Bakery chain Gail’s is feeling confident about what the future holds as it emerges from the pandemic with a fully updated store model that has been transformed by investments in state-of-the-art cooking equipment. FEJ went to meet the man in charge of its kitchen operations to learn more…
There aren’t many multi-site foodservice operators that have made it through the pandemic without having to close stores or dramatically reorganise their estates, but Gail’s Bakery can certainly count itself a member of that club.
While other operators with a high street presence are waiting to see how market conditions develop before resuming their expansion programmes, Gail’s has demonstrated the belief it holds in its brand by embarking on a series of new openings in targeted locations.
Founder Gail Mejia opened the first site in Hampstead High Street in 2005. The recent launch of a branch in Reigate, Surrey takes the portfolio to 69. Though it has grown over the years, its philosophy has remained the same: to make good food that people love, and create bakeries that people want to keep coming back to.
Covid has certainly presented its fair share of challenges, but it has also highlighted the company’s ability to adapt and evolve. Brett Parker, property director at Gail’s, joined three years ago so he is well-placed to reflect on what the profile of the business looks like coming out of Covid.
“When I started we were very much working on a cafe-kind of model. Bakery was a big element, coffee was a big element, and it was about large seating areas and trying to create beautiful spaces that people want to come into and then serve them food.
“The difference that we have found with Covid is that we are much more focused over the last year and a half on food — almost a takeaway model but with seating. The driver of that is that we are a bakery — we just happen to have some seats.”
In many instances, including with its new high-profile site on Buckingham Palace Road, customers can walk in through the door and complete their entire transaction without even stepping into the seated area to the rear. That works perfectly during a time of Covid restrictions, but it also suits the customer that just wants to order food and go.
“A lot of people are now so used to just popping in somewhere, grabbing what they want and going, but you can still come and sit in. Reigate, Tunbridge Wells, Twickenham — these sites are all based on a model where the core shopping experience is right at the front of the shop and you can do all of that very simply without interacting with the seating areas. But we have always included the seating areas because we were always very keen on getting people back in.”
Gail’s is known for being London and south centric, but there is clear logic behind that. All of its shops are served by a central bakery and kitchen in Hendon, where its breads are made and the ingredients that are baked on-site in each store come from.
“We’ve got a 55-mile radius of Hendon and that gets us to Cambridge, it gets us to Oxford and it gets us all the way down to Brighton and Hove,” explains Parker. “It’s a decent area but that is our curve. There are some places that are just outside that which we keep looking at — I think we could be brilliant in Winchester, for example — but it is just that little bit too far.”
Gail’s has ambitions to reach 100 sites eventually although it’s not the type to bite off more than it can chew. “Our way of growing is that we are not going to open 30 sites tomorrow,” explains Parker. “We do well at opening one store, bedding it in, then opening another one and bedding that in. It’s growth with caution. There is no real rush.”
The real thing with our kitchens is that you want to be able to come in and see that we’re not just unpacking boxes onto the shelf”
The obvious route to expansion would be to replicate the model somewhere else in the country, which would require a second central bakery to be built in a strategically chosen location. That isn’t something which is going to happen overnight — and anyway there are more than enough gaps for it to fill in London and the surrounding area, insists Parker.
“You look at some of the other big players who have gone out and done the whole St Andrews to St Ives thing — distribution and logistics is the thing that kills them. Your truck gets stuck on the M5 and all of a sudden you haven’t got any food. With a 55-mile radius we can still do it.”
Opening up in busy residential areas has served Gail’s well, although it is increasingly popping up in places frequented by office workers and commuters. Buckingham Palace Road, close to Victoria Station, is just one recent example of that, along with Blackfriars and Southbank.
Parker is well aware that changes in working patterns and trends have implications for these sites, but it’s too early to say how things will pan out.
“I think the biggest thing will be to see what happens to people working in the city. You look at places like Pret which were driven by office workers — we weren’t so we didn’t get hit quite as badly, but now that people are slowly coming back you can see that some sites don’t do so well on a Monday or a Friday, for example, but on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday they are really busy.”
