‘At first, I thought it was kind of weird. But now I’ll queue for over an hour. It’s kinda like being at a festival waiting for the best act to come on,’ says Sam Wong. She could easily be talking about a drop of limited-run trainers, the kind that have got streetwear savants salivating over nostalgic suede detailing. But instead, she’s talking about joining the queue for one of Chatsworth Bakehouse’s wildly popular sandwiches. ‘Even if it’s frickin pouring down with rain, it’s something to look forward to on a Saturday morning,’ she says.
Once, the key to being a successful baker was mastering your lamination or nailing your sourdough. Now, it’s also about being a marketing genius who borrows strategies from the streetwear playbook to create clouds of hype and exclusivity around your wares, teasing your customers with Instagram stories that lovingly chronicle each fresh bake, the steam still rising from each golden crust. And Londoners are lapping it up, queuing round the block to cop one of Chatsworth Bakery’s one-off creations, hunting down Toad Bakery’s elusive wild garlic barrels or charting their fruitless quest to get a viral Korean milk doughnut from Bethnal Green’s Greedy Cow Bakery.
There’s even a viral ‘croissant crawl’ trend on TikTok: ‘I think I’m in love with you… woke up and I can’t get you out of my head,’ runs the dreamy AWS song that inevitably soundtracks these narratives of pastry obsession.
But when did pastries and bakes start becoming must-haves, instead of boring breakfast staples? And why have Londoners fallen so hard for all things flaky?
The power of the drop
Peckham’s Toad Bakery began during lockdown, when Oliver Costello and Rebecca Spaven were introduced by a mutual friend. ‘It was a pretty shrewd bit of matchmaking,’ says Spaven, who explains that they immediately began cooking up plans to open the kind of small bakery they felt south London was missing.
Within weeks, they had lines stretching down the block. ‘We figured there was a demand for this sort of thing in Camberwell, but what’s really blown us away is how people are willing to travel across London to see us, especially on a Saturday. We even had someone come from Alice Springs in Australia who’d seen us on Instagram.’
On a typical Saturday, the queue for Toad Bakery is full of people tensely speculating which of the bakes they’ve seen online will be left when they get their moment in front of its signature rack of fresh goods. Will they cop a coveted cornbread croissant? The easier-to-score, but still delicious, signature riff on a jaffa cake? Or sink their teeth into a one-off creation that’ll get their friends nurturing a niche food craving that’s near-impossible to satisfy?
Sometimes cakes drop and you’re like ‘Oh my god, I can’t get this quick enough’
‘We make a lot of things off the cuff, it’s about being playful and experimenting,’ says Spaven. ‘People keep an eye on our Instagram, and as soon as we launch something new, it’ll be first to sell out. The most limited-run thing we’ve ever done was when we made just a single tray of Swedish prinsesstårta, and even now seven months later people send us a link to that Instagram post asking when we’ll do them again. The answer is never!’
For Wong, this icing sugar storm of hype is all by design. ‘I worked in fashion for seven years, often on capsules, collabs and exclusive drops,’ she says, referencing the streetwear modus operandi of releasing small numbers of sought-after garms that fans queue up for, or battle to buy online. ‘Even if you miss out on getting a pair of trainers you really wanted, the exclusivity creates this sense of excitement’.
Now, she’s noticed that the same phenomenon is playing out in the food world. ‘Sometimes cakes drop and you’re just like “Oh my god, I just can’t get this quick enough”,’ she says.
She theorises that the psychological hold that these limited-edition foods have is down to their exclusivity, as much as their taste. They’re a tantalising antidote to a world where the internet has made all consumer products available, all the time: ‘I don’t think everything needs to be available to everyone 24/7, and that’s the beauty of it.’
Selling baked goods in exclusive drops makes perfect sense, but it all came about by accident. The seeds for today’s bountiful harvest of new bakeries were sown during lockdown, when Londoners fought boredom by buying and selling homemade foods on Instagram in a DIY scene that built cult followings for standout players like Willy’s Pies in Hackney. Suddenly, queuing for food wasn’t a boring necessity reminiscent of Blitz-era life: it was a treasured excuse to see friends and feel like part of something bigger than your hot sauce-stained sofa. Three years on, the unexpected lure of the queue isn’t going anywhere – and nor is the shift towards seeing baked goods.
Wong sells her own line of pandan sandos as Lil Wong Bakes on new app Delli, where these green sponge sandwiches have built an avid following: ‘I’ve got a customer who’s bought them every week for two years,’ she says.
Delli’s founder Simon Beckerman is also the brains behind fashion app Depop, and he sees massive potential in micro food businesses.
‘During the pandemic, I noticed that a lot of people from the fashion industry or music industry were getting furloughed and starting their own food businesses where they sold items in drops,’ says Beckerman. ‘These people have a more creative or unique eye and have this sense of branding which is really different. When I saw what they were doing, I thought this was an opportunity to bring all these new generation food makers together.’
