mess with Belgian chocolate, and we use French butter in pastry work."

Fraser said, "I'm a big fan of the Scottish larder, we have got the best range of ingredients in the world."

In it to win it

A strong competitive streak runs throughout the family, Fraser said, "it is quite funny. when we go to the Scottish Baker of the Year Award, my brother is tapping my leg as the award is about to get announced."

He adds, "We are very proud of what we do, and the efforts our staff take so when we get recognition for that, we are all pretty chuffed."

He feels the awards are a good thing, he said, "It really helps everyone raise the bar."

Harry Gow
Harry Gow

Fraser explains he has inherited his father's dislike for waste and he has made it his mission to use technology to improve things. They donate to local food banks and support food charities.

Both brothers studied at the American Institute of Baking, part of Kansas State University. David worked at renowned Pattisserie Wittamer in Brussels, while his sisters learned their trade in-house.

Fraser tells me that the baking world was always his brother's destiny, he used to help his father make deliveries when he was about 9.

Rising prices

Other major challenges the business is facing are inflation and rising prices, and he said, ""Whether people are going to have pennies to spend? So let's just hold our breath and see what happens."

Looking ahead they have plans to produce some new products; croissants, pain au chocolate, and chocolate flaky brioche, and the whole family is looking forward to next years Scottish Baker of the Year competition.

Fraser said, "so plenty to be excited about and keep us out of trouble."

Harry Gow
Harry Gow

Harry Gow's Bakeries
HQ Smithton Industrial Estate,
Inverness
IV2 7WL 
Tel: 01463 792421

Catriona is a freelance writer based in the Scottish Borders, and a nominee for Food and Drink writer at this year's Scottish Press Awards.

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