Russian revolution

17 June, 2011
As Rinkoffs celebrates its centenary this year, Georgi Gyton discovers how it went from corner shop to supplier of Harrods
Page 26 

Tucked away in a quiet residential street, just off Mile End Road in Whitechapel, London, is wholesale bakery Rinkoffs. Established by Russian-born master baker Hyman Rinkoff in 1911, the bakery is now run by the third and fourth generation of the family. Although the business, which employs around 35 staff, is now predominantly a wholesale operation, with around 5% of its business from its shop attached to the production bakery in Jubilee Street, and a café on Vallance Road, that wasn't always the case.

Director of bakery production Ray Rinkoff explains that when the business was founded by his grandfather Hyman, who emigrated to England in 1905, it was essentially just a corner shop. The original outlet was situated on Old Montague Street, with Hyman, his wife and seven children living above the bakery and shop.

Ray joined the business as a baker when he was 15 years old. At that time, the business was mainly a retail outfit, with only a 5% wholesale operation, supplying products such as crusty rolls and fairy cakes to local cafés. Move forwards another 10 years and Ray's oldest brother Derek, director of finances, joined the business. "We decided we were going to go either one way or the other retail or wholesale," says Ray. "We saw the supermarkets really starting to take off, so we decided to move more into the wholesale side."

That proved to be a pivotal decision, as Derek freely admits that the business would not have survived on the high street just selling white bread and rolls. Its 'Chola' bread a type of challah is currently supplied to the food halls of Harrods, Selfridges and John Lewis among other smaller chains, and it also supplies several City corporations, including: Morgan Stanley, Credit Suisse and Google.

"Being a Jewish bakery, Sunday used to be our busiest day," says Ray. "It was very much a family business; my mum and dad were also working here, and we needed extra people to help make orders up as the wholesale business started to grow, so Lloyd (Derek's son) started to come in." Ray taught him how to bake and, when he could drive, he would come to the bakery at 4am until around 7.30am, and then go to school, he says. Lloyd officially joined the business when he was 18 years old, and is now director of bakery operations and transport.

"Harvey [Derek and Ray's brother] also came into the business about 10 years after Derek to work as director of sales, and he pushed the bakery's sales up considerably," says Ray. At that point, the business was trying to get in with the likes of Harrods and Harvey Nichols. Harvey simply phoned round and asked to speak to the buyers; he had a lucky break with the buyer at Harrods, who was keen on the sound of its continental breads, and asked Rinkoffs to bring some in. This deal then carried a lot of weight when it came to approaching other high-end retailers and set the course for the business' future, adds Harvey.

Rinkoffs then began to supply coffee shops and, for five years, it used to make around 40,000 muffins a week for Caffè Nero. "But this had to come to an end when Nero got to 200-plus stores, as our products were handmade and we couldn't feasibly make enough," explains Ray. The firm also gained contracts in the catering and hospitality sector, which now makes up a big part of its sales.

Despite not having to battle with the supermarkets for survival on the high street, it has not all been easy. Commodity price rises have hit the business hard and it has been forced to streamline its operations and make cutbacks where it can. Derek says it is not willing to compromise and buy cheaper ingredients, because its products are supplied to high-end establishments. It likes to buy English ingredients where it can, to cut down on food miles for example sourcing its flour from Shipton Mill in the Cotswolds. "We like to buy from a small mill because we like to support those kinds of businesses, and they look after us well," says Derek. And as the products are handmade from scratch you can only cut staffing to a certain level, as "we need their hands". This just leaves the difficult option of trying to pass the cost increases on down the line something the bakery is hesitant to do, as Derek says there is always going to be someone else who will offer to do it for less. But he admits they will have to put up their prices at some point, to stay in business.

Ray says Jennifer, the newest family member to join, around four years ago, has helped to bring the business into the 21st century, as head of customer relations and marketing. She has set up a Facebook fan page for the bakery, and has a presence on Twitter. She also gets involved in the bakery on the NPD side and was the family member behind its move into cupcakes, which it now sells a great deal of, even supplying Google. Jennifer also came up with the idea of having a comments book in the Vallance Road shop, which opened in 1976. This was the first all-night bagel shop, says Ray, and was revamped around six years ago, staying true to its original aesthetics and ambience. Despite the fact the shop is now more of a café/coffee shop, one recent comment in the book was from a man who said he went in for a bagel, and came out with a wife. In fact, says Ray, there have been three marriages from that shop.

The unit, which sells its range of breads including its famous Chola bread, Danishes and cheesecake features memorabilia on the walls and a mural of Hyman Rinkoff painted on the outside of the building. The café is also located on the street where the Kray twins used to live and, when they were in jail, one of their friends used to come in every Friday to pick up six smoked salmon and cream cheese bagels to take to the prison for them.

Derek says the location of the business has been one of the key factors in its success. "We're five minutes from The City and five minutes from Canary Wharf, which allows us to give a really good service, and is what we've built our name on. For example, a guy from Barclays rang up and had forgotten four loaves speciality breads but we had them at the bakery, so I could just run them up there."

Continental focus

Although it has moved away from just being a Jewish bakery, now offering items such as sourdough breads and cupcakes, the bakery still offers a very continental range of products. As well as its range of Jewish Chola breads, it makes products such as a black rye bread, which is very popular, says Derek. Snack-packs of its products, which it started producing six months ago, are its most recent innovation.

As part of its centenary promotions, the bakery changed the labelling on its products to include the strapline: '100 years of family baking'.

Rinkoffs certainly appears to have successfully combined its Jewish heritage with Whitechapel's multicultural consumer demographic and, as Derek says, it is looking forward to the next 100 years.


Vital Statistics

Business name: Rinkoffs Bakery
Location: Whitechapel, London
When was it set up: 1911
Type of business: Wholesale and retail 95%/5% split
Famous for: Danish pastries, Chola bread, bagels and cheesecake





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