After a series of health scares, Simon Rodgers quit the finance industry in order to open Four Bakery & Chocolaterie, an artisan bakery and coffee house on Bath Street. He spoke to Tom Ogg about the importance of eating organic food, the difficulties of naming a new business – and why the Tories will lose the next election
A CHAT with Simon Rodgers is a fascinating and thoroughly entertaining experience.
Not one for mincing his words, the founder and owner of St Helier’s Four Bakery & Chocolaterie peppers his conversation with amusing asides and laugh-out-loud true-life tales, not least a hilarious (and, sadly, unprintable) story involving a televised interview with Esther Rantzen and a sizeable quantity of alcohol.
Yet alongside the entertaining anecdotes, Cambridgeshire-born Simon is also unflinchingly honest and open about the major health scares which led him to a dramatic latter-day change of career.
Having spent almost four decades working in banking and trust, Simon quit the industry after being diagnosed with cancer and undergoing a series of life-saving operations.
‘I had bowel cancer, I had a problem with my throat, I had a third of my liver removed, I had my gall bladder removed, two toes amputated, an arterial bypass,’ says the 66-year-old father-of-four, chatting in the seating area in Four Bakery & Chocolaterie on Bath Street.
‘I never really paid too much attention to my health. I used to smoke. I used to enjoy a drink – or ten. My idea of a decent diet was two gallons of lager followed by a kebab in the Royal Square.’
Upon first being diagnosed with cancer, Simon immediately ditched his unhealthy diet (‘no additives, no preservatives’), yet it was his everyday lifestyle that was most urgently in need of change.
‘I have a few good friends who are doctors, as is my sister, and I asked them what they thought was the one thing that contributed to my health problems,’ he says. ‘What could I have cut out that would have prevented it all? And they all said the same thing: stress.
‘You know, I had almost 40 years of looking after billions of pounds of other people’s money. I was flying round and round the world every week – and I bloody hate flying. What was the first thing I thought about when I woke up? Work. What was the last thing I thought about before going to bed? Work. I never took a break. I went 14 years without a holiday. And whenever I did take my kids away on holiday, there would always be someone on the phone.’
Given this, Simon was determined to maintain an altogether more relaxed approach to running Four Bakery & Chocolaterie, which opened its doors in September last year, and which offers a wide range of breads, brownies, pastries, rolls and viennoiseries, all of which are made in store by bakers Ellen Johnson and Grace Buesnel.
‘The whole idea from day one was to be a traditional bakery and so bread is the mainstay of the company,’ says Simon. ‘But we always intended to branch out into coffee and pâtisserie, with everything hand-crafted and as organic and pure as we can make it.’
Among the freshly created goodies on offer each day, Four Bakery & Chocolaterie offers an impressive variety of meat-free products courtesy of Ellen, Grace and vegan baker Tania Moreira.
‘We’re constantly expanding our range and, naturally, we want to have plenty of vegetarian, vegan and gluten-free options,’ says Simon. ‘We have vegan cakes, vegan muffins – all sort of vegan stuff. But we’re not a vegan bakery. The reason I like doing it is because it tastes bloody good. The fact that something also happens to be vegan or gluten-free is a bonus.
‘We do a delicious veggie roll, although I refuse to call it a vegan sausage roll,’ he adds with a laugh. ‘It’s not an alternative sausage roll – it’s a complimentary roll that just happens to be made with vegetables. It tastes great, which is all that matters to me.’
As Simon says, he and the team are constantly experimenting and trying new things in order to ensure customers remain interested and satisfied.
‘We’re not trying to re-invent ourselves, which is a phrase I can’t stand. You can’t re-invent something that already exists because it’s already been invented. But if you’re a small business then you do have to be prepared to change in order to meet the demands of customers. If you’re Fortnum & Mason then, yes, you can do the exact same thing for the next 200 years, but small businesses can’t do that. We have to keep customers wanting to come back for more.’
It is with this in mind that Four Bakery & Chocolaterie will be introducing a range of deluxe hand-crafted chocolates in the run-up to Christmas.
‘Oh, my big passion has always been chocolate,’ says Simon. ‘When I was in finance travelling around the world, I would always track down the very best chocolates wherever I visited. I’ve always absolutely loved chocolate – except cooked chocolate, which I hate. I think that stems from boarding school where we had to have Christmas chocolate pudding with chocolate sauce. It was made from just water and cocoa and it was, without doubt, the single most vile thing ever created.’
Prior to meeting Ellen earlier this year, Simon spent some time trying to find a Jersey-based chocolatière with whom he felt he could collaborate.
‘I just couldn’t find the right person over here,’ he says. ‘I even started discussing opening a chocolaterie in the Cayman Islands with a friend of mine who lives over there. But then I had a chat with Paul [Conway] from Homefield, which is where we buy all our fruit and veg, and he said: “You ought to speak to our friend, Ellen Johnson”. And I sort of dismissed him: “Oh, I’ve already spoken to everybody”. He told me to give her ten minutes and I agreed, and so she came to see me for ten minutes – and three-and-a-half hours later we decided to go into partnership with the chocolate business.’
