From small beginnings in Helen Dean’s kitchen in Aberdeenshire, shortbread maker Dean’s of Huntly has grown to become a global player in Scotland’s food and drink industry. Karen Peattie speaks to the founder’s son, Bill Dean.

Bill Dean is looking forward to a “wee bit of normality” as he considers the events of the last two years and the effect of a global pandemic on his award-winning Aberdeenshire shortbread business, Dean’s of Huntly.

“I thought it would all be over in six weeks,” he says. “We were gearing up for Easter, which is always a busy time for us, and things just ground to a halt in what seemed like the blink of an eye. Everything changed – for us, for our staff, for our customers, our local community. Who could have predicted it?”

But back on a much more even keel as the country builds back and life begins to resemble how it used to be pre-pandemic, Dean is upbeat. “It’s been tough, of course it has, but we’re resilient – businesses haven’t really had a choice to be anything else – and there’s definitely a feeling of ‘we can do this, we can really get moving now’.

“Not that we we’ve idle for the last two years by any means – we’ve been able to get on with things behind the scenes, we have a new website, we are strengthening our team. There’s much to look forward to as well as a wee bit of normality.”

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Dean is also delighted to report that sales of the company’s products in the Discover Aberdeen store at Aberdeen International Airport are “exceptionally good”. The store opened last summer, and sells a range of quality Scottish products.

“It’s great to have our shortbread in a shop like that because our products are rubbing shoulders with premium brands like Harris Tweed and Johnstons of Elgin,” notes Dean.

“You’re getting people in there buying gifts to take home and maybe people who are discovering Dean’s for the first time because they have a bit of time to browse before they board their plane.”

Dean’s is a long-established independent family business, launched in 1975 in Helen Dean’s kitchen where she made shortbread – an icon of Scotland – to raise funds for the local pipe band.

With its “melt in the mouth” and crumbly texture loved by her family and friends, its popularity grew to such an extent that Helen – Bill Dean’s mother – moved away from her kitchen to a small bakery in the centre of Huntly.

In 1992, the firm built a new purpose-built bakery on the outskirts of the town. More recently, in 2018, Dean’s built a new warehouse and distribution facility. “We did this with a view to converting another warehouse into a new production facility,” Dean explains.

“This is now completed, and we have a product unit capable of handling new products including vegan, gluten-free and savoury lines. It has a chocolate enrobing line that allows us to produce half/fully-coated and chocolate drizzled products.”

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The company also invested heavily in robotics a few years ago meaning that it hasn’t been as badly affected by the well-publicised Brexit-related staffing issues.

As well as licensing agreements to produce lines for the Wallace & Gromit, Steven Brown Art and Herdy brands, Dean’s has launched The Open by Dean’s range to mark the 150th Open Championship taking place in St Andrews in July.

Meanwhile, the Dean’s gift shop and bistro are open and hoping to recoup business lost during the pandemic from Easter onwards as more visitors – from both home and overseas – start to arrive in Aberdeenshire.

“Our foodservice business – supplying hotels, cafés and so on – fell off a cliff when the pandemic hit and obviously our own gift shop and The Bistro closed too,” says Dean. “What we’re hoping for now is a period of consolidation with no volatility or enforced closures – a chance to trade without any restrictions.”

Despite the pandemic, export sales have been doing well. Online sales are also strong as people changed the way they shop. “Every business faces challenges but there is always opportunity to be found too,” says Dean.

“Dean’s started with a simple, premium product but we have taken that product to a whole new level and this year we’re looking to innovate even further. “There’s a big push on new product development, we’re looking at a collaboration with another Scottish brand, we want to explore the health and wellbeing area, look at products for everyday consumption, more seasonal products – we want to broaden our portfolio.

“We still use my mother’s special recipe – that’s one thing that will never change.”