‘It’s time to let go’ Much loved bakery up for sale after 34 years on high street
- Credit: Sonya Duncan
Following the announcement that one of the county's best known bakeries is up for sale after 34 years, reporter BETHANY WALES spoke to the man who made it all happen.
Merv Ayers, who turned 60 on Friday, has been a linchpin of Wymondham's high street since 1985.
His family run bakery, Merv's Hot Bread Kitchen, is famous in Wymondham and beyond for its fresh crusty bread, sausage rolls and tantalising cream cake selection, baked on site in the Market Street shop before the town wakes up each morning.
Mr Ayers, who lives just outside Wymondham with his wife and fellow pastry chef, Carol Ayers and Labrador Oz, has amassed a legion of devoted fans over the years.
There is a queue out the door of the small shop most lunchtimes and one customer, a gentleman from Norwich, is so enamoured with the "bread and banter" on offer at the kitchen he regularly makes the 20 mile round trip to Wymondham.
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Fresh, locally sourced ingredients are a cornerstone of Merv's business model.
The sausage rolls, one of the shop's biggest sellers, feature Norfolk pork and home made chutney, and the Battenburg, which Mrs Ayers has a particular penchant for, is wrapped in real marzipan rather than the more commonly used almond paste.
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Getting these recipes right has taken years of practice.
Merv first began baking as a teenager, having rejected the obvious routes of electronics of mechanics for non-academic boys.
At 16 he began chef training at City College, and was taken on as an apprentice at Ashworths Bakers in Norwich.
Eight years later, aged just 24, the young Wymondham chef became a business owner, converting the old bicycle shop on Market Street into Merv's Hot Bread Kitchen and opening a second and third store in the coming years.
According to Carol, it is more than the quality menu that keeps people coming back.
"It's giving that service that you would never get at a supermarket," she explains. "Merv has customers who have been coming for 20 years, some of them were even at our wedding and we've been to a few funerals. We have one guy who comes in and makes us all a cup of tea out the back while we're getting his order ready, we've known him that long."
As well as human visitors, Merv has won over the local dog population.
He said: "If I see a customer come in with a dog I like to ask them if they're allowed a sausage. We're big dog people. One little terrier, Ted, starts barking as far away as the White Hart pub because he knows they're heading to the bakery. It perks up your day seeing them."
Despite his superb reputation, the baker is modest about his success.
But Carol, mother of his two daughters, is more vehement about the graft it has taken to him achieve it.
"He works from 4am until 6pm, five days a week and has done for the past 30 years. We haven't had a proper holiday in years, other than the odd long weekend."
Merv agrees, adding: "We make a lot of the stuff from scratch and there isn't many people with the skills to do it. If you work at it the rewards are there for you, but I am tired now. I'm ready to reap the rewards."
In April, the couple quietly decided it was time to step down from the bakery, and put the business up for sale.
"We're in no rush to get rid of it, but it is time to let go, I'm ready to retire. If someone said here is the money today, I would take it."
The motivation behind Merv's retirement is more about pursuing a passion than it is about rest.
For the past 15 years the Ayers have been running a second business, a thoroughbred racehorse stud, from their home in Wymondham and the baker hopes to make a full time transition from loaves of bread to thoroughbreds.
Carol, who heads up the facility, said people told the couple they were mad when they started the venture.
She said: "We have built the stud from the ground up, none of this was here when we bought the place. The house was in an appalling state and all the land was being used as arable fields. We were on the breadline for a bit trying to get it finished but we have been very lucky with the help we've received."
Against the odds, the stud has been a remarkable success, producing multiple winning horses and housing some of the top racers from Newmarket and beyond.
Recalling a particularly long-shot win at York, in which the couple's young gelding Chiefofchiefs stormed to first place in the final seconds, Merv beams.
"It's electric. Any race is an adrenaline rush but a win is a real triumph."
Although pining for mornings in the field with his horses, the baker confesses he will struggle to let go of the business he has spent more than three decades shaping.
He adds: "You have to move with the times, you've got to evolve. The goal is to take it easy but keep building up. That being said, it's still a good feeling when you see everything pretty in the shop counter. I still feel proud of a great loaf of bread."