Case studies

Gail's Bakery realised it needed to look after its current staff as well as attract new ones

20 Feb 2020 By Eleanor Whitehouse

Plagued by a challenging retail climate and skyrocketing staff turnover, the cafe chain urgently needed to focus on its EVP

You could be forgiven for assuming your nearest Gail’s Bakery, with its extensive coffee menu and rustic wooden shelves groaning under the weight of artisan loaves and enticing cakes, was a local independent cafe. In fact, surprising as it may be, it’s actually a chain of nearly 60 branches, originally dotted across central London and its suburbs, but now also springing up in Oxford, Brighton and beyond.

Maintaining this community feel while the business expands almost exponentially is the main challenge for head of people Miranda Burgum. She has seen the number of sites more than double during her three-year tenure and, if growth plans come to fruition, she will be looking after 1,500 ‘breadheads’, as staff are dubbed, across 70 branches by this time next year. A former pub manager and latterly working in HR for several retail and hospitality stalwarts, Burgum is no stranger to the ups and downs of both industries. But she’s adamant her experience of “corporate practices” has taught her what not to do in a small, rapidly growing institution. 

And yet after arriving at the company in 2017, which already had 27 branches but no HR team or people strategy, Burgum’s first few months with Gail’s were as far from corporate practices as you could get. The first year, she recalls, was purely setting up the basics, including a staff handbook, contracts and giving bakery managers the autonomy to plan their own rotas and hire and train their own staff. But with turnover a year later still at 148 per cent, Burgum realised the bigger picture needed attention.

And so pulled steaming from the oven was ‘Rise With Gail’s’ – the company’s EVP, around which all its people endeavours are based. “We were spending so much time on external recruitment marketing trying to attract new people to the business, we were forgetting to look after the people we actually had,” says Burgum. “The only way we were going to survive was by looking after both.”

A significant aspect to Rise With Gail’s is L&D. Following mandatory training in a new recruit’s first 12 weeks on health and safety, wellbeing and allergens, they then move on to ‘core’ training depending on the nature of their role, including leading the perfect shift, latte art or how to bake the best loaf of bread. The company also offers a recognised barista qualification, a range of apprenticeships and specific leadership skills for managers – all delivered using a blended approach of online learning and face-to-face training at its academy in the basement of its bakery in Hammersmith, west London. “Not everything can be delivered by completing an online module,” explains Burgum. “At the academy, people really get hands on with smelling coffee beans and tasting bread.”

Newly hired bakers also spend their first three days at the academy cooking every dish on the menu before they’re allowed into the kitchen. It’s important, says Burgum, staff are put on courses that are right for them and their level, but that they can also see their career trajectory and development plan laid out ahead of them. “We want people to know there are opportunities for them here, and even more as we grow,” she adds. The company also puts emphasis on building its “food and coffee culture”, part of which involves staff visiting its UK-based suppliers to understand more about the food and drinks they create.

But Gail’s comprehensive L&D endeavours are also somewhat of a double-edged sword. “We’re renowned in the industry for our excellent training, but that can mean staff become targets for competitors that might be able to offer slightly higher hourly wages,” explains Burgum. Although pay rates at Gail’s are “competitive” – all staff are paid the national living wage for over-25s regardless of their age – the challenges of the industry and offsetting costs means remuneration is not as high as Burgum would like, but the company is “working hard” to be able to pay the Living Wage Foundation rates within the next few years.

Trying to retain those who are tempted to jump ship for a slight pay increase means the Rise With Gail’s proposition also has an increased focus on engagement. Perhaps surprisingly, the biggest scorer in recent staff surveys has been the company’s dedication to the greater good: it donates all its surplus food to nearly 50 charities and community groups every day. Suggestions made in previous surveys – the most recent of which put engagement at 75 per cent – were changes relatively easy to make, such as giving staff their rotas ahead of time. 

But Burgum says her real engagement measure lies in the staff Facebook group. “When I joined, there was no way to keep in touch across multiple sites, but thanks to the group everyone shares selfies, stories and photos across bakeries,” she says. “In just a year, it’s had 2,000 posts and 10,000 likes or comments – that’s my engagement score.” 

Further down the line, Burgum has set her sights on the organisation being listed in the Sunday Times 100 Best Companies to Work For – and although she knows there’s work to do, she’s optimistic her 14-strong people team will get the company there. Thanks to a new recruitment manager arriving and “throwing a grenade” into its existing processes, Gail’s is now fielding 1,800 applications from potential bakers and baristas every month, and turnover has dropped to a more manageable 80 per cent. So getting on to the coveted list should be a piece of cake.

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