Parker’s role encompasses everything from site acquisition to shop-fitting, including catering equipment specification. Food is at the heart of Gail’s proposition and therefore considerable time is spent making sure it has the right operational set-up in place.
But kitchens play a bigger role than just preparing the product — they also serve as a visual marketing tool, explains Parker.
“The real thing with our kitchens is that you want the customers to be able to come in and see that we’re not just unpacking boxes onto the shelf, we are making it here. And that is the great thing about the ovens that we have got and the equipment that we use — invariably it is on display. We want people to see what we are doing, so it needs to look good and it needs to look shiny. You can’t beat seeing something being taken out of an oven, put on a tray and then the next thing it’s in front of you with the steam coming off it.”
With reasonably limited experience you can get a baker from 0 to 60 pretty fast. And that means you can deliver the consistency across the estate that everybody is expecting, which is really important”
The kitchen set-up that Gail’s uses is largely the same across its sites, although variations will occur due to the availability of space. However, all will include an oven, prover, cooling racks, service oven, hob, toaster and undercounter refrigeration.
“The equipment base is fairly small but our sites tend to need a reasonable amount of space because of the sales they are pushing through. Our bakers are in from 5am and can be baking all the way through to 2.30pm. There is a constant schedule of new food coming out the whole time.”
One of the most significant changes to Gail’s kitchen set-up has been the introduction of Unox Bakertop Mind.Maps Plus combi ovens to new and refurbished sites. It began talking to the Italian manufacturer’s UK branch about two years ago and liked what the technology could do and the sort of assurances it could make on lead times.
“One of the things that really helped when we began chatting to Unox was that they controlled the entire logistics process — they make every single piece. So if I turn around and said, ‘I need an oven in two weeks’, they would get one because they control all of those pieces. We need a partner that can keep up, and they do.”
Gail’s now has Unox equipment in 12 of its 68 bakeries and plans to continue adding its ovens to new outlets, as well as existing branches when they need upgrading or replacing.
Parker likes the fact that each individual tray can be individually programmed, making it possible to achieve precise temperatures for different menu items. Staff have also found the ovens straightforward to use.
“With reasonably limited experience you can get a baker from 0 to 60 pretty fast. And that means you can deliver the consistency across the estate that everybody is expecting, which is really important,” he says.
Some of Gail’s larger sites that have undergone refurbishment, including Queen’s Park, have now been furnished with 16-grid ovens. For staff that previously used an old 10-grid, the upgrade has brought tangible benefits in time and productivity. Equally, larger ovens are installed in sites such as Blackfriars, which double up as delivery hubs.
“Half of the kitchen supplies the bakery and the other half supplies office catering, deliveries and click and collect. A baker who has worked all day in the bakery can just flip over to the delivery side easily —yes it’s a bigger oven but it is operated in exactly the same way and that consistency makes it so much simpler.”
Intelligent Mind.Maps technology also enables Data Driven Cooking — collecting data, processing information, analysing the modes of use and giving kitchen staff the opportunity to produce daily reports for enhanced performance and efficiency.
Analysis showed that one branch was failing to rinse the oven at the end of each day. Now a remote programme has been set so that the cleaning system comes on automatically when service has finished so staff no longer have to worry about forgetting to do it.
The true gains, however, have been made in terms of food development. “You can sell all the things that everybody loves all the time but at some point people want something different to a cinnamon bun or a sausage roll. One of the things the teams are working on with Unox is what the equipment can do.
“If you just sit there and go, ‘oh it’s an oven’, then straight away you’re limiting your scope for what you can get out of it. As soon as you know the oven can do more than just heat and bake for so long at a certain temperature, you expand your horizons.
“We’re already looking at how we might be able to do other products that we can cook on site. If you’ve got the right set-up and the right bakers then you can do that because the oven is good enough. We probably only use about 50% of its real capacity at the moment — we could work it a lot harder.”
And you can be sure it will.