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Last Updated: Tuesday, 20 November 2007, 00:18 GMT
The hands behind bread and pastries
Rafal Sgraja, 25, checks bread in oven

By Clare Davidson
Business reporter, BBC News, Greenford, West London

How does it feel to be working while most people are sleeping? In the fourth of a series following those who drive Britain's 24-hour society through the small hours, we visit a bakery.

"I'm immune to the smell," declares Robert Ziola as we arrive at the industrial unit in Greenford in West London. It's hard to believe, as an overpowering aroma fills the evening air.

Rising early to make a crust

But for Robert and his business partner Piotr Tomicki, it is the aroma that has accompanied their working lives for more than a decade.

The smell of fresh bread wafting out is deeply tantalising. But it does not evoke your typical British bloomer. Instead it has a distinct malt edge.

Instead it is rye bread - the signature product of Robert and Piotr's Village Bakery, which specialises in goods from their native Poland.

It's Friday night and the weekend is about to begin, but for the night team work has just started.

Production line

Six bakers in white outfits busy away in a room next to the main corridor.

It is here that dough is mixed, shaped, baked and transformed into hot loaves that will end up in shops all over the country.

Marcin Saldos and Rafal Sgraja, both in their mid-20s, deftly lift a tray of freshly rolled dough into the oven's top shelf. Heat blasts out of the oven, forcing Marcin to wince. He adjusts his cap and wipes his brow.

Behind them, Piotr Drobnik concentrates hard as he pours flour into a new dough mixture. A trace of flour misses his dark moustache, but settles on his chin.

And Adam Chatys feeds dough into a machine like a helter-skelter which turns it into dollops.

The workers are focused and exchange few words, except to answer Robert in Polish, when he pops his head round the doorway.
Dough mixer
Marin Pawlick mixes the ingredients to make the dough

"It is non-stop," says Robert proudly, wheeling a stack of shelves along the corridor, laden with rye and poppy seed bread that has just been sliced.

All the workers have to do night work and rotate between three eight-hour shifts.

Marins Pawlick, who came to the UK with his family two years ago from Katowitz, looks baffled when asked whether working at night is hard.

Production is non-stop
Robert Ziola, founder, Village Bakery

"In Poland it was harder, the shifts were 12 hours and always at night," he says in Polish.

Despite the higher cost of living, the 6 hourly wage gives him a better life than he could get at home.

All the while chart music streams out of a small radio perched on a high shelf in a language none of them speaks - English.

Community

As the corridor fills up with bread , the scale of the output becomes apparent. It is called the Village Bakery, but there is nothing small about this business. Robert recalls the first day of production, on April 22 2004.

"On day one we made 70 loaves. Today we make 10,000, maybe 12,000 every day," he says, beckoning to show me the first oven he and Piotr shipped over for the task.

"It is East German and uses gas. Everyone wanted electricity so it was very cheap. It was perfect for us."

The investment has paid off - gas prices have since risen sharply. "And look," he says, opening one shelf. "Each level has a separate temperature."

Catching dough as it rolls off of conveyer
Coming to the UK is an adventure
Adam Chatys, new recruit at the Village Bakery

In the past year the firm had added supermarket chain Morrisons to its clients, though it is represents a fraction of business - about 5%. The vast majority of customers remain specialty delis and shops.

The firm recently opened a new bakery in Manchester. "It is very modern," says Robert, beaming.

Prospects

Adam Chatys, who says he is 25 - but could easily pass for 18 - only started weeks before. He seems utterly unfazed about moving to a new country where he can't speak the language.

"It is an adventure" he says several times, while the dough tumbles out in round dollops, ready for baking.

And he seems equally unperturbed about the change to a big city from a small village in Poland. This is partly explained when he describes Greenford: "It is very Polish," he says.

From his village alone are two other employees at the Village Bakery.

For pastry chef Jan Kazmierczak, coming to the UK has been more than an adventure - it has been a life-line.

"I had my own bakery in Poland, but it went bankrupt," he says. "Getting work when you're over 40 is hard".

Natural

Seeing the bustling Village Bakery on a Friday night is proof of the strong demand from Poles for their own products. The rye flour - the most important ingredient - is imported from Poland.

Stacking
English bread, especially in supermarkets, has many many preservatives
Robert Ziola, founder, Village Bakery

When asked the difference between Polish and British bread Robert looks up to find the right words, gesturing with his hands as if he is squeezing a fresh loaf.

"In England, he is soft," he says. "And he stays soft, for maybe a week. In Poland our bread, after one day he is hard."

But longer-lasting bread has its downside. English bread, especially in supermarkets, has "many, many preservatives," he adds.

"We use no preservatives. It is all 100% natural. Nothing except flour yeast, water and salt are used."

Along the corridor, two women sit in a narrow room side by side, sitting behind slicing machines as if they were typewriters. They feed loaf after loaf into the slicer, before packaging them.

A large stack of rich-looking "Napoleon cakes" - filled with strawberries and "totally natural" cream - is wheeled out. A van is being filled with supplies for distribution.

We leave while another batch of dough is beginning to rise. By morning hundreds of loaves will be cooked and packaged for breakfast tables across the UK.




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