A bakery shortlisted for a restaurant and bar design competition? That’s a first! That bakery is the deliciously-camply monikered Outsider Tart a name inspired by partners and co-founders David Lesniak and serial entrepreneur David Muniz’s love of outsider art. The Chiswick-based US-style emporium is the only bakery to make the finals of the Restaurant & Bar Design Awards 2010 (to be held in June). What’s more, they managed the shop fit with a mere £36,000 spend.

Lesniak an established New York architect set out to create a small-batch American-style bake shop in everything from portions to sizes and ingredients, with all recipes created from scratch and made on-site. In the six months since opening, they’ve generated a word-of-mouth buzz via Twitter, Facebook, a mailing list and PR, that has left the national press salivating.

The story behind sourcing its site at one of the busiest intersections in Chiswick is perhaps less chichi than appearances in glossy mags Vogue and Glamour might suggest they spotted it while stuck in traffic. Thinking they’d never be able to afford it, but with nothing to lose, they contacted the agents and, within two days, they had made a commitment.

Lesniak then set about designing the shop. "I knew what I didn’t want," he remembers. "Slowly but surely, I figured out what I did want. Because of my background, when we would go into any café or bake shop around London, I would be constantly editing in my head and thinking, ’If I had this space, what would I do?’."

Not that that process was without its skirmishes, as the Davids’ bickering banter suggests. For example, on the shelving:

Lesniak: "One of the last-minute edits in our shop was the shelving, because I had a different approach at the beginning..."

Muniz: "...which I liked better..."

Lesniak: "...which I now couldn’t be happier with. I think it looks fabulous."

...and on the flooring:

Lesniak: "One of the things that added time to the fit was the decision to replace the flooring..."

Muniz: "...I liked the original flooring better..."

...and the concept:

Muniz: "The whole business has evolved through what is and and isn’t working..."

Lesniak: "...That has always been your approach and my background has always been ’solve the problem, execute the solution’. You’re more like, ’I’m not sure what the problem is, but here’s a piece of the puzzle’..."

Muniz: "...It doesn’t sound like it, but it does work well!"

However, underlying these squabbles over the detail was a solidly thought-through concept, to which they have remainedtrue. "We’re completely clear on our vision and what we want to do," says Lesniak. "If you look around, it’s our personality, no-one else’s."

There’s no doubt the pair are from the "business models suck" school. "The misconception is you have to have your business model. You have to have all the planning in place. But it doesn’t have to be that way. You can be much more incremental," says Lesniak. "I think we benefited from it truly evolving, as opposed to coming in with a really slick concept, turning off your head and executing that concept."

Adds Muniz: "The biggest mistake people make is in saying, ’This is my business plan, nothing is going to deviate from this’. It’s better to say ’these are my concepts, and if that doesn’t work, jettison it and make more branches and revenue streams off what does work’."

The evolutionary approach also typifies the products, which are changed daily. "Some people compliment us on the evolution. ’Every time I come in here there’s something different I love that’" says Lesniak. "Others are conversely rattled by that. ’Where’s the cheesecake that I always like?!’ Having people growing with the business does create a lot of loyalty, because people get caught up with the fun of what we’re doing. We’re making cakes that sell well. We’re not churning out the same items every day we’re experimenting and trying new things." That, and the tight margins on no-compromise premium ingredients, influenced their decision not to do wholesale.

The community didn’t react well to the lack of outside café seating, admits Lesniak a delay caused by the council. "The lack of seating sent unconscious signals to a lot of people that it’s not viable," he says. Thankfully, with spring approaching, the Tarts have just got approval for café terrace seating. "The shop environment is very social and communal," adds Muniz. "A lot of people didn’t like to feel they had to be involved in the conversation, or feel that they were bringing down the conversation by not participating, which is fair."

Instead, customers wanted that option to sit and read the paper or use their laptop something they will take into account when planning their next two shops the first of which should open this year.

Nevertheless, Lesniak urges anyone starting out to stick to their guns. "For anyone opening a shop, you owe it to yourself to see your vision through. It’s very easy to fall victim to comments you cannot appeal to everybody; not everyone who walks through your door is your customer. The moment you start answering to all those requests and criticisms, everything will unravel."

The execution

The look was "found objects, put together with purpose". Antique circus arrows have been wired as lights and the centerpiece of the bakery is a striking custom-made counter made from Corian a plastic with the durability of marble. The shelving offers long-term flexibility with a rustic charm. The floor was chosen to emulate unearthed rustic floor boards and the walls are painted a deep dark chocolate brown. The signage letters appear as if sourced at random, with a giant beater insignia.

Lessons learned

1. "That Chiswick reads The Times, not The Guardian!" exclaims Muniz, after appearing in both papers, with zero pick-up in trade after the latter. "The response we’ve had since we appeared in The Times (in January) was shocking. I’ve started up a bunch of businesses and it’s critical to spend money where you know it’s going to work. The best way to get into the minds of the people who you know are your customers is to be validated by something they trust, whether it be a magazine, TV, radio or getting a blogger excited about what you’re doing."
2. "It’s guaranteed that, in the first three years of your business, you’re not going to have a life other than eating, breathing and sleeping that business," says Muniz. "Everybody, including the people closest to you, will tell you it won’t work. You have to ignore that. It will feel like every vendor, every client, everything is trying to drive you insane. It is a slow road to convince everyone that what you’re doing makes sense and is fun, good, and worth having a business for."

At a glance

Products: Chocolate brownies with a hint of cinnamon are the biggest seller (£2.50); recently-introduced savoury breakfasts include bacon, egg, potato and cheese omelette in a potato crust (£2.50); quiche such as potato, mushroom, leek (£3.50); apple & fennel/veggie nut/cajun sausage rolls or chicken rolls (£2.50); raisin bran muffins with walnuts (£2.50); oatmeal, apple & raisin loaf slice made with a twice-cooked apple compôte (£2.50); whoopie pies such as chocolate, strawberry cream (£3); sourdough bread is sourced from a local supplier
Revenue: Private and online orders are the biggest revenue stream, with made-to-order cakes starting from £45, pies from £25 and tarts from £22.50; shop sales are 80% take-away, 20% eat in; they also trade at farmers’ markets around London
Add-ons: Classes and evening events help to generate word-of-mouth interest and loyalty; hard-to-find American groceries are offered in-store, accounting for up to 20% of revenue
Opening hours: 8am to 6pm, seven days a week; at weekends they’re filled to the rafters, with peaks at pre-work, post-work and around lunch. Muniz: "Mothers with strollers we love them. They fill in the gaps!"