Calling your company a ’start-up’ when you’ve got the wallop of a 300-strong homeland army of shops buttressing your advance into a foreign territory may stretch the definition of the phrase somewhat. But this is how French bakery chain Paul sees its foray into the UK retail bakery market.

Since its successful sortie into London in 2000, with a café opening in Covent Garden (see overleaf) to test the waters for future empire building, Paul has stepped up its operations, with 10 shops opening this year following on from a new state-of-the-art bakery built in October 2005. Rather than lifting the successful production and delivery model straight from France, Paul’s UK management has adapted it to suit the needs of its growing number of London stores. "If you go into a new country and replicate your management system, you will make a lot of mistakes," says David Belhassen, MD of Paul in the UK. "When we first came here, the Paul family said, ’You’re independent, here’s an amount of money, here’s your business plan, go out and do it’. We still have that spirit of a start-up in the UK, of being in a small company."

Paul opened its new production hub in West London to take the strain of Covent Garden, which was creaking at the seams, running at three-times capacity. In a typical week, the bakery would receive three deliveries of between 30 and 50 600kg pallets of products. "It was taking a real hammering," says production director Richard Blades, a French-trained English chef with an established restaurant career in London, who learned to bake bread from scratch when he took over running the Acton bakery production.

Furthermore, the Paul breadmaking process is temperature- and humidity-sensitive, which meant a move from the old premises was a must, says Blades. Temperature control at Covent Garden was non-existent. So the challenge was to produce a handmade, artisanal product in a modern facility that gives surety of end-product and greater volume.

"When the back door of the Covent Garden bakery was opened for deliveries, the temperatures dropped and slowed the process down," he says. "We’ve taken a wholly artisanal process and added complex controls; we can absolutely ensure the consistency of quality. Because of that, we can now produce in much bigger quantities than we had done before and in France."

The process requires a temperature maintained at between 25-28?C, with a 25% humidity, while the bread ferments for four hours. During that process, it develops the taste, texture and liquidity of the dough - it is a very wet dough, says Blades.

With the new bakery, Paul has a different production/delivery model to France. Across the Channel, the company runs independent units, with a bakery in the smaller towns and, in the large conurbations, cartwheels with a central bakery hub, delivering to four or five shops. Each of the shops also has its own patisserie production.

Rocketing property prices in London forced a rethink for the UK and all bread production is now focused at a single point in suburban Acton. The location was chosen, ahead of Liverpool Street in the heart of London’s financial district, and Battersea in south-west London, for its proximity to the A40 and easy access into the city. Paul settled on a drab old engineering factory, completely stripped it and built a bakery.

The air handling system, for the all-important environmental controls, ate up a third of the capital outlay. All storage areas, the staff changing rooms, the bakery and the patisserie are independently temperature- and humidity-controlled and all areas are air-locked. The cooling room has its own separate air supply; the air is dehumidified, so that when the bread comes out of the oven, it keeps its crust qualities.

Equipment was sourced in France, including a low-stress mixer, large walk-in retarder/prover and a gas-fired deck oven, with 36sq m of baking space, a single stone deck and steam injection. With bulk purchasing offering obvious advantages on ingredient costs, these are also imported from France, but also for quality reasons, says Blades.

"There are six different additives in English flour and it just doesn’t work in our process," he insists. "It changes the way the bread works. We use a straight ground flour with nothing added to it at all, from a strain of wheat with a slightly higher level of gluten and slightly less starch."

The management has taken a long-term view by training all staff from scratch. Staff turnover is low; a team of 17 bakers - mostly French, Portuguese and Polish - work across three shifts over 24 hours. Between 9pm and 10am they will hand-roll and bake in-excess of 11,000 individual pieces.

Only two people are in training at any one time and every person who starts work in the shops can spend at least a couple of days at the bakery. All unit managers and assistant managers spend a week working nights in Acton to gain familiarity with the complexity of the products and the names.

"The key to running a shop is knowing the product range, how it tastes and what goes into it," adds Blades. "All the products are environmentally sensitive; they have very short shelf lives and the only way to learn that is to get your hands dirty."

