Taking over the running of three ailing bakery shops, when you are a successful wholesale-only company, because you thought the staff appeared “conscientious and caring”, may not sound like the kind of hard-nosed business decision that would impress the Alan Sugars or Donald Trumps of this world.
However, as David Hall, MD of The London Bread and Cake Company, who took over the shops last year, says: “We’re a caring, appreciative company.” Staff at three GJ Pearce bakeries – the bakery chain that folded in June 2005 – had originally approached him about rescuing their shops, and he was more than happy to oblige. In fact, he was undaunted by running a retail outfit for the first time – especially one faced with hard times.
“The staff seemed really conscientious and caring,” he says, recalling the approach. “I thought, when you’ve got people that are already experienced and knowledgeable, and you’re not starting from scratch, it’s a worthwhile venture.”
The creditors let three of the Hertfordshire-based shops return to the landlords, with the fixtures and fittings, and London Bread was able to negotiate an attractive rent. This chance to branch into retail, while expending no capital outlay, had obvious attractions, says Mr Hall. “For someone to start from scratch and invest in new plant and equipment, to train and employ new people, is extremely difficult these days,” he says.
The stores have since been re-branded as The London Bread and Cake Company. Until then that moniker had been solely associated with a £3.5m turnover wholesale business, employing 100 people, in Edmonton, North London, manufacturing and distributing breads, rolls and cakes.
The business is diversifying, says Mr Hall. “There is a common ground with the wholesale bakery and the shops,” he says, explaining that the company now has a useful means of gauging new products with consumers.
“We already deliver in the Stevenage area and we’ve got new ideas and new products that we wanted to test out on the general public. In terms of product development, we can make sure the concepts and the ideas are right by using the shops for trials.”
Although the three shops are merely breaking even, he would still consider adding to their number, if the right business came along, he says. “I am open to suggestions and ideas involving anything to do with baked products.”
In fact, within two to three years he foresees a London Bread shop opening in central London, the City or the West End; and the Stevenage shops have provided a handy lesson in cutting his teeth in retail. “This gives me an idea about what retail is all about and to consider a partnership in the future,” says Mr Hall.
Meanwhile the existing wholesale operation manufactures a range of 600 part-baked, ambient and frozen craft bakery products, as well as bespoke breads and cakes, six days a week. It supplies hotels, cafés, restaurants, sandwich bars and contract caterers. “We make every bread, roll and cake you could think of and, if we can’t make it ourselves, we buy it in,” he says. “We aim to be each customer’s sole bakery supplier.”
Partnerships with other bakeries such as Allied Bakeries mean customers wanting plant-baked products like bread, crumpets and muffins, can do so through London Bread. It also buys in wraps, naans, pittas and pretzels. Speciality breads are made in-house, including green and black olive breads, tomato pomodora baps, sultana breads, basil and herb loaves, Granary baguettes and onion bagels.
“The current demand is for speciality breads,” comments Mr Hall, adding that restaurants and hotels call on the company for advice on which breads best suit their customers.
“People will come to us with an idea, theme or a concept for their particular restaurant, sandwich chain, or hotel,” he says. “They may want to promote healthy eating, or they may want an American, Mexican or Australian theme, and we have to match the breads, rolls and cakes to that theme.”
Hotel and restaurants
The bakery was looking to boost its hotel and restaurant trade through its prominent stand at the recent Hotelympia exhibition in London. “It’s hard work but we get some enjoyment out of it,” he explains. “We meet a lot of old customers who we’ve lost and they can see how we’ve moved on and developed. We see lots of existing customers and we can show them the whole product range in one go – you could never normally do that.”
“I feel my job, as MD of this business, is to network with other people,” says Mr Hall, who became sole shareholder and director of London Bread in 1998. The origins of the company date back to 1882 in Holborn, North London, and the firm was purchased by Mr Hall and Bryan Roe in 1995.
“We try to inform and educate our customers and we quite often send our customers recipes and information on how to prepare the products, reduce wastage and maximise sales,” he adds.
One trend among customers is to slice the bread with a big ‘doorstep’ thickness, says Mr Hall, while other clients are requesting loaves cut laterally for making club sandwiches. This method is also being used by top London department stores for creating premium sandwiches sold by the inch, using breads such as the company’s 1.2kg tomato or herb loaves. “It’s a different concept and a different way to sell the products,” he comments.
Glycaemic index-themed bread is proving popular and the company supplies Bakels’ increasingly popular multiseed loaf. The ingredients suppliers often do the legwork in promoting new products, he notes. “Bakels, Puratos and a lot of other suppliers are helpful because they will sell a concept to our customers, assisting in the selling and marketing.”
Schools and public catering are now requiring more healthy products, such as wholemeal bread and rolls, pizza bases, low-fat cakes and low-salt bread and rolls, he adds.
Meanwhile, the firm has removed nuts from its bread products in response to customer requests.
On the cakes side, most come in a range of sizes, with Danish pastries, made with butter and fruit, long-life cakes, fruit pies, picture-embossed cakes and sheet cakes among the repertoire.
The bakery gained British Retail Consortium accreditation in 2002. With a fleet of 22 vehicles, it now delivers ambient in and around London and the Home Counties as well as frozen nationally.
Its main focus for the future will be to continue developing new products, which Mr Hall says are the lifeblood of the business. “We are working with food companies who have a number of ideas in development and are looking to use us as a contract baker under licence for their speciality products.”
- London Bread and Cake Co does not advise freezing bread, unless commercially blast frozen. But if this cannot be avoided then ensure the bread is as fresh as possible before freezing
- Place bread in an hygienic sealed polythene bag. This prevents ‘ice burn’, which results in the drying out of the product
- Label and date the bag, and place as low down in the freezer as possible. This is the coldest area for freezing the bread quickly. Do not place anything on top of the bread in
- Allow six hours for loaves, and two hours for rolls, to defrost in an ambient environment, still in wrapping (to avoid drying out). Do not spread frozen slices around an area to defrost quicker as this will also dry out the product
- Some customers may be able to tell if a bread has been frozen by the slightly darker ring around the inside edge of the slice. Ensure you fill to the edges of a sandwich
- Cakes, pastries and cream-type filled products, which have a sugared or iced surface, are not suitable for freezing
- Speciality breads such as French sticks, ciabatta and focaccia are not suitable for freezing and should be consumed within 12 hours
- Most bakery products stale quickest at between 0ºC and 5ºC
- Store bakery products in a dry, shaded place.
Bread: 15ºC to 20ºC
Rolls: 10ºC to 20ºC
Confectionery: 10ºC to 15ºC, for no longer than 48 hours. Exceptions are custard tarts, which should be chilled at 3ºC to 5ºC, and Danish and croissant products, which should be stored at a higher ambient temperature than cakes as they contain a high level of butter fats. Do not store at too high a temperature because the butter melts
- Store away from odorous materials (such as soft cheeses or cleaning materials). If delivered wrapped, then store sealed in its original wrapping
- If storing for longer than 12 hours, ensure the loaf is placed in an airtight container. A thick re-sealable polythene bag is ideal or for large quantities keep in original baskets