Matthew Jones of Bread Ahead on how experience drives growth

If there is one retail sector that typifies the evolution of retail into providing a true experience rather than simply fulfilling a demand, it is surely food and drink.

From sampling authentic ranges of exotic foods to touring a brewery or distillery to learn how your favourite tipple is made, foodie experiences are becoming a stock in trade for forward-looking brands – and for good reason. Customers don’t just buy products, they add whole new categories to their shopping lists, and gain a sense of interaction with their host that can have long term benefits.

Matthew Jones Photo by Elena Heatherwick
Matthew Jones Photo by Elena Heatherwick

The more hands-on the experience, the greater the potential impact. For example, once people have become accustomed to high quality ‘proper’ bread they don’t go back to mass-produced alternatives, says Bread Ahead founder Matthew Jones. The company doesn’t just make and sell bread, it runs classes so that customer can learn the process of baking themselves.

“There’s a conversion process. Internally, that’s what I call our courses, they’re a conversion process. Once you’ve been converted you never go back. Why would you?” says Jones.

Bread Ahead's planned branch in Wembley
Bread Ahead's planned branch in Wembley

One of the new generation of experiential food brands, Bread Ahead opened its first location in 2013, in London’s foodie mecca of Borough Market, and has been growing since.

“The original idea was to do wholesale baking and to sell at Borough Market. And then we did that very well and then we thought ‘Oh, let’s do bit of teaching and see how that goes.’ The original idea was to bring groups of 12 people into the bakery and just sort of show them what we do. And that has evolved into a big business where we are now teaching between three and four hundred people a week,” says Jones.

“We have a waiting list, it has just grown beyond all proportion. It’s unbelievable the appetite for it… We do corporate bookings, we do private bookings, we do professional-level bookings. So there is a huge interest in baking in general. It was customer-led.”

Buoyed by its success, for its next venture Bread Ahead is thinking big. The brand has signed up to take a 1,022 sq m (11,000 sq ft) mixed-use unit at Wembley Park, the new retail and leisure development from Quintain, in North London. The wider 85 acre, £3bn development, will come with a built-in customer base. The largest build-to-rent residential development in the UK, it will have a residential community of 20,000 people by 2027, as well an enormous range of other retail, leisure and sporting attractions.

Bread Ahead’s new branch has been designed by The Yard Creative and is scheduled to open in Autumn this year. It will feature a store, a 220 cover restaurant, a deli, a wholesale bakery and a baking school. The school will host a variety of workshops throughout the year, catering for both personal and corporate bookings. It will have capacity for more than 15,000 participants a year.

The space will break down into around 372 sq m (4,000 sq ft) for a production bakery for wholesale accounts, 372 sq m (4,000) sq ft front of house space for retail, café and restaurant, and around 279 sq m (3,000 sq ft) divided into two classrooms.

Jones says that Borough Market will remain Bread Ahead’s spiritual and official home: “It’s really our heart,” he says. “But the production side of the business for wholesale is really growing, so we were looking for a bigger space to expand the wholesale side... And then we got talking to the Wembley guys and they said, ‘Look, we’ve got this huge space here that could be kind of a mixed-use space.’ And we thought sounded really interesting. I didn’t want to do just an industrial bakery somewhere on an industrial park, it’s a bit soulless.”

Jones was attracted by the idea of having several activities happening under one roof, and in providing the kind of services that his customers have been asking for. The Wembley site is also well connected, offering easy public transport connections for customers and staff, and close to the main road network for bread deliveries.

Bread Ahead encountered Yard Creative, which has been appointed to design several elements of Wembley Park, while securing the site and found a lot of common ground with the agency. Jones points to the growth of experiential retail in areas such as coffee, beer and baking, and to brands such as bakery Tartine in the US, to show the potential appeal of getting consumers involved more closely with their favourite stores and suppliers.

Jones is also inspired by a former boss. He worked for restaurant and retail pioneer Sir Terence Conran at large 1990s restaurants such as Quaglino’s and Mezzo. These foodie destinations were mould-breaking at the time, and saw Conran moving against the perceived wisdom of the sector to develop big, bold sites.

“He had that vision, and it was very exciting at the time. People prefer to go somewhere big, because it’s more meaningful. You do something profound,” says Jones. “He was really inspiring, the confidence he had. To open those huge sites – with everybody around him was saying ‘You’re mad!’ But he did it. And he pulled it off.”

Developer Quintain is another believer in the power of experiential attractions. Retail director Matt Slade says: “Bread Ahead brings a fresh dimension to our f&b offer and demonstrates the calibre of brands that are choosing Wembley Park. The bakery will be an anchor retailer for the area’s residents, whilst its world-famous products will be a draw for our national and international visitors. Wembley Park is a world-class destination and the addition of Bread Ahead will be a large part of the contemporary retail and leisure offer that so nicely combines with the area’s strong cultural heritage.”

Potential future sites – such as Soho in London – are already on Bread Ahead’s radar for future expansion. It seems that the opportunity to try out making, as well as consuming, our daily bread could be available to more and more of us soon.