A long-time destination for anything from gay bondage wear to, well, gay bondage, pockmarked with seedy snaking stairways and haunted by trench-coated gents shuffling into ribbon-stripped doorways, Soho is the scene of many a piquant fancy. Not least of these is Alan Yau’s altogether more salubrious fetish: opening eating holes.
The Michelin-starred restaurateur has virtually ringfenced his string of hits within London’s central district, from the dim sum of Yauatcha to the contemporary Cantonese of Hakkasan. A majority interest in both was sold to an Abu Dhabi investment vehicle for a cool $60m last year, and a hole has been burning in his pocket ever since. A slew of potential projects were mooted, mostly around ethnic and fast food concepts. So when news emerged that Yau would launch Rocco Princi - a boutique artisan bakery already successful around Milan - in London, it sounded like an odd fit.
Recent launches had irked critics. His last venture, Cha Cha Moon, was mauled by one as "a mingling of prison canteen and torture chamber". Worse, another condemned it as "an insult to every man, woman and child who ever paid for a mouthful of hot food in London". Easy, chaps. Yet one wouldn’t be surprised if the Hong Kong-born impresario did the same for Italian bakery in the UK as he did for Japanese dining with Wagamama, which flourished into a national chain. Early signs are that the Midas touch is still there with Princi (pronounced Princhy), judging by the rubber-necking pedestrians passing by on opening night two weeks ago, wowed by the pristinely presented pastries, pizzas and cakes. Ten satellite Princi stores have already been targeted within five years.
== Lengthy design ==
Rewind four weeks, when I arrive on the scene to witness the work-in-progress nearing completion. Yau greets the project manager with, "Ah! We need to change the front," which in turn is greeted with a look akin to receiving an unwelcome biopsy. The lengthy design and fitting had already taken 15 months.
Sat in the celebrated patisserie and tearoom at Yauatcha on nearby Berwick Street, Yau is casually dressed in t-shirt and jeans and is seemingly shy (he never meets your eye). The reserve evaporates as careful deliberation over questions ignites into flashes of enthu-siasm when he talks about the artisan/boutique crossover.
"It’s a big project, it’s the first in London, it’s a flagship, it has a central production in the basement and it’s huge," he says. A chance meeting with Rocco Princi’s Milanese ex-banker brought him under the radar of the Italian baker, whose name adorns the shops and who has been dubbed The Armani of Bread. "I was blown away by the product, especially on the bakery side of things," he recalls. "His products, such as the green olive breadsticks, are truly incredible. And the fact he’s able to bake everything on-site - for me, there was nothing like it."
The consumer has three bites of the cherry: eat-in, take-away (lasagna, pizza) and retail (bakery, patisserie). The concept is ’eat-in’ and not ’sit-in’ - with stone pillars to stand around, thus encouraging a fast turnover of customers. "It’s very Italian; you buy your stuff from the counter, you pay for it and then you go to a shared counter where you stand up to eat," he explains.
Princi had fielded interest from overseas shopping malls, but rebuffed the approaches. "He wanted to maintain the Princi retail concept, to be an extremely boutique outlet, and so quality-minded that it became a high-end luxury brand," recalls Yau. "I am the kind of person who is really inspired by quality. So we chat, and we get on really well. What he doesn’t want is to grow out the business on a mass-market model, as it were. He wants it on his own terms; he wants a qualitative expansion with a high level of control and with a partner he felt compatible with."
But the question remains: why has Yau chosen bakery? And, more to the point, why Italian bakery? The answer is a love of ethnic concepts that are easy to categorise, which makes the product list definable. "I like things to have a linear ethnic heritage. For example, Yauatcha is a dim sum teahouse, very Cantonese; Hakkasan is modern Cantonese; I find it difficult to execute a multicultural or fusion-orientated concept. From the pastry side, from the bakery side, from the pizza side, that (Italian) cultural linkage or relationship is much more logical."