Beckerman insists on a style of imagery that’s more like club photography than the pristine images you’ll find in glossy magazines: ‘We consciously went for a raw aesthetic, nothing too polished,’ he says. ‘Making and eating food is messy, so we wanted to convey those real moments: everything must be shot using a strong flash, from the side, never from above, so it represents real life.’
The bakers often look like they’re straight out of matte-covered design magazines, too. Wong bakes her sandos wearing a bright green tracksuit, to match the batter, rather than a boring old apron. It’s an obvious link to the streetwear world, where brands like Supreme have turned the creation of artificial scarcity into an artform. Lines of fans create a buzz, while the product’s rep is boosted by the in-the-know few who are able to get their hands on it.
Still, ‘small batch’ baking isn't just a bid for streetwear levels of exclusivity: it’s also a practical strategy for makers like Wong, who only has time to bake on weekends and doesn't want her precious cream-filled creations to hang around and go soggy. ‘Our use of the drop model isn’t just about creating hype,’ says Beckerman. ‘It supports small producers who face challenges such as managing food waste, cash flow and ingredient flow.’
Part of the pack
It’s not just the concept of drops that food makers are borrowing from streetwear. Collabs like Supreme x Louis Vuitton are massive news in fashion, and they make just as much sense in a food world where so much inspiration already comes from borrowing ingredients from other cultures. Toad Bakery x Mambow has spawned a ‘steak bake’ with Malaysian rendang flavouring (plus red leicester and pickled daikon stuffed into croissant pastry, pictured above) that’s miles more exciting than anything you’d get at Tesco. And when Willy’s Pies teamed up with Dr Sting’s Hot Honey, earlier this year, it capitalised on a craze for spicy-sweet stuff that was reaching burning point.
The collab spirit goes deeper, to events that collide baked goods and nightlife. Animali’s spring bake sale event sold tickets through Resident Advisor, with DJs Haseeb Iqbal, Vandorta and Sleepier on the dials and a drag king Paul Hollywood on hand to liven things up. Delli’s Easter Bake Sale had DJs on hand too: ‘I don’t know why I wanted DJs at a bake sale but it really worked,’ says Wong, who helped to organise it. ‘You can’t box people off as just being fashion, or just music, or just food. If I’m inspired by someone, I don’t just want to know what they’re wearing, I want to know what they’re eating.’
Food is becoming the new form of self-expression, instead of fashion
In the past, people signalled their allegiance to different subcultures through what they wore or the places they were seen hanging out in. But now, people can use social media to let their followers see the world through their eyes. Once, eating a pastry alone outside a bakery was a fleeting, invisible, even faintly embarrassing moment. Now, share it and it becomes a statement about the kind of person you are. While still being faintly embarrassing.
‘Food is becoming the new form of self-expression, instead of fashion,’ reckons Beckerman, although that’s exactly what someone who sold Depop to Etsy for £1.1 billion would say. Still, seeking out niche bakes is a statement that shows you prize authenticity, creativity and originality as much as any shoe obsessive would.
‘In streetwear it’s all about tying things back to the heritage of the brand, and it’s the same with food,’ says Wong. ‘For me, my bakes link to my Hong Kong heritage, but I’ve given it a twist because I’ve grown up in a different culture. People really relate to that, because London’s such a multiracial society and they want to be part of it.’
A taste of luxury
But in the midst of the cozzie livs, does dropping £5 on a croissant really make sense? It would be easy for puritanical types to point out artisanal bakeries charge a vast mark-up on wares made from flour and water, two of the cheapest ingredients out there. But Spaven’s ready with a comeback. ‘Whenever anyone complains about paying £4.50 for a loaf of bread, I compare it to the price of buying a drink in a London bar. You’d pay £7 for a can of Red Stripe, so why not? It’s a difficult argument to win, but I’m trying,’ she says with a laugh.
And if you’re going to treat yourself, maybe buying a pricy pastry makes way more sense than dropping a whole month’s rent on a pair of two-tone Nike Cortez. ‘For me, it started with artisanal coffee,’ says Spaven. ‘That was the first accessible treat thing that people could get obsessed with but that still had a low financial bar to entry. Now, I think bakeries fill a similar sort of gap, where if you can’t really afford to go to a restaurant, you can still participate in a very active food scene.’
Of course, there’s always competition for big artisan bakery players like Gail’s and sout London’s Blackbird. But that doesn’t seem to have stopped the numbers of London micro-bakeries from ballooning like over-yeasted dough. In south London alone, Toad Bakery, Irene Bakery, Grove Lane Deli and Eric’s Bakery have all opened their doors in the last two years. ‘The baking community is tight and supportive,’ says Spaven. ‘We’re far from saturation point.’
Wild as it may seem, hypebakes are here to stay, and so are the queues of hungover pastry obsessives that chase after them. And when you finally get to the front of the queue, the experience is well worth it. Not just for the baking, but for the atmosphere that surrounds it; the fevered hype, the sense of community with fellow fans, the open kitchens where you can see the flour-dusted makers getting trays out of the oven and cooking up something new. ‘They’ll always give you the time of day, ask how you’re doing,’ says Wong. ‘That’s something you won’t get at a chain bakery. It’s a very special network of people, I think.’