A major difference between the UK and French businesses is staffing, with a limited number of experienced bakery shop workers and managers to draw from in Britain’s recruiting pool. "That has pushed us, in terms of the management of our people, to a much more involved, incentivised level - much higher than in France. It’s easier for people to learn, say, 10 coffees at Starbucks than it is to learn our 140 breads, 45 of which will be on sale daily," says Belhassen.

Freshness is key and fresh sandwiches are produced daily; the shops without bakeries on-site receive deliveries three times a day. The popularity of Paul’s sandwiches - described by Belhassen as ’sandwich à la Paul’ - took them by surprise and is not an element of Paul’s success in France. "Freshness is very important," says Belhassen. "Some brands are starting to capture this, but they are buying in bread frozen for bake-off."

He claims no products are frozen for bake-off, although some are part-baked as a means of lengthening the shelf life from as little as three hours to nine. "We do not freeze any of our bread at all, as it is so sensitive," he stresses. "The elongation of the shelf life is done by part-baking, not through the addition of any chemical improvers."

It’s a formula that appears to be winning fans in the capital. But could the firm really translate its success to outside London? "We think bread and sandwiches are not a luxury; we are aiming for the mass market," responds Belhassen. "We want people to buy bread once, or even twice, a day."

The sea-change in eating habits that is slowly transforming the UK’s food landscape is presenting a great opportunity for the French bakery chain, he believes. "Healthy for me doesn’t mean eating a diet product," he says. "It means knowing the ingredients, where they come from, and that the product has been made with caution, without additives or chemicals. I’m looking for long-term profits by delivering quality every year. That’s how we will get the brand recognised." n


=== Paul at a glance ===

Established: Lille, 1889. The family-run business has handed down ownership through five generations and has 271 shops in France, and one in Martinique

Established in the UK: Covent Garden, London, 2000

Number of UK outlets: 20 - 16 run by Paul UK and 4 travel concessions run by French catering firm Elior

Products: 140 breads, 45 of which will be on sale daily; Viennoiserie, sweet pastries; cakes and desserts; sandwiches; deli products; restaurant fare in larger outlets

Innovation: "As a business we’re seen to be typically French, and that is one of our marketing advantages; all the French items - baguettes, pain au chocolat - sell very well," says production director Richard Blades. One recent product launch was Le Tresse, a brioche dough with the butter taken out, which has a plain version and one slightly flavoured with orange and anise; also new is a range of celebration cakes made to order.


=== The steady rise of Paul in the UK ===

The first UK Paul shop opened in December 2000 in Covent Garden, London, and by 2004 there were still only three outlets. Now, with 15 shops turning over around £15m, 10 of which opened this year, Paul plans to continue its expansion in London and outside the capital in 2007/8, notching up a total of 50 stores in Dublin, Glasgow, Edinburgh and Manchester over the next 10 years.

"We really waited to feel the market before expanding," says David Belhassen, MD of Paul in the UK, referring to the steady but quickening roll-out. "London is exerting a real influence over the rest of the UK. Every year, we have to see where the resources, locations, management availability, delivery capacity and opportunities are."

Paris, at half the size of London, houses 13,000 bakeries, 98 of which are Paul bakeries. With London’s high-grade patisserie scene poorly serviced in comparison, a target of 20-25 shops is achievable in London over the next five years, he believes. "As people get to know more about our bread, patisserie and sandwiches, we will be able to add to that."

The Covent Garden outlet has a traditional brasserie, as does Marylebone High Street, while the rest follow the salon de thé concept. All the fittings are sourced from a large storeroom in France, which has a collection of pictures, antiques and paraphernalia. "We try to make every shop different in terms of feel, but there is always that traditional French aspect."

French catering company Elior runs Paul’s growing roster of airport and railway concessions separately, on a franchise basis. Meanwhile, wholesale is a small element of the business, supplied to selected high-class restaurants and hotels. "We are not dependent on wholesale business. It sounds arrogant, but we can afford to pick and choose our customers," says production director Richard Blades.