Tom Molnar jokes that he is turning into a ‘bread philosopher’. It was a personal quest to bring Londoners a good loaf that led the affable American to co-found the Gail’s bakery chain in 2005 and he, and many of the brand’s original bakers, are still on that mission.
“We’re a bit like ageing scientists now, trying to pass the knowledge on to the next generation,” says Molnar. “But bread shouldn’t just be in the hands of great chefs, it should be more widely available for people. I’ve always believed that.”
Fifteen years since its launch, Gail’s has grown to 60 sites across London and the south east. It processes around one million transactions a month, and its bread is available through Waitrose and Ocado.
The group – which sells everything from potato and rosemary sourdough to brioche loaves – has brought restaurant-quality baking to the masses, and it has got no plans to slow down.
Raising the dough
Molnar grew up baking with his grandparents in Florida and studied Ecology at Ivy-League Dartmouth College. He initially wanted to be a fish farmer but ended up working as a trader for agricultural firm Cargill, and later in management consulting.
Arriving in the UK in the late 1990s, it was a struggle to find a good London sourdough that led him to finally quit the world of business and take up baking.
“I came to London and realised there wasn’t a great food scene. There were some good restaurants but certainly not much good bread,” he explains.
This search led Molnar and his business partner Ran Avidan to discover Gail Mejia, a baker who was struggling to make a success of selling artisan loaves to chefs and restaurants through her Bread Factory wholesale business. Molnar was impressed by what he saw and offered to help, even acting as back-up delivery driver when staff didn’t show up, and the rest is baking history.
“Gail had a manager who used to go to lunch, get drunk and punch the bakers when they got back. We thought that we must be able to do better and ended up falling in love with what they were doing.”
After five years supplying chefs, the team saw a gap in the market to bring high-quality bread out of high-end restaurants and into neighbourhood cafes. Molnar and Avidan bought half the company and in 2005 opened the first Gail’s in Hampstead, north London with Mejia giving them her blessing to use her name. “She just said: you’d better do a good job.”
Gail’s got off to a “slow start”. The night before opening in Hampstead the team couldn’t work out how to run the till, so ended up giving most of the bread away for free on the opening day. It was a year and a half until a second site opened in Notting Hill, with London cafes following in St John’s Wood, Queen’s Park and Clapham. “We didn’t have good coffee or a big range but we were trying to offer world-class bread. By the time we had five sites we were getting better,” says Molnar.
Growth didn’t kick-start until 2011 when Luke Johnson, the entrepreneur who turned PizzaExpress and Strada into national brands, invested £10.5m in Gail’s and its sister wholesale Bread Factory business.
Under Johnson the chain has bloomed from nine to 60 locations, all of which are within roughly a 50-100 mile radius of its main bakery in West Hendon, north London. The brand opened its first regional site in Oxford in 2016 and has since expanded to areas such as Cambridge, Hove and Farnham.
Much of Gail’s bread is still made using an original ‘mother’ dough started by Mejia 30 years ago. Each day pieces are taken and used to create new loaves, and the mother is ‘fed’ to survive. This culture is the brand’s ‘Microsoft code’: take a ball and you could theoretically reproduce Gail’s sourdough. “We don’t lock it up,” says Molnar, apparently only half-joking. “It would take so much knowledge and energy to reproduce our bread from a ball it’s unlikely anyone would do it, but it could happen.”
Molnar speaks fondly of the ‘mother’ as if it’s a living person and describes how once a season of particularly acidic apples left the culture struggling. “We had to stop making apple sourdough for six months, the mother dough couldn’t take it and wasn’t healthy. But we put her in the hospital and got her back fine.”
This almost paternal feeling is shared by many of the long-serving bakers. “Our head baker treats the doughs like his babies, when he’s on holiday he calls and asks how they’re doing.”
Selling bread from a 30-year-old source is a potential food standards nightmare, and measures are in place to ensure a whole day’s batch can be pulled if anything goes wrong. “We had a big issue trying to explain to food safety how this culture has been alive for so long, but we didn’t want them to stop craft bakers making something that’s safe.”
Now 1,000 people work in the company’s north London HQ (‘the mothership’), which supplies all Gail’s bakeries, as well as the wholesale clients such as restaurants, airport lounges and boxes at Wembley stadium.
Molnar would prefer to bake all bread at each Gail’s site, but says limits on space and expertise would harm the quality of the product. So items sold in store are a mix of those made in-house and delivered each morning from the central HQ. “It’s better if some products are made centrally with these old sourdoughs and craftspeople who’ve been with them for years.”
