THE curtain has come down on a stalwart of Blackpool’s bakery empire after the Warburtons factory closed its doors for the final time after 36 years.
The 73 workers at the Brinwell Road site in Marton embraced, shook hands and waved goodbye during an emotional farewell yesterday.
Employees said clocking out for the last time at noon marked “a sad day”.
One devastated worker told The Gazette: “It’s hard to believe.”
The worker, employed for nine years at the factory which produced bread rolls, added: “Warburtons is one of the biggest food producers in the world after Coca Cola – you can’t believe it could happen.
“With it being one of the smaller sites, it has made it harder to compete in the area with bigger factories, while it hasn’t helped that sales have gone down in the recession.
“I’ve started looking for work already.”
The closure means more than half of the factory’s employees are left out of work – at a time when latest unemployment figures show there are already 5,710 people in Blackpool claiming Jobseeker’s Allowance.
Of the 73 people at the site, 21 have found employment elsewhere, while nine will remain with the company in other roles, including at its Squires Gate distribution depot. Four have taken early retirement, but 39 are still searching for work.
The closure of the factory was announced in September, with Warburtons bosses blaming “challenging economic circumstances”.
Despite union efforts and a 90-day consultation period over redundancies, staff were told they would lose their jobs just before Christmas.
A spokeswoman for the company said no decision had yet been made on the sale of the site.
And Jonathan Warburton, chairman and CEO of Warburtons, said: “Closing a bakery is the hardest decision our family business has to make.”
Staff leaving the site yesterday,who were reluctant to give their names amid on-going discussions regarding their redundancy pay, said they now faced the daunting prospect of finding new jobs.
One worker, who had been at the factory for 14 years, said: “It’s a shame for everybody who worked there. A lot of young people work at the factory – it is very difficult.”
A team leader at the factory, who had worked there for 21 years, said: “We’re gutted, it’s a very sad day. ”
Another employee added: “Everybody is very disappointed. I’ve had to start looking for work again. It’s very hard.”
Geoff Atkinson, regional secretary of the Bakers, Food and Allied Workers Union, said: “Obviously it’s a very sad day and there are a lot of families affected in this.
“We did everything we could but unfortunately only a number of people found jobs within Warburtons.”
Blackpool and The Fylde College has been liaising with staff since the announcement the factory would close, and around 40 have taken up courses at the college to improve their employability.
Eighteen have undertaken English, Maths, and IT skills classes, while 33 have taken a course in food hygiene.
Kevin Beaden, from the college, was on site at Brinwell Road to talk to workers yesterday afternoon.
He said: “We’ve been helping them with what we can and we’re going to continue to work with them now.”
Blackpool Council has also said it would offer support but did not stipulate what for that would take.
Coun Simon Blackburn, leader of Blackpool Council, said: “Gordon Marsden MP and I have made representations to the company but unfortunately, despite offering support aimed at helping them to continue to run their factory in Blackpool, we were not able to persuade them to change the decision.
“It’s a great shame the factory has closed and my heart goes out to the staff, many of whom will have worked there for a long time.
“We will, of course, be looking to offer any support we can to the employees as they search for alternative work.”
Warburtons, which was founded in Bolton, has had a base at Brinwell Road since 1977. It employed around 100 people during the factory’s busiest times.
The factory underwent an extensive refurbishment, which doubled the output of buns from 12,000 to 24,000 an hour, in 1983.
And in 1986 The Gazette reported the number of products sold by the bakery had rocketed by 40 per cent after introducing new bags for its goods.
A year later night shift workers at the site had to be rescued by firefighters after fumes from nearby smouldering skip seeped in through the extractor fans.
In 1992 the Blackpool factory became one of the first locations in the UK to produce bagels, but more sour times followed when a year later 30 workers went on strike in a pay dispute.