Going with the grain: an interview with GAIL'S Bakery CEO Tom Molnar
The king of sourdough talks science, charity and his journey from Florida to Finsbury Park
In the slightly terrifying and utterly surreal early days of global lockdowns at the start of the coronavirus pandemic, it would be an understatement to say that sourdough was all the rage. Scrolling through Twitter or Instagram was like waltzing through the reduced section of a supermarket's bread aisle; lumpen loaves of burned or undercooked sourdough flanked us on all sides, punctuated by the occasional photo-perfect specimen popping up as the handywork of that one friend who seems to be a complete natural at every craft they try their hand at.
To some, the trend was light-hearted and cutesy; to others it was yet another irritating hipster fad for bored middle-class millennials. But to Tom Molnar, founder and CEO of GAIL'S Bakery - arguably the masters of sourdough in the UK - the meteoric rise of DIY breadmaking was a demonstration of a promising shift in attitude occurring throughout the British public consciousness at the time.
"It's one of the only rays of sunshine from the pandemic, I think,” Molnar tells me over the phone. “People became more engaged with what they ate; maybe it’s because they had more time or they wanted to eat more healthily, but rather than just filling up on stuff from the supermarket they took the opportunity to think about the food they’re eating, which is great, and it also helps encourage people to shop locally.”
When pontificating on the reason behind the surge in home baking, as opposed to its impact, he continues with a left-field analogy: “It’s a bit like bowling or surfing. If you read a book about bowling it would be pretty boring and there’s only so much you can learn, but once you do it yourself you experience it in a completely different way.”
This breed of quirky soundbite and his convivial, relaxed tone are just two small parts of what sets Molnar apart from the regular CEO crowd. There’s no corporate jargon or PR speak; no reeling off number-heavy statistics or talk of synergyand vertical integration. He is a man with a passion for bread first and business second, but also happens to excel in both fields. Born in Florida and with family in Philadelphia, he seems an unlikely candidate for the head of a thriving bakery chain in the residential corners of London, but to him it is the natural culmination of his life so far, on both the business and personal side of things.
“Well my wife’s Italian, so I had to love food,” he opens with. “I’m not sure she would have had a second date with me if I had said I didn’t love food. So yes, she’s been a huge influence and so was my grandfather, a first-generation Sicilian immigrant who ran a family market in Philadelphia.
“But then there’s also my great-grandmother, who was basically Grandma Bread,” he chuckles. “She died at 108 or 109 and when I was growing up I used to go round to hers and she would always be making fresh dough or pulling a loaf out of the oven as we arrived – those were some of my fondest memories of being young, so that was some great early exposure to really good food, despite being in America in the 1980s.”
But this quaint snapshot of his early life is interrupted by an amusing, sudden tangent. “I went to university and studied aquatic ecology and looked at water systems and fish farming, and eventually I ended up in Norway helping this guy build a salmon farm. I thought I’d be a scientist in that area but in the end I’ve always had an interest in food - it’s part of all of our lives and it unifies us – so I guess I ended up in the place I was meant to be.”
And that place is GAIL’S, the breadmaker of choice for residents of some of southern England’s most affluent districts and neighbourhoods. In 2005, Molnar left his role as a management consultant and happened upon The Bread Factory, a wholesale bread retailer in leafy Hampstead run by artisan baker Gail Mejia. Despite the quality of the bread, business was slow - Molnar and his business partner Ran Avidan sensed an opportunity and, naming the brand after the brains behind the bread, the rest is history.
From these unassuming beginnings in north London, Molnar insists that GAIL’S was never intended to expand beyond one or two stores. 16 years later, the brand boasts upwards of 65 branches across the southeast of England, from Oxford to Brighton.
“The first was in Hampstead, the second was in Notting Hill and the third was in-between,” he says, adding: “That was it, that was the whole plan. But what changed was that people became so much more knowledgeable about food across the board in the years after, and so they really appreciated GAIL’S and that enthusiasm drove us to do more. But it still took us four years before we expanded past number three.”
In the years since, the brand has quietly gone about its business, providing high quality produce in a friendly environment. But GAIL’S has also branched off into two new arenas in recent months. The first is their new Wellness Bread line, comprised of loaves borne of a new style of breadmaking that offers heightened nutritional value.
“We’ve basically been trying to maximise the amount of whole grains that we’re putting into these loaves, and fermenting the right amount so that ingredients are breaking down the right amount, making them more digestible and allowing nutrients to be release more efficiently,” he says
“It’s basically all in the way we ferment the bread. People always been very reliant on traditional technologies, but I think what’s interesting is how science can now be incorporated into food projects – keeping PHs at certain levels, promoting specific kinds of bacterial growth etc.,” he adds. “I think bakers have long been a bit reluctant to embrace some of these innovations because science so often takes food the wrong way, but I think our incorporation of science into the baking allows us to not only make the same authentic bread we always have done, but also to know what’s going on a bit more.”
GAIL’S other newfound strategy took the brand into the world of philanthropy during this time of global need. Initially, the company had partnered with The Conduit and Ralph Lauren to launch #FuelOurNHSHeroes, a scheme to bake and deliver nearly 10,000 meals a week for frontline NHS workers throughout April and May, months of great crisis during the start of the outbreak. But after this initial panic subsided, Molnar felt it would be wrong to simply give up on charity.
“We did a lot of work in April and May last year, but then the need for our services became less urgent so we looked for other opportunities to help out,” he says. “We send food to kids in parts of north London and we always give whatever we have left to local charities. I think it’s better to use local charities because it helps us engage with the community; I don’t want to centralise all our branches’ food in one place only for it all to then be redistributed back out across London. That wastes time, so we’ve spent a lot of time figuring out which local charities each branch can help out.”
With more branches set to pop up in Guildford and elsewhere later this year, it appears that GAIL’S is one of the true success stories of the pandemic. While keeping its breadmaking ticking over, it has also found the spare time – and resources – to give to charity, promote healthy eating and feed NHS workers in their hour of need. Yet to Molnar, humility and charming nonchalance will always be order of the day.
“I just want people to know that good food should be – and can be – a part of our everyday lives, and we believe that engaging with the community is the best way to promote this message,” he signs off with. “When it comes to food, we just want to do things well and share it, really.”