That said, Yau has previously stated that an ethnic cuisine should be easily detachable from its ethnic origins to work in a mass-market - think McDonald’s, where Yau surprisingly once worked. Is this the case with Princi?
"Princi is not fast food," he corrects. "From my point of view, Princi being Italian is a good thing. Where we’d like to place Princi is as a boutique retail entity. I think we fulfil a niche that doesn’t really quite exist. What I mean by that is it’s not a Paul, it’s not a Patisserie Valerie, it’s not a Baker & Spice. I believe our bakery and patisserie will be much better than, for example, Ottolenghi [celebrated London boutique bakery]. But it has to be. You’ve got to see the unit - we have a wood-fired oven literally next to the retail, where you can see the bakers baking the bread in front of you. Apart from exhibiting a level of authenticity, you’re buying the bread straight out of the oven, and you can’t beat that."
But can you really square a fast customer turnover concept with being boutique and exclusive? "From a branding point of view, you maintain your pricing and the quality of your product to allow you to sit at the premium level of the fast food segment," he reasons. "A car analogy is when the three luxury German car-makers, BMW, Mercedes and Audi, decided to go into small hatchbacks; they did it, but they maintained the niche by becoming a premium product within the hatchback segment."
So with the numbers of traditional UK craft bakeries having declined, while branded artisanal chains like Paul and Le Pain Quotidien have emerged, is the door opening for new high-footfall bakery formats? "My God, you may be on to something here! I’m smiling and I tell you why: the intrinsic layout of Princi has the capability to take this to a fast food operation." There we have it: the future of artisan boutique fast food starts here.
=== At a glance ===
The business: A Milan-based bakery, patisserie and restaurant concept, which has launched in London
People: Yau is the Michelin-starred restaurateur behind London’s Yauatcha and Hakkasan and the founder of Wagamama (since sold); Rocco Princi is an Italian master baker dubbed the ’Armani del Pane’; his son will run the bakery
Ownership: Rocco Princi and Alan Yau have an equal partnership in the UK, while Princi retains full ownership of Italian operations
Predicted turnover: £6 million p/a
Opening hours: 7am until 1am, with a view to obtaining a 4am licence
Average spend: predicted @ £6.70
New twist: The first bakery to sell cocktails? It will serve Italian cocktails of Aperol, mixed with Prosecco, as well as a Campari with blood orange juice
Novelty: There’s not a panini or sandwich in sight. "No sandwiches! There’s enough sandwiches around already," says Yau
Expansion: The ambition of the central production is to service 10 satellite units of between 2,000-2,500sq ft within five years, dotted around central London
=== Rocco Princi, Wardour Street, Soho, London ===
== The brief ==
The site, previously occupied by an Indian restaurant, needed to house a French hand-built wood-fired oven, which would be visible from the street and within the shop, to showcase artisan bakers at work. The look and atmosphere was to be extremely architectural, with lots of stone. The format should allow for turning around customers with a short dwelling time. "First and foremost, it is a bakery, and I like to think our sourdough will be better even than Poilâne," says Yau. "The concept is extremely Italian - both in terms of the product mix and the retail etiquette."
== The execution ==
The layout and style was virtually copied and pasted from the latest fit in Milan. The 10,000sq ft of space was split 40% retail/60% production. Using Princi’s Italian-based architect, a lot of Italian stone was used for a minimal, solid look. The oven, which is approximately 4m x 3m and weighs some 80 tonnes, required a reinforced floor. An eight-deck pizza oven is visible in the shop. All the preparation and cooking takes place in the basement, but will be extended to a part of the ground floor as the business develops. All machinery was sourced by Ken Winch Design.
The retail counter has four components: bread, pastries, pizza (sold by slice) and hot/cold food. The back wall counter offers alcoholic beverages (red wine in tumblers, not by the bottle), tea, coffee and soft drinks. You choose from each section and pay at the end of the counter. You can perch at the counter, sit next to a long table, stand Milan-style around raised block tables or take away. There is a casual seated area with stools along the right side, decorated with a water feature with taps.