Q&A with Jennie Allen

The founder of Bayley and Sage on high-quality food producers, female leadership, and her visceral dislike of pears.

Interview: Ellie Costigan

Was a career in food always the plan? 

I always thought I might be a pastry chef. But then I realised I didn’t really have the patience for fine patisserie work – I liked to bake and cook, but that very rigorous, artistic side of patisserie bored me. I did a degree in hotel and catering and went to work in restaurants, but I quickly decided it was too badly paid and misogynistic and the hours were too long. I kind of fell into food retail. When my mum died, I took a bit of time off to clear her house. Around that time, I saw an advert: “Trainee managers wanted for a deli company.” That was Cullens. I started working there and became MD after about seven or eight years. 


What inspired you to create Bayley and Sage? 

Cullens was known as a yuppie convenience store. It sold food and fresh soup, which was a bit unusual in those days, but also dog food and health and beauty products. I knew I wanted to sell just food – not gourmet food, I wouldn’t describe us like that. I didn’t want a fancy store that was full of foie gras, caviar and Cristal champagne, I wanted to sell great, daily, fresh food: really good bread, really good butter, really good peaches. No mechanically separated meat, which is disgusting. I just wanted to sell food that tastes good. Tomatoes that taste of sunshine. 


I imagine that nowadays it’s much easier to get hold of the sort of ‘good’ food you’re talking about than it was when you opened in Wimbledon in 1997. Is that the case? 

Yes. When we opened, so many suppliers wouldn’t come south of the river, it was really confined to central London. There also weren’t anywhere near as many artisan producers. The biggest change has been in British cheese – there are so many more producers and there is so much amazing British cheese now, whereas in the past we were importing it all. I think if you look at the quality of food overall, it has risen considerably. That’s perhaps thanks to the rise of the celebrity chef. First, we had Delia, which was mostly about using simple ingredients and had a British slant, now we have Ottolenghi. People also travel far more now than they did back in those times. People didn’t fly off for the weekend in the same way they do now. Even a lot of the higher end food in those days was more about the pretty packaging than the content. I never wanted that. 


Bayley and Sage has grown considerably since then: you now have 13 stores across London. What do they have in common? 

We try to go for places where there’s a village atmosphere: Northcote Road, Elizabeth Street, Marylebone – places where there are residents and where we can participate in the local community. People come in the morning for a croissant, then a sandwich at lunchtime, then pick up some soup on the way home. We have customers who do that most days. I like the staff to chat to them, I think it’s nice to shop somewhere you can have a little bit of human interaction. Our shop in Marylebone is phenomenally busy, but even still it has such a lovely atmosphere because of that: there are always people chatting to our team members, asking them for help curating a cheeseboard or picking out pottery downstairs as gifts for friends. It’s just a lovely environment. The Marylebone shop came along at the right time. We wouldn’t have been ready for it, even just a couple of years ago, but we feel totally embraced by Marylebone. I just love it here.


Are there particular standards that you set when you look for produce or products? 

I’m very curious when it comes to food, but I like it unadulterated. I don’t know why anyone eats fancy biscuits with cheese, for example – it just ruins it. You only need those when you’re eating rubbish cheddar. I am a bit of a purist, and that is reflected in the buying team’s ethos, I guess. Also, if a product or a brand gets too big and starts going into supermarkets or too many other stores, we don’t like that very much. We try to seek out smaller, artisan producers and support them. But they have to have a belief in quality and in the simplicity of production. We have a milk supplier who doesn’t believe in pumping the milk out of the dairy, for example. He lets gravity do the work, because he thinks pumping destroys the raw milk. I also like long-standing relationships – we have some suppliers that have pretty much been with us since day one. For our 25th anniversary, we put together 25 products that we’d been stocking for 25 years. I want to be able to talk with enthusiasm about every product we sell, so I feel I need to have eaten most of them. There was a time when there wasn’t anything in the store I hadn’t tried myself – except for pears, which I don’t like, so won’t eat. I also don’t ‘get’ chocolate. The buying team tried to list a chocolate and pear cake in the store once and I said, why would you do that, that’s devil’s food! I love lemons – they can list as many lemon drizzle cakes as they want to – and I love pasta, so we’re heavy on that. 


You also have a homeware range, Abode, which you sell from the basement of the Marylebone shop. What was the thinking there? 

Do you think there’s a link between the enjoyment of food, the environment it’s served in and what it’s served on? Exactly, there is, so it made sense. We’d had complementary items in the store for a while – bowls, bottle pourers, aprons, napkins, glasses, tea towels, some pottery, so we always sold bits and pieces. Then it just so happened there was a space two doors down the road from our shop in Parson’s Green that came on the market, so we snapped that up. It started off by being anything to do with cooking and eating and it’s broadened out slightly. I love pottery, for example, so we also have a range of that. We have pieces from an amazing potter called Tom, who is third or fourth generation. His ancestors had always made big garden pots; he makes more domestic things. I really love the idea that we’ve taken that ethos of supporting artisan producers and translated it into our homeware at Abode. Abode is my other baby. When we opened Marylebone, we were asked if we’d put the shop in, because we have a basement here. 


You have a small core team and it sounds like you’re still very much at the heart of the business. Will that always be the case? 

I pretend I work part-time now, but I love what I do. How could I not? I have got two dogs, one’s called Bailey, who I got nearly eight years ago – I adopted her because her name is Bailey, though spelled slightly differently – and Margaux, who is named after the wine. They insist on having many walks a day and that does allow me to spend a bit of time away from the office. But we’re a seven-days-a-week operation, from 7am to 9 o’clock at night, so you don’t have to work regular hours to work full time here. I think work is an expression of who we are. It gives us a sense of achievement, of being creative, so who you work with is important. Oddly, pretty much everyone who reports to me is a woman. There’s a lot of female leadership within the company. The values of the company completely reflect my own values and thinking about it, they are quite feminine: we talk about trust and growth, whereas I think men might talk more about performance. There’s a different emphasis: I think we perhaps concentrate more on relationships than men do. 


Do you think that’s reflected in the stores themselves? 

Interestingly, I met three young women in the store the other day and they said: “You can tell Bayley and Sage is owned by a woman when you walk in.” I think that’s possibly true. It’s not anything I particularly think about, but you can probably tell. When we were redoing Belgravia, which was an old bank site, I said it had to have a more masculine feel – it needed to reflect the building, so brass and stone and square! The building lends itself to that. But I’m sitting here now looking at the rounded chairs and round table, so ordinarily I think our aesthetic is a bit softer. Although I get annoyed if displays are overly fussy and there are too many flowers on them, I think it’s generally a bit more feminine. Men build walls of food and products; I tell my team to build waterfalls.