Real value
Published:  29 June, 2007

Two of my biggest French influences have run themselves into mountainsides in helicopters," laments 37-year-old Alastair Gourlay of The Real Patisserie, signalling the treacherous trappings of top-flight bakery. Gourlay is of course talking about Lionel Poilâne of renowned bakery Poilâne and Delice de France's Philippe Signolet. "I was shocked both times," he recalls. "They were big figures, on a different level to me, but there were elements of what they did that I very much looked up to and respected."

Not one of those businesses with rampantly ambitious targets, Real Patisserie has no plans to hit £X-million turnover within two years or sell up for a fat wedge of cash; this is a simple product and people-centred firm that is loath to over-reach itself. A helicopter landing pad would be an unlikely, if impressive, addition to this two-shop Brighton-based bakery.

Built on the French patisserie model, the emphasis is firmly on customer service and honesty of product. "From very early on, I got an awfully big kick out of making the customer happy, genuinely. When you read people saying that kind of thing, you think 'what a cliché', but it's great when you give people something that everyone loves, like cake," says Gourlay. Extolling the virtues of his particular sponge trade over another, he adds: "It so much more personal than selling, say, loft insulation."

french connection

British-born Gourlay learnt his trade while living in France for six years, achieving a Diploma Boulangerie Patisserie. An apprenticeship and four years working at several Paris patisseries preceded a move back to Brighton and a desire to set up shop 12 years ago.

Starting small, with just three employees, it has since grown steadily year after year. It now employs 42 staff, has 130 wholesale customers and runs one busy shop, while a second shop has been added on Western Rd, run by Franck Cleret and Marie-Dominique Doht. Wholesale customers comprise independent shops, sandwich bars, cafés and restaurants in a tight geographical net around Brighton. They predominantly buy breads, including traditional English white and farmhouse sliced sandwich loaves, baps and rolls, pastries such as almond croissants, pains au raisin and various Danishes. But the bakery specialises in continental-style breads.

Before the central bakery opened, everything was baked on the small retail premises of its original Trafalgar St shop - which has just 16sq m of retail space and 45sq m of back

room. "Back then, we didn't have the proper ventilated ovens that we needed to make all the different types of breads we're making. Now we have proper steam tube deck ovens, which is the only sort of oven you can really use for the crust quality of French-style bread. I've always been attracted to baking bread, almost more than the patisserie," he says.

Moul-bie flours are used to make its biggest-selling speciality bread, Campaillou - known in the shop as "Chewy" for its crust quality. Other breads include organic seeded and organic white, ciabatta, a "whole army of focaccia types" and lots of rye breads, including walnut and rye, 100% rye sourdough and a light rye, which is cut 50/50 with other flours.

The common factor in their production is that they're all bulk-fermented, they all receive intermediate proves and the process can be long, lasting anything from two-and-a-half hours up to 15 hours for a small selection of breads.

The oven used is a heat-stable Bongard steam tube deck oven. The main bakery has a double rack oven and intermediate prover, a laminator, a croissant rolling machine, which makes 1,000 croissants per hour, mixers, a volumetric divider that's used mainly for the English breads, and a hydraulic divider which is more tender with the dough, if more time-consuming, says Gourlay.

The pastries arrive at the shop raw unproved and are retarded overnight and baked in the morning. Some patisserie is made from scratch on-site, such as lemon, pear and chocolate tarts, almond cakes, macaroons and éclairs. "The finer, super-decorated patisserie is not really my thing now. I'm more into pastry with really honest ingredients, generous portions, freshly made with tight quality control," he comments.

reasonable approach

The single most important thing to his business is not charging too much for products, to operate within a busy environment on a reasonable, but not excessive, margin, and without resorting to special offers, he explains. "Although we're providing what we feel is a very good product, we're not pitching into the luxury market, because it's not very big. I'd much rather give Mr and Mrs Everyone walking down the street something good for 90p than charge Mrs Fox-Fur-Coat £3.60."

Around 2,500 nearby office workers fuel a healthy lunchtime sandwich trade, amounting to around 160 baguettes a day. Unlike a typical French counterpart, sandwiches account for the bulk of sales although there is a French flavour to fillings including Brie and mountain hams. "I don't like admitting it but sandwiches are our biggest seller, followed by sweet pastries and savoury pastries," he says. Tarts are big weekend sellers, accounting for up to a third of turnover on Saturdays, while quiches are a particularly profitable line, with around 120 portions sold daily. All soups, mixes and preparations are made from scratch.

So why is this high street bakery thriving while others struggle? "The independent baker - if he's a good baker, treats his customers properly and has some capital behind him - can't go wrong. As long as you're not paying stupid rents, you're taking ingredients that cost very little and turning them into products that have quite a high value. If you're doing it on a small scale, you can pull in a lot of money relative to the amount of turnover, as we did with just one shop in the first five years," he says.

Since then, the company has invested in machinery and the near future will be about consolidating, as the bakery nears capacity, he says. "We haven't started refusing customers yet, but we're getting to that level. But it's making plenty of money and margins are ok. If we produce more, we will run into quality control issues. So if we're going to expand now, either we'll have to expand the bakery, which would be expensive, or we expand through retail."

Any future plans rest with other people within the business. "If we were to get any bigger, then I would definitely become very removed from a lot of people working on-site and I'm not sure that would be an easy jump to make. We're in a position right now where, as long as we're sensible, we can all live comfortably off what's in place.

"There are some people who have made fantastic bread and then done silly things, such as take on 900sq m premises on the back of seven customers, and then gone under. I respect those sorts of people for their energy, but they really haven't learnt to delegate and just run themselves into a wall."

He insists fostering the right in-house attitude will brush onto other people in the business and, importantly, new recruits. "Once that block of stone is in place, making it successful is just a matter of chipping away, repeating the same things to people. There's a very personal element to the company."

The idea of "giving to the customer" motivates everyone in the business, he adds. "Everybody's pretty nice here and that has been one of the main drivers of the business, because customers really like that. In some dusty, fusty old bakery shops you don't get that customer service. There are bakers who could do a lot better if they were more people-friendly." n

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=== The Real Patisserie at a glance ===

Locations: two shops 25 Western Road, Hove, and 43 Trafalgar Street, Brighton; a central bakery in New England St, Brighton

Staff: 42 people, eight of which are bakers

Supply: half and half retail/wholesale split

Website: [http://www.realpatisserie.co.uk]




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