The management behind fledgling bakery retail chain Gail’s plunged £300,000 into its newest store in upmarket West London. It took pains over the tiniest detail, from bread art screen-printed on the walls, to sourcing framed images of bygone baking competitions.

Within a few days of opening, two soon-to-be regular interlopers had already tagged on to the place: an old lady with an inexhaustible (and exhausting) flow of one-way stream-of-consciousness chatter, plus one inveterate boozer, who ends every hard day’s drinking with a loaf. This just goes to show, no matter how much attention to detail you take in presenting the place immaculately, you cannot choose your customers.

It also proves that good bread doesn’t discriminate in its appeal (and that it’s the perfect foodstuff for soaking up a skinful). In choosing Portobello Rd, West London, Gail’s has pitched its tent amidst a number of screamingly fashionable bakeries, including the American-style celebrity magnet, Hummingbird Bakery, and the dazzlingly minimalist and modern bakery-cum-restaurant, Ottolenghi. But Gail’s wants to be seen as the ’neighbourhood bakery’. "It’s a very residential, friendly type of model, and we could have been sitting in Islington today," says MD Ran Avidan.

With just two links, it’s premature to call Gail’s a chain. But this belies the master plan, which would see the company "opening as many shops as we can, as fast as we can, as long as we can stick to what we believe in - everything handmade, without any short cuts," says Avidan.

Gail’s is the retail spin-off of north London’s The Bread Factory. The wholesale bakery, of which Avidan is MD, produces some of the finest breads in the capital and was profiled in British Baker’s Speciality Breads supplement, 2006. The first Gail’s branded outlet opened in a small unit on Hampstead High St in 2005.

The latest, more spacious, end-of-row site was the former home of a locally cherished art gallery. "It’s a good location, you can’t miss it," says Israeli-born Avidan. "It was quite an iconic part of the neighbourhood. All the locals have been waiting to see what was going to be done with it." It took three months to source the right location and negotiate a deal to acquire the lease, and another three months from taking possession to opening the store.

An architect was drafted in to put the management’s vision in place, taking six weeks to fit and furbish the shop. "We had a good idea of what we wanted to achieve with the brand, including the look and feel, the materials used, the openness," says Avidan. This is best expressed by the centrepiece glass demonstration area.

"It looks simple and clean but the design was fairly complicated. Putting together those sheets of glass, which have no brackets, would have been much cheaper and easier if we’d used a frame. But we wanted it to appear almost as if it were hanging in the air. We wanted it to be exposed and open to show that we’re not hiding anything - so people can see what ingredients we use and that we make things on-site." The shop has a second, larger, preparation area downstairs.

At present, breads are delivered in from The Bread Factory. "If we had the space it would be wonderful to bake the bread here too, because people are fascinated by how bread is made," says Avidan. Everything else, from the pains au chocolat, Danish pastries, brioches, quiches, sausage rolls, sandwiches - even the roasted vegetables for sandwich fillings - are made on-site.

The array of breads are neatly lined up along the back wall on a chunky stained oak shelf. "The materials we used were very important, just like the ingredients we use for the products," he says. This meant liberal use of wood, concrete, steel and glass, spurning plastics, perspex and PVC. Elevated slate boards are fashioned to make novel cake display stands. "Our presentation is a very important piece of the whole puzzle of who we are. We have invested so much in our products - it has been a long process of sourcing the right ingredients - that we want them to be presented in the right way."

The window displays were still in development when British Baker visited, but sweet products and pastry are set to take prominence. "This window should be something you look at and think ’Whoa, that’s what I want, that’s amazing’," says Avidan.

Unlike other chains, each Gail’s store will be unique and different from the one before, he says. "We’re trying to match them to the location and neighbourhoods. That’s as much to do with the styling of the shop as the product range."

The character comes from a series of neat touches, such as a shelf full of bakery books that are available to purchase, and a gallery of pictures taken at an early 1900s Minnesota bread-baking competition, which adorn the exposed brick walls. Unearthed by the firm’s graphic designer, these also furnish the company’s marketing materials.

