Joseph Walker started baking shortbread in the Speyside village of Aberlour in 1898. Now, 120 years later, it is his grandchildren and great-grandchildren who continue the tradition. Alastair Walker belongs in the latter category and serves as the International Sales Manager – although it wasn’t always that way.
“When I was younger, I would be planning trips with my friends over the holidays, but then dad would come in and tell me that I had a job for the summer making shortbread, so all those plans went out the window, and I never left,” he said. The same went for Walker’s other relatives. If they wanted to be part of the business, they had to do their time on the factory floor.
Tradition is key to the Walkers ethos, and the shortbread is made with the same four ingredients it always has been – butter, flour, sugar and salt. Rationing in World War II meant that a lot of other shortbread companies substituted margarine for butter, and once the war was over many kept at it due to the much lower costs.
A new generation took over, consisting of Walker’s father, aunt and uncle, and together they doubled the turnover of the business within 12 months with a focus on making the best quality shortbread that they could using the best possible ingredients. The growth continued year on year.
While the company has seen exponential expansion, the old shopfront is still there today, now used as a test bakery. “We can do production runs and see how they work on a small scale,” explained Walker. “The locals will come in and give instant feedback. A lot of them will have worked for us as well so they can tell us exactly what we need to do. We’ve had whole families working at the factory, so it really is a family business – it’s not just the Walkers.”
The Walkers core consumer is women over 50, although the company also appeals to younger audiences by making shortbread in the shape of Scottish animals, such as the Highland Cow and Scottish Terrier, as well as a range of Novelty Tins and 3D boxes.
Walkers supply shortbread to over 100 countries. Switzerland was the first, over 45 years ago, and the company has partnered with Hutchinsons in New Zealand for over ten years. The success of Walkers in overseas markets has seen the company awarded a Queen’s Award for Enterprise for Export not once but four times, making it the most successful food company in the category. The association with the Royals doesn’t end there – Walkers has been granted a Royal Warrant for supplying the Royal Family with shortbread and Scottish oatcakes.
“We’re most proud of creating something so unique,” said Walker. “It’s nothing fancy – we just want to make good shortbread.”