Popham's opened in 2017, at their first humble site on Prebend Street in Islington. With an array of unforgettable pastries, brilliant coffee, and a beautiful decor of gentle ceramics and dried flowers, Popham's has quickly become a staple of the London food scene. This fact only solidified itself further with the opening of their larger site in London Fields in the summer of 2019, which is a feat of interior design that accommodates both a welcoming atmosphere to walk in and kick back with a coffee and a rosemary and sea salt twist, and has an open plan space that invites the eye to scan the magic of the kitchen area, where you will see either rows upon rows of croissants, or chefs preparing pasta for later that evening, when the restaurant opens its doors.
What is so groundbreaking about Popham's, is that in a city that offers two versions of pastries (the pretty basic Pret croissants, or the over the top fancy Belle Epoque chocolate éclairs), this bakery offers a true artisan product. The ingredients and taste combinations have been worked on by a team of highly talented chefs, and each creation never fails to deliver fireworks. Finally, London has started to gain a genuine reputation for modern, accessible British pastry making.
A few weeks ago, I had a delightful phone call (global pandemic obliges) with Ollie Gold, founder of Popham's. We talked about everything from how the COVID-19 lockdown led to their team becoming masters of e-commerce, the launch of "Popham's Home", and what a legend Rick Stein is. Read on to delve into one of the businesses that managed to survive and even make a success during these impossible times.
Strand Magazine: Hi!
Ollie Gold: Hello there!
Thank you for taking the time to speak with me.
No worries, how you doing?
Good thanks, yourself?
Yes good, thank you.
Is today a busy day for you?
So I was at our Islington site today on Prebend Street, and it was our first day allowing customers back inside, as opposed to just one in, one out.
Oh yes of course, how was it?
Yeah fantastic, thank you. And tonight we’re opening our restaurant for the first time since COVID hit. We’re excited, to say the least.
Wonderful, well I’m sure it’ll go well. So I thought we would start with a few questions about your relationship with food, and what has drawn you to food in your life?
What I would say was my draw into food was that from when I was really young, I guess I was just always cooking with my mum. I was pretty lucky to have a mum who loved trying new things; we weren’t eating the same food week-in week-out, so I was lucky to be exposed to that. I remember being in the kitchen at night just cooking with her.
As for my relationship with food, to be honest, has changed quite a lot. For years I loved cooking at home and working out what I wanted to cook, what I liked eating, and to be honest, in the last few years when I was cheffing a bit before but mainly since we opened Popham’s, I’ve lost that love quite a lot, of cooking at home. So now my relationship has shifted to eating out, and eating other people’s food with other people.
That makes a lot of sense, as you grow up trying to work out how you can make your experience of food more enjoyable for yourself, and if that becomes a career, it can become a difficult relationship cooking for a large amount of people everyday, and then on top of that having to, rather than wanting to, cook for yourself at home.
Oh yeah, definitely. And I hope I get it back one day, and I’m sure that whatever I do after Popham’s will make me want to cook more! [laughs]
And so when was the moment that you conjured up the idea of Popham’s? And what were you looking to create with it?
Well, straight from school, since being 17 or 18, as a kitchen porter in kitchens, and I just absolutely loved that environment and working with the people. Working in kitchens and hospitality really made me realise that I wanted to make an impact on the industry and do my own thing. So the first few years were a question of getting enough money together and going through ideas. I went through 10 or 15 different business plans that ranged from pizzas to chicken shops. So I guess if Popham’s opened in 2017, that would make it end of 2015, beginning of 2016 was when I realised that the love I had for pastry led me to having trouble with the fact that such a forward thinking food scene that is London, only had pain au chocolats, plain croissants and almond croissants. So I think it was then a year or so of working on ideas, and I was lucky enough to have a job that was allowing me to travel to different countries very other week, which was key for taking in knowledge from other places, and gaining inspiration over a couple of years of sticking with the idea.
As for what we wanted to create, simply put, was to produce the most innovative and creative pastry alongside a comforting and loving environment to enjoy that in really.
Absolutely. I have a couple of questions from what you just said; I’m really interested to know what that job was that got you travelling, and what were the countries that inspired you?
So I worked at Formula 1 before, so that took me to another country every other week. So the job started out as kitchen porter, then cheffing and moving into the more logistical side, from fridges, ovens; absolutely everything you need to feed the public of races, which ranged from 50 to 1000 people. So I moved into the logistics and operations of that, but I worked very closely with our food and drink suppliers, and was always in and around the kitchen.
And the country that inspired me the most was Australia, specifically Melbourne.