Not-so ‘posh’ products
Gail’s eye-catching in-store displays, where bread, cakes and sandwiches sit out on a counter, was a deliberate choice by Molnar. “The world in which I grew in the United States was about wrapping everything and putting it in the fridge and hiding it,” he explains. “My wife’s Italian and at her house they’d have this table of food that never emptied.
“To make food accessible you need people to relate to it. But by putting on too many labels and tags and wrappings you get further away from it.”
Gail’s prices, which range from £3 upwards for a sourdough loaf and £1.85 for a plain croissant, as well as its footprint in well-heeled neighbourhoods has led some to call the chain a ‘posh bakery’ – a moniker Molnar dislikes.
“I’m not posh, none of my bakers are posh so that term feels awkward. A 50p croissant tastes like a 50p croissant. A 50p coffee tastes like a 50p coffee. You buy a £3 loaf of bread it’s a different experience, and it’s pretty affordable. Some of the bakers work 80 hours a week. If you work that hard and care that much about something it does bother you when somebody says ‘why does it cost 30p more’.”
This focus on its product led to the development of Gail’s Waste-Not range, made with surplus and leftover products. In 2018 Roz Bado, the group’s head baker, created its Waste-Less sourdough by whizzing leftover loaves in to breadcrumbs and turning it into a ‘porridge’. This is added to fresh white sourdough starter, with malt and salt to create a new loaf.
The upcycled range also includes a Soho Bun made with dark chocolate chips and off-cuts of croissant dough; and a chocolate and almond croissant from out of day-old pain au chocolate.
Though its coffee and croissants mean Gail’s is geared towards the breakfast and lunch market, several sites stay open until 7-8pm to cater to an after-work crowd. “I see an opportunity for us to open later, but it’s not to do cocktails,” says Molnar. “There’s a third wave who come in to grab salads and a sausage roll rather than order from a Deliveroo kitchen they’ve never seen.”
Gail’s did briefly dabble in restaurants. The first Gail’s Kitchen opened adjacent to its Bloomsbury bakery in 2012, with a menu designed as a ‘celebration of bread’. This meant dishes of sourdough soldiers spread with mustardy Welsh rarebit; steak sandwiches with Comte cheese, watercress and horseradish; and smoked prawns on garlicky toast. The Observer critic Jay Rayner approved, citing cooking so good he ‘actually stopped eating for a moment’, and the restaurant went on to hold a Michelin Bib Gourmand for three years.
But the project didn’t last. “It started and ended on a high,” says Molnar. “I admire people who successfully run restaurants over many years, it’s tough. The restaurant was an experiment but it wasn’t something I had the time or energy to focus on in the end, so it was better to focus on something we knew how to do.”
Since 2005 the bakery sector has gained momentum, with Denmark’s Ole & Steen, French import Paul, Brussels-born Le Pain Quotidien and even Greggs expanding at pace across the high street. Molnar is unphased, and believes there is still a niche for Gail’s bread on the high street.
“This notion the world is a fixed pie is just wrong. The food scene needs a big shift, there’s still a huge amount of poor-quality cookies and crisps out there and if someone’s been to another quality bakery and likes it, then they’re more likely to come to us as well.”
The high-profile collapse of one competitor last year briefly shone an unwelcome light on Gail’s. Patisserie Valerie, also backed by Johnson, entered administration last January after the discovery of multi-million-pound black hole in its accounts. Johnson retains that he was unaware of any issues and later wrote in his Sunday Times column that his “ego had taken a battering” over the company’s downfall.
“When the news came out there was some confusion over whether there was any overlap with us, but there never was even though Luke was involved in both,” says Molnar. “There was a lot of noise in the media about Patisserie Valerie potentially buying us in 2018, which was false. That was not a serious thing, but I think that’s why a lot of people got the association.”
He pauses, adding: “It’s a double-edged sword to have a pretty famous chairman, there’s a good and a bad side. But mostly it’s been good for us.”
With Johnson’s help Gail’s may have reached 60 cafes, but Molnar deliberately resisted the turbo-charged growth seen by other brands in the sector. “I actually slowed down when people were speeding up. I said the money had to go on food not rent. You were seeing incredible competition for prime spaces that would have meant I’d have had to cut corners.”
Going forward, Gail’s is looking to grow, initially within its south east heartland, though its wholesale arm has a bakery in Manchester which could support openings in the north of England. As it reaches its 15th birthday, what could the company look like at 30?
“I hope we continue to grow up and learn. We have almost one million transactions a month now. That’s a level of responsibility I never thought I would have. I have a glimpse from talking to world class bakers on what the next 10 to 15 years in baking could look like and it’s exciting. There’s some smart people wanting to make better bread.
“There’s 2,000 Greggs in the UK and about 60 Gail’s. We’re just getting going.”