There is also the ’Breadheads Club’ leaflets, where people can write down what they love - or indeed, don’t love - about Gail’s. Customers fill out a VIB (Very Important Breadheads) card and are, in turn, invited to parties, special events and tastings.

Graphic illustrations of the core breads were painstakingly screen-printed by a fine artist onto another wall, along with brief descriptions of each, in a process that took 48 hours. "We needed an area to communicate that we’re a bread brand and why the breads are so special, from the ingredients to the stories behind them," explains King.

"We could have got vinyls made and whacked them up in 10 minutes, but we wanted it to have that handmade, artisan feel. When we first started talking about creating a bread brand on the high street, we had a creative brief of using all the elements that were important to us - values like ’traditional’, ’old-fashioned’ and ’fun’."

Of course, ripping down a poster would be easier when a bread falls out of fashion. But Avidan says: "We do change the breads we have here, but we chose the iconic breads that we have most of the time. Sometimes you’ll come in and there won’t be a blue cheese campagne, but you’ll still be able to educate yourself and find out what it is, and if you ask for it, we can bring it in the next day, or the following day for breads that take 48 hours, such as the French wholemeal sourdough."

So what caused the biggest headaches when fitting out the place? "There were structural issues. We wanted to use concrete floors, as we thought it was right for us, the brand and the neighbourhood, but it was very difficult to find a material that would not be too heavy. And just finding the right locations is a problem. I looked at 200 leaflets and visited 40, and that was just to find one place."

The need to train staff from scratch - with a whole week devoted just to instilling the brand values - might prove another stumbling block to rapid roll-out. "Even the guacamole is handmade here," says Avidan. "To do things this way, you can’t open 20 shops a year." A third store is planned before the end of 2007.

Gail’s hopes that longer-than-typical opening times for a bakery - at 7am-9pm Monday-Friday, and 8am-9pm Saturday-Sunday - will help the store become a bread ’destination’ in an area of widespread competition. "We like competition," states Avidan. "In Hampstead, there is Paul opposite us and Maison Blanc two shops to the left. But there is a lot of room for good bread concepts in London."

The local competition has proved a boon. "It’s amazing how many locals have come to us and said, ’This is what the neighbourhood needed - a real handmade bakery’." n


=== Vital statistics ===

Cost: £300,000, half of it self-financed and half through loans

Total outlets: two, but with ambitions to become a chain

Locations: Wholesale bakery The Bread Factory, Hendon, North London; shops in Hampstead and Portobello Rd

Customer profile: a social mix of local people with a neighbourhood feel

Projected turnover for new shop: over £1 million

Products: The emphasis is on the breads, with 25 varieties offered daily, with regular changes; biscuits; patisserie; tarts; sandwiches; soups; brownies and cakes. Recent innovations include organic spelt scones


=== The Gail’s brief ===

The Gail’s concept is a contemporary take on an old-fashioned bakery shop. The ambition was to bake and sell the best bread and other baked products you can find in the UK. Because a lot of emphasis is placed on the ingredients used, similar care needed to be put into sourcing the right materials to build its second shop in West London. Only natural materials such as glass, stone, wood and metal - as opposed the plastic, Formica and Perspex - should be used.

Another element in the brief was transparency. Gail’s wanted to reinforce that it is a very honest brand, so people should see how it makes things and what goes into its products. The shop needed to reflect the ethos of its products - artisan, homemade and eclectic - without being too slick.

...and the results

The location on Portobello Rd took six months to find, lease and refit. It houses 1,000sq ft on each floor, with 400sq ft given to the downstairs production area. Sally Mackereth from Wells Mackereth Architects undertook the fitting, which included a totally transparent glass bakery in the middle of the shop, measuring 180sq ft. This repeats the founding Hampstead store’s feature. It includes an Ital Forni pizza oven and regular oven plus fridge and work surfaces.

Extra room is given to seating, with 20 covers, plus additional seating outside.

Tables and counters are made from stained solid oak. On the back counter sits an Italian Gaggia coffee machine, serving Fairtrade blends, alongside a juicer for freshly squeezing juices, a toaster, a slicer and a fridge. The walls feature screen-printed images of the breads and antique images of a bygone bread competition.