I hear the coffee scene is great over there and that they have the world’s best croissants no? [laughs]
Yeah they really do! And in different ways, I’d also say Montreal and Austin.
So what were the things that you liked about those places that was different?
You’ve got to get it right there because I think that they can still over do it quite a bit over there, but for Montreal for example I really love the vibe of the service in a lot of places; I remember going into small shops and just loving how they spoke to people.
It’s funny, because I worked in a café in London for a year and it makes such a lasting impact on your regulars, just how you are as the front of the business.
Absolutely, it’s key.
Also, when it comes to creating pastries, we have a team of chefs who put a lot of time and thought into it, and work at innovating as much as they can. They have a space to play around with ideas and recipes, and they can be as creative as they want. It’s a power of minds really, we’re a collective that thrives of each other’s inspiration.
I really like that, and personally I really enjoy that some of the chefs have Instagram, so you can see them at work, behind the scenes, loving the food and the whole process.
So what is your favourite part about the process? Maybe it’s a new menu or specific pastry?
I mean this is probably a stupid answer, but tasting it [laughs].
That is most definitely not stupid, that’s just good sense!
Yeah, that is the answer. It’s great to hear people talk with such passion about what they’re going to put in front of us, how they got the ideas and how they went about creating it. Listening to them, to the staff and their excitement, is a massive part of it, but for me it really comes down to tasting it, and that moment where you look at the chef, meaning “f*ck this is good”, and you both know you’ve created something special. Or you do occasionally have the concepts that are completely rubbish and need to be binned.
[laughs] Can you remember one combination that didn’t leave the test kitchen?
We tried a long time to do a Bloody Mary, and it got to a point when we sacked it off because it was just not working.
Ah well maybe in time you’ll attempt it again and succeed.
Well actually, we’re going to be making it in a couple of weeks for a special customer who won a competition, where we’d make the winner any pastry they wanted. And we couldn’t believe it, because they chose the Bloody Mary pastry. So we actually have to create for them.
I will be following up about how this went down, just FYI.
[laughs] Yes please do.
Image: Popham's Bakery
So the next topic I wanted to move onto was your decision to branch out into serving pasta and opening a restaurant. Did that feel like a logical move or more of a risk for Popham’s?
It was very logical and a bit of a risk. It was logical for two main reasons: one is, so Phil who is our executive chef, had a fascination with pasta and had been running a pasta supper club on the side, as he was a part time baker. And you know, pasta and bread have such similar elements to work with, as in mixing and shaping dough, and baking or cooking it, and they just seem like two perfect skills to intertwine and match together. At our site in London Fields, we have this huge shaping table at the back, and there was the idea that from 2AM until 6AM they’ll be pastries being shaped, and from 6AM until midday they’ll be bread being shaped, and from midday until 8pm, they’ll be pasta being shaped.
So it was very logical in the sense that these skillsets can be intertwined massively. But it was also a risk because people knew us for our pastries and certainly at the back of my head, I wondered if people would just assume we were mad for extending our output into something other than pastries. Because they are still incredibly different things. But we had such an amazing executive chef, and Phil who is a bit of a certified genius when it comes to pasta and his skills, teaching and training of others, to our now team of chefs, is actually quite extraordinary. So yes, it was a bit of both.
Yes, when you put it that way, it makes total sense for pasta and pastries to be made in the same place. The people who love and appreciate a really good croissant are probably going to be really passionate about an amazing, simple pasta dish.
Exactly, and we’ve been trying to build that. We want people to understand how handmade it is, how artisan it is, and for them to understand the skill of making a really good croissant or the key to really good shaping of a pastry or pasta, and the entire umbrella of the entire brand.
And that's truly palpable. You can tell that the chefs behind it really know what they’re doing. But what we were saying about croissants, a quick but importantquestion – what makes the perfect croissant for you?
Crispy, flaky, buttery.
Beautiful. Definitely calls for very decent amounts of butter.
Yes, lots of decent butter.
So how has business been? Whether on a personal or business level (whatever you want to share), how has it affected you?
