Slicing up the high street bakery trade in Clapham - or not slicing, as the case may be - is DIY café newcomer, Breads Etcetera. It has toasters on every table with baskets of unsliced bread in the front of shop, where you cut as much bread as you like and toast it yourself.

"It came about by trying to get people to try as many of the breads as they wanted to," explains Kurt Anderson, who co-runs the bakery with Troels Bendix. Conventionally, customers confronted with a choice of breads would instinctively plump for the safe option. "How do you get people to try new breads? This is the novel idea that we came up with. We realised we wanted them to try them all. This is, if you like, the window to our breads."

The breads are made using a sourdough process, which has evolved over the last five years, and organic stone-ground flours from Cann Mills in Dorset and Shipton Mill. The breads are proved in cane baskets to give them a distinctive pattern. On weekends, stands are placed outside the shop to sell breads, flapjacks, cookies and muffins, market-style.

The pair also run one of the most high-quality and expensive wholesalers in London, Doughboys. They came up with a novel twist on franchising to spread its sourdough craft under the ’Breads Etcetera’ retail banner. "We want to expand by inviting other people to join us to learn all about sourdough and the way we make it - and then to encourage them to go into business with us. We would co-own the bakery, they would come and train with us for six months, and we would continue to support them. We are good operationally: there’s no wastage, we only produce what we need, we know the ordering systems, the recipe systems and how to train people.

"Sourdough is a process using no additional yeast, not a flavour. There aren’t many people that view it as a big business. Generally speaking, the idea doesn’t go hand-in-hand with expansion because of the time that it takes and the space that you need." But he thinks they have cracked a model for turning over £500,000 within a 300sq ft space.

commitment required

The first shop hit its budget within the first six months. Anderson has since been approached by other bakeries keen to convert to sourdough production, including an operator in Edinburgh. But running a sourdough-based bakery requires commitment, he cautions. "Sourdough is a very live product, which dictates day-to-day how it is going to perform - you need to keep an eye on it."

The two ex-chefs went through a learning process to get to grips with keeping the sourdough culture happy and well-fed. Two years ago, they would fastidiously feed the culture on the dot, but this has since relaxed. "What we find now is that, with the sheer volumes we’re doing - more than 100-litres of the culture put into the bread on a daily basis - it has become remarkably stable."

Anderson says they have a winning retail formula. "Our business is based on retaining customers and building on that with a skilled product." n