Why do millennials love queueing at bakeries now?

If you live in one of the UK’s cities, you’ll have seen us. Dozens of bodies standing in snaking queues in the bitter cold or blaring sun, all in the hope of buying… pastries. New bakeries are opening up at a growing rate, offering rare asparagus croissants, Malaysian steak bakes and maritozzi – and we’re lapping it up.

But what’s behind the rapid rise in popularity of independent bakeries among those of us in our 20s and 30s? Can a croissant or focaccia sandwich really be worth a 30-minute wait? Let’s see…

Why do millennials love queueing at bakeries now?
Photograph credit: Caitlin Isola

Unsurprisingly, London has the highest density of speciality bakeries. First there was Hackney’s The Dusty Knuckle, E5 Bakehouse and Bermondsey’s The Little Bread Pedlar. Then, in 2019, Pophams. Now we have Camberwell’s Toad, Russell Square’s Fortitude Bakehouse, Haggerston’s Forno, Ladbroke Grove’s Layla, Dulwich’s Eric’s, and Anerley’s Chatsworth Bakehouse. Soon there will be Quince joining the masses. All are independently owned small businesses, making a living selling pastries, breads and/or sandwiches. And with each new opening the queues seem to get longer and the Instagram followings bigger and more global.

It’s not just London where the trend is growing. Manchester’s Long Boi’s Bakehouse, Sheffield’s Forge Bakehouse, Bath’s Landrace, The Bristol Loaf, York’s Flori, and Liverpool’s Mon Petit Chou and Bake Sale, among others, are just as popular with locals. What’s going on? The sharp incline in demand and supply can’t purely be down to our love of the holy croissant or the allure of a spongy slice of focaccia (though of course that comes into it).

The difficulties hospitality owners face when opening a business surely play a part. The road to starting a bakery has fewer obstacles and is less expensive than opening a restaurant. You don’t need a liquor licence, your primary ingredient is flour – which even when top quality is less expensive than a lot of goods – and your equipment is limited to mixers and ovens, with no need for crockery, cutlery, cookware or, crucially, a space large enough to sit customers.

Running a bakery can also offer more sociable hours than running a restaurant… for morning people, anyway.  Bakers may start at 5am – some as early as 3am – but that means they can shut up shop by 2 or 3pm and enjoy the rest of their day… even if they need to be in bed by 9.  The work is hard and it’s physical, but as the nature of employment changes and flexible working has become more the norm, shouldn’t hard-working hospitality owners in their 20s and 30s get a taste of that more flexible life, too? Dee Rettali of Bloomsbury’s Fortitude Bakehouse says she and her staff “work together to figure out the best work schedule for each person on the team.” And at Eric’s in East Dulwich, the doors are only open on Fridays and Saturdays.

Queueing at Eric's
Eric’s Bakery, Dulwich

Opening your own business offers the chance to create your own systems and practices, something Paris Bargchi and Anna Higham of soon-to-open Quince Bakery have valued. The two crowdfunded for the capital to open their own bakery: “Funding was a huge hurdle to get over,” says Anna. “We didn’t want to ask for too much as it is such a tricky financial time all round, so we found the lowest figure that made sense. When we started asking for money it was terrifying and we felt incredibly vulnerable, but the positive relationships we’d built over our careers came to the fore. We’ve been overwhelmed with people’s generosity and belief in us.”

A baked good offers all the hope, butter and sweet comfort our stomach and heart desires – for less than a fiver. It’s that pocket-sized, edible encouragement you need when times are hard and the power of your paycheck is shrinking.

The current economic crisis plays a part, too. We consumers have less in our pockets to spend on meals out, with even takeaways seeing a decline. But we have to get our silly, pick-me-up treats somewhere. A beautifully made pastry offers all the hope, butter and sweet comfort our stomach and heart desires, for less than a fiver. It’s that pocket-sized, edible encouragement you need when times are hard and the power of your paycheck is shrinking. It’s ‘cheer up love, it might never happen’ in pastry form.

But then again, focaccia sandwiches from Anerley’s excellent and friendly hole-in-the-wall Chatsworth Bakehouse cost £10 each, so they’re not exactly cheap. Plus, they sell out in 60 seconds via a complex, three-days-in-advance pre-order system that would leave many a boulangère scratching their heads. Ordering a sandwich on the internet three days before you know if you’ll even feel like eating said sandwich? It seems like madness – submitting to the trends of the Instagram feed in a way that’s frankly embarrassing. And yet I’ve done it. More than once. Pophams’ pastries, too, sell for £6 each, and buying a couple of those a week soon adds up. Affordability and accessibility aren’t the whole picture, then – except one pastry is a lot cheaper than a whole meal out.

A Chatsworth sandwich
A Chatsworth sandwich

Maybe the queues are part of the charm? Is it simply in our nature in this country to enjoy getting in line, following suit and being part of something bigger than ourselves? Queueing is, in its own weird way, a bonding experience, with a guaranteed (you hope) reward at the end. There’s something intriguing about a queue: you want to join it and see what’s at the end, especially when it could be different every time. Perhaps you laugh inwardly and think you’d never queue for PASTRIES. Or roll your eyes at the people photographing the blackboard menus, the interiors and, crucially, the pastries themselves. The absurdity of it all.

And yet, and yet… A queue has promise. A queue has potential. A part of you wants to know what all the fuss is about – curiosity that I wouldn’t mind betting is likely to see you getting in line one day, if you haven’t already succumbed. We’ve come to accept queueing for restaurants, after all, so why stop at that when there’s a promise of a good breakfast at the end of it?

Let’s not forget a critical factor of the bakery’s ascension: innovation. Once our choice was limited to a Gregg’s yum yum or a Costa cinnamon danish. If you wanted even just a sniff of a canelé or a sfogliatella it meant a holiday to France or Italy. At the independents now gracing our high streets and neighbourhoods we can devour strawberry and tres leche danishes, asparagus barrels, nettle and Lincolnshire poacher swirls, and rhubarb and pandan danishes. Beef bear claws, pumpkin seed cremeux danishes… Pastry chefs are on a creative crusade – and they’re posting pictures of what’s just out of the oven on Instagram, enough to tempt any hungry citizen to joining the end of the queue.

Yuzu-Orange Jaffa Cakes at Toad Bakery. Photograph by Teo Della Torre

I asked Rebeccca of Toad bakery (Camberwell’s popular joint, which inspires queues of up to 40 minutes) what it’s like running a bakery. “We opened Toad with the intention of building a neighbourhood resource in a part of town we’ve lived in for a long time… Oliver and I have worked as bakers for years, and it’s amazing to be able to run our own kitchen and test out our ideas together. Running a bakery is extremely hard work – especially as we both work full-time in the kitchen while trying to do all the backstage stuff as well. It’s gratifying to see our bakes being received with such enthusiasm by the locals… We also have an amazing team, who make the place feel super welcoming and fun. That rubs off on customers and keeps them coming back.”

The team at Toad Bakery. Photograph by Aria Shahrokhshahi

I hope that with this revolution and new generation, being a baker – and working in hospitality more generally – starts to be seen, as it is in Australia and much of Europe, as a career. A ‘proper job’ to be proud of. In a country that’s historically turned its nose up at service jobs and viewed them as a stop-gap on the way to something else, a change of attitude has to be good news.

So, the nub of the reason we love those snaking-down-the-street queues? They promise a photogenic treat for under a fiver or a tenner. And when I look on in bafflement at another gaggle of fans lining up in Camberwell, Dulwich or Haggerston, scrolling on their phones and sipping their lattes as they queue, I know that try as I might to resist: next week that’ll be me.

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