At the beginning, I guess it what like everyone else, we were f*cking terrified. It was horrible, really upsetting, just a constant wondering of what was going to happen next. There were these few weeks of this brewing of everyone anticipating a lockdown was coming, places were still open, but not properly, because we didn’t have any clear communication of what we were supposed to do or what was going to happen. Lockdown happened, and from that morning, I decided that we needed to completely flip our model of business. Literally within the day, we created our delivery service, and were very lucky to be able to make a huge amount of deliveries, and the support we got from our customers and our community is something that I’ll never forget. I’ll never ever be able to thank them enough. We couldn’t quite believe the demand for our product as a delivery option. So as much as this has been a horrible time for everyone, and it really has been, from a business point of view it’s been really positive for us. We learnt something for us – if you had told me a year ago we’d be doing deliveries to people I would have told you that you were crazy and that was something I never wanted to do. But then you’re forced into doing something to survive as a business, and the team mad eit happen; we created something where we are able to deliver a quality product to people around the area. And it’s allowed us to think in a completely different mind-set, and how we can reach our customers in a different way, how we can still have an impact on them without them necessarily coming into the shops. It’s been tough but it’s been a really good, positive learning curve for us.
That’s really fantastic to hear. It was upsetting for anyone who loves Popham’s, along with other independent brands and parts of the community life, to face the fear of everything shutting down and not being able to pick themselves back up.
Exactly. That also links to an idea that Lucy had, my partner and co-founder of Popham’s. We’d always discussed in a more jokey way that we should open a “Popham’s Home Lifestyle” brand, and a few months ago, we realised that this was our chance to do it seriously. We’ve learned a lot about being an online business and e-commerce, so we’ve launched that recently, and it’s gone unbelievably well. And that’s the sort of thing we would have never done before.
I think it makes sense because whilst you’re technically branching out, it’s still within the realm of what your brand is selling and providing. But thank you for that very honest answer.
Not at all! There’s a lot of people in the business of hospitality, and it’s a bit weird to speak about this period positively, and at the beginning I was hesitant on doing it. It felt like you shouldn’t do it, because so many people were not having that experience. But then I realised, you’ve got to be honest about it, and it can be beneficial. Even to us, to think with more clarity, when you run a business, and it grows a lot quicker than you imagined it to grow, and have more people than you ever imagined having around you. So you don’t really have time to think suddenly about what future problems you might face are, or what the next step is. During COVID, there’s been a change of pace in looking at what our operations and logistics are, whereas before this it was more of 7 day a week grind, so we’ve had a bit more time and clarity to make those decisions, which has been really helpful.
Yes absolutely. And I think you’re right, it is beneficial, because you’re going to have a lot of people who have wanted to start and open their own business, and maybe they feel that COVID has halted them. But reading the experiences and positive outcomes from people like you or Top Cuvée, it’s very reassuring that building a community and word of mouth does work. You’ve just got to get the key elements right.
So I would like to end of a few lighter questions. What is it that you look for in the experience of eating out?
I look for an enjoyable environment to be in, and the service that goes along with it. There’s nothing better than eating somewhere that has a real buzz to the place, the people, the sound, the aesthetic, with a service to match it; where you have an interesting person who is knowledgeable, and is talking with pride and passion about what they’re serving.
When it comes to the food, what I care about is not necessarily for it to be creative or innovative, but for something really delicious. Food that makes you want to talk about it.
So what’s your favourite kind of food to eat out?
At the moment I’m going through a phase where I really enjoy meat, like amazing smoked duck. The Hackney Church Brewery for example does some brilliant meat dishes. I love eating everything, of every variety; I have my favourite restaurants but always try to find new places whenever possible. I don’t really look for a type of food when I go out, I either look for something that I trust and love, or just a new experience.
Are there any restaurants you would recommend in particular?
The Nest, I just think is the best food in London. They have a seven course and a five course tasting menu, and they are really quite reasonably prices for that amount of quality food. Pound for pound, definitely the best food in London.
And do you have any favourite cooking books?
I love Rick Stein [laughs]. I’m semi-obsessed with him.
That’s a very strong answer, I like it. Who doesn’t like a bit of Rick Stein. Okay well thank you so much for your time today Ollie!
Not at all! But just one question I noticed you sent over beforehand, that I just wanted to touch on, was about community and what makes it special – I just always like to talk about community and the importance of it, because I think at both our sites, but especially the one in Islington, there is no way we would be in the place we are or have the money to build the site in London Fields without their support. You build a place for people to meet together and work together, and I see that as such a strong basis and stem of everything that we’re about at Popham’s. And I truly think that nothing would have been able to go further if we didn’t build that bond with all the locals and regulars that are around there. And without that word-of-mouth, we wouldn’t get people travelling from across London and beyond to visit us. There are so many different ways of building and being a part of a community, and it’s something that we focus so much of our time and thinking on.
Thank you for adding that, because we talked a little bit about that earlier, and thought it was covered, but I’m so glad you brought that back up. I think that’s really special; community brings life to the area by helping local businesses thrive; it’s a two-way street. So thank you very much for picking that back up!
My pleasure, lovely speaking with you today.