The bakery market in Poland is the yin to the UK’s yang. Dominated as it is by the craft sector, with nearly nine in 10 loaves sold unpackaged and produced ’artisanally’, it holds up a mirror to the UK, where four in five loaves are plant-baked. But craft baking in Poland is in decline, while plant bread production is on the rise. Could it be because all their bakers are over here?
Legions of Polish bakers have flocked to the UK, ably filling the massive skills gap across the UK’s home-grown bakeries. A number of specialist Polish bread bakeries have also been popping up - not least to feed these migrants workers. Unsurprisingly, they employ Polish bakers too. First among them was the pithily named The Polish Bakery.
This forward-looking outfit was launched in 2003, a year before Poland was admitted into the EU. The Home Office estimates that more than 260,000 workers from Poland have come to the UK since 2004 - 60% of all new Eastern European arrivals. The scale of the market for catering to Eastern European tastes is underlined in a recent survey, conducted by Warsaw-based ARC Market & Opinion, which found that 55% of Poles employed in Britain have no plans to return home.
The bakery has evolved from humble beginnings in a small bakery in Acton four years ago to supplying Asda and Budgens, benefiting as the multiples increasingly tailor individual stores’ offerings to their locality. There are also around 200 independent retailers on the books. "Polish people are scattered around the UK and some retailers have spotted the gap in the market and approached us," says MD Agnes Gabriel. "But we are trying to supply more supermarkets as well at the moment."
This is why the bakery is now undergoing BRC accreditation. It has moved premises three times in four years, finally upscaling to a unit in Park Royal that boasts ample spare capacity to develop into.
The genesis of the business came when Gabriel’s partner Romuald Damaz - an award-winning Polish baker - spotted the gap in the market. "Poland wasn’t in the EU yet and Polish bread was something completely new," says Gabriel, formerly an English language teacher, who had arrived to complete an MA at Metropolitan University.
"We were the first Polish bakery to open in the whole of the UK. My partner worked in the Polish Centre in Hammersmith as a chef. He saved his money and decided to invest it into the business. In the beginning, it was hard - people were not sure what Polish bread was. But with time, it became very popular and there is really a huge interest in Polish breads."
A breakthrough of sorts came when London Food Link approached the firm to take part in a project to celebrate the diversity of London bread-baking in 2004 called Bread Street: the British baking bloomer. "The aim was to make people aware of other types of products from different countries made, for example, with sourdough, rye flour and natural ingredients. That gave us some support and the products became more and more popular."
Polish customers tend to prefer fresh products manufactured using traditional recipes. All the breads use sourdough and many come in seeded varieties. "It’s different to other types of bread. It needs to be freshly baked every day, and it’s handmade. It is soft inside, crispy on the outside, and it’s made with natural ingredients - we don’t use any preservatives or additives. Everything is made to order - we don’t bake bread and store it." Most ingredients are sourced in the UK, except for flours, which are imported for authenticity, as well as poppy seeds, which the bakery has had trouble sourcing in the UK.
She says that while, traditionally, Polish breads have gone into the high-density communities of immigrant Poles, the breads are providing an alternative for British shoppers who want to try something new and who value additive-free food. "A lot of people go for them as a healthy option," she says. "The nice thing is that we get phone calls or letters from customers not of Polish origin. They approach us and say, ’We really love your bread.’ We love the fact that the brand is more and more popular with different nationalities."
So how is this Polish craft baker finding life in the ultra-competitive UK market? "At the beginning it was really difficult," she says. "Even when we moved to the second premises, the costs were taking up all the income - there wasn’t much profit. But we have to fight and be competitive.
"People like the products we are baking because they are made with passion, skill and craft. It is handmade - a lot of hard work is put into it but the loaf is worth it."
=== I get by with a little help... ===
The development from cottage industry to a thriving small business is being supported by the London Manufacturing Advisory Service (LMAS). LMAS has been working with The Polish Bakery MD Agnes Gabriel in a drive to gain British Retail Consortium accreditation (BRC), which would enable the company to market its products to more of the UK’s retail multiples.
Moving into new premises offered a fresh opportunity to create an ultra-efficient working environment. London MAS specialist Kourosh Saminipour says: "We saw that they wanted to move towards BRC accreditation with new premises, so we put a manufacturing plan together - how to control buildings, layouts, operations and storage." Typical BRC accreditation takes between six to eight months and The Polish Bakery is hoping to complete by late October.
Every region of the UK has its own MAS, funded by regional development agencies. "Our objective is to open a huge door for the company, help them employ more people and make more money," says Saminipour. The MAS service launched in 2002 with the aim of helping small to medium-sized manufacturers (below 250 employees and E30m) improve productivity, develop products, improve design, marketing and business operations; it is estimated that 80% of businesses in London qualify for this service. The programme is non-commercial but, with bigger projects, companies will be asked to contribute up to 50% of the cost.
"It’s a really broad service in terms of what we can do for a small company," says Saminipour. "Our interventions are small - we always try to tackle the most important aspect. Where we’re different from other programmes is that we actually implement things and get involved with companies. We’re not just consultants. We’re hoping that, long term, The Polish Bakery gets busy to the point where it needs support within its manufacturing system. Then we can bring some expertise in terms of new manufacturing technologies and methods, how to make things cheaper - not making the product cheaper but through efficiency in the process."
l For more information on all the MAS regions visit: [http://www.mas.dti.gov.uk]
=== International snapshot Poland ===
l Baked goods volume sales are showing a steady downward trend, with a decline of 2% in 2005; value sales are experiencing moderate growth
l Decreasing consumption of unpackaged/artisanal bread, which accounts for 87% of the total volume, is the main reason behind the shrinking sales of baked goods as a whole
l A growing population of wealthier consumers is opting for more expensive bread products, including dark and packaged/industrial ones, which deliver health benefits, taste and/or convenience
l The growing popularity of bread variants with added value was the reason why packaged/industrial bread enjoyed the strongest growth at 5% in current value terms and 2% in volume terms in 2006 to achieve sales of PLN1.1 billion (£195m @ 21.08.07)
l Cakes, which account for 15% of baked goods value, grew by 3% in current value terms in 2006. They seem to be gaining some momentum after experiencing only moderate growth of about 1% in each of 2004 and 2005
l Bakeries face strong competitive pressure related to significant market fragmentation and struggle for demand with an increasingly wider range of high quality cakes
l Schulstad SPC Sp zoo held the largest value share of packaged/industrial bread with 6%; in pastries, the unquestionable leader is Chipita Poland Sp zoo with a value share of 45% in 2006.
(Source: Bakery Products in Poland - Euromonitor International, April 2007)