What’s it like to run major bakery brand, Gail’s Bakery?
We chatted with Tom Molnar, the CEO, to find out.
The bakery boss, 54, talked with us about using his loaf in London and the lessons he learned from lockdown.
Was it always obvious how you’d earn your dough?
Growing up, my Sicilian grandmother used to bake and we called her Grandma Bread. I went to college in America, then worked in France and Switzerland, home of great bread.
My dream was to become a sustainable fish farmer but when I arrived in London in 1999 I couldn’t find a decent loaf of bread to eat with a coffee.
I couldn’t believe such a great foodie city was so lacking in bakeries so I set out to find one to invest in along with my partner, Ran Avidan.
I shortlisted them and Gail Mejia was the most desperate. She sold incredible artisan loaves to restaurants but she was only just surviving. We launched our first Gail’s in Hampstead in 2005.
You acted as delivery driver when you started…
In the early days I used to do a lot of slicing and packing at 2am, and then the driving. Now I tend to wash the dishes or the floors.
The other week we had a bunch of sanitising pumps arrive but it wasn’t obvious what they were so I spent the evening sitting in a basement of our shop, putting stickers on them.
What happened at the launch of Gail’s?
We didn’t go to bed. We were in the shop all night working on it and when the doors were supposed to open we were sitting behind the display trying to figure things out. I nearly killed Gail’s that first day.
We couldn’t work the till so in the end we had to give away the bread free. We knew we had world-class bread but I actually doubted if it would be shared with anybody except myself and my team.
The whole launch was so traumatising that we didn’t open the second Gail’s for another year and a half, then it was another year before the third.
Is it true you still bake from the original 30-year-old mother dough?
Gail started her original mother dough in early 1990. We’ve added to it over the years but we’re still using some of this original, as well as other mother doughs started by our bakers.
When they go on holiday, they ring from wherever they are to ask how their babies are. They’re all kept in a room alongside the original dough and if anyone joins the company I take them in to show them how beautiful the mother doughs are.
Some are bubbly, some spongy, some more liquid, or the rye dough is more like mud. It’s the perfect fusion of art and science. I always explain that this room is the centre of the centre of the centre of the centre of our universe.
And then came Covid…
I’m a surfer and you can see the wave coming but you don’t always realise how big it is. We serve lots of restaurants, first-class airlines and top hotels, and these guys closed overnight.
We didn’t even know if we’d stay open. Initially, we closed some shops and others we kept open for a few hours as click and collect.
We worked 20 hours a day, seven days a week, trying to figure out how to do this and the biggest issue was getting people in and out of the shop as fast as possible.
We reduced the choice, repackaged a lot of things and put much more stuff online. We decided people needed fun and luxury and excitement so we did a lot more hampers.
One of our young staff had come in with a hangover one day and said, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if you could have a breakfast delivered when you feel like this?’ So we launched the Morning After Hamper.
We put our chocolate brownies and cinnamon buns into bake-at-home kits. Our online response and deliveries have grown stronger but it’s still hard and disruptive.
Mistakes, you’ve made a few…
At Easter we were told we needed to mark the ground where people needed to stand and queue to keep them distanced, and I had some paint at home so to help I went to our St John’s Wood shop and painted seven blue dots on the pavement outside.
Then I had a call from the landlord of the property next to us whose shop was closed but who was upset I had defaced his pavement. So the next morning I got up at 6.30am and spent the next hour on my hands and knees on the pavement, scrubbing off my dots.
I was talking to customers the whole time and saying, ‘I started Gail’s with Gail,’ and I think a few were surprised the CEO was scrubbing the floor. But hey, I’d painted the dots in the first place so I wasn’t going to call the manager and ask him to fix the mistake – that wouldn’t have been fair.
Any lessons learned in lockdown?
I felt the right thing to do was to speak to our customers and I’ve really enjoyed getting to know them, from the Spanish lady in Queen’s Park who is a huge foodie and a regular, to a mother with young kids who I’ve met alongside her husband.
Over the last few months we just chatted and I’m able to find out what they want, how they’re finding lockdown and even to thank them. I got up at 5.30am on Easter morning and took chocolate eggs in for people in the line.
If someone’s making the effort to get a coffee from us at 7am, it’s great to see their enthusiasm and to share it – while keeping a social distance, of course. It makes life a bit happier all round.
I can’t pretend it hasn’t been tough but now, as a business, we’re not afraid to adapt and we’ve grown in confidence. We look at change as less of a big deal and I hope that lasts.
Salary: Experienced store managers at Gail’s earn up to £32,000 a year plus bonuses
Regular hours: I get up at 5.30am to meet people queuing outside the shops and chat to them. When lockdown first happened, we brainstormed into the night. The baking business has always involved long hours and early starts whatever you do
Short and sweet advice: Care about what you do and the team that helps you do it
Find out more on the Gail’s website.
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