Valencia cooks up controversy with “bread war”
The “Ikea of bread” offers a low-cost staple for crisis-hit locals. But is it a blessing or a cynical stunt?
By Guy Hedgecoe
They call it the “bread war” and amid all the dramas of Spain’s economic crisis, it seems at first sight like little more than a novelty. But the decision taken by a Valencia bakery to slash the price of its loaves of bread is the cause of celebration for some and bitter recrimination for others.
José Navarro is the local baker-cum-businessman who is behind the venture. He now has nine bakeries carrying his surname that offer a regular, fresh loaf of bread for just 20 euro cents each.
With many of Navarro’s competitors selling at between 80 cents and one euro per loaf, his nine bakeries across the Valencia region draw long queues each morning that stretch out onto the street.
In Quart de Poblet, some customers even come from neighbouring towns just to buy bread.
“Here, five loaves cost one euro, and in some other places one euro only gets you one loaf,” says Dolores Gijón, a young mother. “With four of us living at home we’re more interested in getting five loaves for a euro rather than one loaf. These days you have to be careful when it comes to prices.”
Valencia was particularly badly hit by Spain’s economic crisis, having seen its economy pumped up by the decade-long property boom that collapsed in 2008. Unemployment is above the national average of 27 percent and more and more people are seeing their jobless benefit expire, having to survive instead on a monthly handout of €425.
The company itself says it is following the kind of low-cost strategy that the likes of easyJet and Ikea have made so successful. Company spokesperson Sara Guntiñas even describes Navarro bakeries as “the Ikea of bread.”
While this supply of a cheap staple has won the support of many people in Valencia, inevitably, there are losers. All the nearby bakeries in Quart de Poblet I spoke to said they were suffering due to Navarro’s low-cost initiative. Some had cut their own prices to compete with the new bakery on the block. Others, such as Cecilia Rubio’s family-run shop, said they can’t afford to.
“This is doing us a lot of harm, it’s hurting our business,” she said. “For us and all the other bakeries in Quart de Poblet things are really bad. If you sell bread at 20 cents, the numbers just don’t add up. They’re doing this in order to make all the rest of us close down and then they’ll raise their prices again as much as they like.”
Navarro itself insists it will do no such thing, saying the firm does make a small profit on each sale and that the huge quantities with which it works – selling 60,000 loaves each day across Valencia – make the venture viable.
The company says it’s also had to go through an unusual number of health and safety inspections by local authorities at the instigation of these disgruntled rivals. This however, has not appeared to hinder the project, with Navarro planning a sustained expansion that would see it eventually move into other parts of Spain.
With José Navarro studiously avoiding the media, speculation is inevitably raging regarding his motives. Is he the Robin Hood of bread, looking out for those who most need help during Spain’s seemingly never-ending slump? Or is he simply exploiting them as part of a cynical business plan that will cripple small bakeries in the region? It’s too soon to know for sure, but the proof, as bakers say, will be in the pudding.
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