A former pastry chef at Longueville Manor, Ellen was born in the UK but raised in France, and is currently co-creating a range of high-quality branded chocolates, which – if the photos on Simon’s phone are any indication – are liable to prove popular when they’re introduced to customers over the coming months.
‘We would have launched the chocolates over the summer but it was too hot,’ says Simon. ‘You have to have very carefully temperature-controlled premises in order to make chocolate in that sort of heat.
‘Not long after Ellen started with us, Grace then joined the team,’ he adds. ‘She is a very talented pâtissière and is doing all kinds of interesting savoury things.’
As an employer, Simon maintains a commendably hands-off approach and allows his enthusiastic female employees the freedom to experiment in the bakery.
‘As far as Grace and Ellen are concerned, I tell them to produce whatever they want,’ he says. ‘As long as it looks good and it tastes nice then what do I care? They recently decided that, because the weather had turned, we were going to start selling soup. I said “Sure, go for it”.’
His commitment to offering a pleasant work environment for his staff partly stems from Simon witnessing firsthand the stressful working conditions of chefs and kitchen staff during his years in finance.
‘I got to know the hotel business and the hours that chefs work are just extraordinary,’ he says. ‘It’s no wonder that they blow out. I decided right from the start that everybody at Four Bakery was going to have a proper work/life balance and have two days off a week. I remember when I first told Ellen that she could have weekends off, she said “huh?” She couldn’t believe it. I asked her when she last had a weekend off and she couldn’t remember.
‘As far as I’m concerned, if there is a decent amount and a decent variety of goodies on the counter, then I’m happy.’
Old habits die hard, of course, and Simon admits that he does occasionally still find himself feeling stressed regarding work matters.
‘I have a bit of a reputation in that I can’t be bothered to tiptoe around people, and occasionally I’ll turn up at the bakery in a grumpy mood,’ he laughs. ‘The difference is that now it happens once a month rather than for 16 hours a day, six days of the week.’
As with many modern-day business owners, Simon is keen for Four Bakery & Chocolaterie to remain as environmentally friendly as possible, with second-hand furniture from Acorn and recycled timberwood and decking having been used to furnish the bakery.
‘We’ve used an old pallet board with broomsticks screwed into the front to create a display board for the bread loaves,’ he says. ‘We also buy local whenever we can in order to keep food miles down and we avoid single-use plastics.’
That being said, Simon does order some essential ingredients from overseas, such as flour, which is imported from the UK via Wild (or Wild Farmed as it is also known), an Essex-based company that grows crops without the use of herbicides, fungicides or pesticides.
‘They don’t use any artificial fertilisers or chemicals – they just sow wheat among the wild flowers and grasses on arable land and then allow it to grow. It’s all natural. To me, it’s proper farming.
‘There was once a time when Jersey produced a lot of wheat but, sadly, those days are gone,’ he continues. ‘I’ll be the first to admit that we can’t always use local products. I wanted to use Jersey butter, for instance, but we tried it and it just doesn’t work. I won’t try and explain why because you’ll get chemists writing into the paper but it’s something to do with the chemical make-up of Jersey butter. It’s just the wrong sort. French butter is much more stable when it comes to making croissants and pastries, and so that is what we use.’
Nevertheless, Simon and the team do use a sizeable amount of local ingredients, as well as collaborating with several other independent companies in the Island, such as The Chilli Kitchen.
‘We do a “special” every weekend and recently Grace had the idea to add Korean chilli paste to bread. I thought: “Chilli paste in bread? Who’s going to want to eat that?” But she made it and it flew out the door.
‘I’m not going to buy chilli paste from Korea when I can buy it from [The Chilli Kitchen founder] Lesley Garton who lives on the outskirts of St Helier. It’s the same with sea salt. I’m not going to import it from the Himalayas when I can buy it locally.’
As some readers will be aware, Four Bakery & Chocolaterie went by the altogether less memorable ‘R&R Bakery’ when it first opened last year, before Simon decided a change of name was in order.
‘R&R stood for Rodgers & Rodgers,’ explains Simon. ‘I struggle to say my R’s and so I’d have to concentrate whenever I said the name of the company otherwise I ended up sounding like Jonathan Ross. Plus, R&R sounded as if I’d set up my own accounting firm or something, especially with me having been in finance. It sounds like a law firm rather than a bakery.’
Having decided to embark upon a rebranding mission, Simon and Ellen first redecorated the interior of the store in eye-catching pink (‘It gives it a bit of a French feel’), and then set about devising a new name.
‘We were driving around the Island and I said: “Right, Ellen, throw some French words at me”, and we tried a few but they were all either already taken or a bit boring. So I asked her to throw out some famous French people and she said: “Tintin”. I said: “He’s Belgium so that doesn’t bloody work”. And then she suggested Clouseau and we both found that amusing. It kind of worked, especially with the shop being pink, but ultimately we decided it was a bit too jokey.
‘I then had the idea of calling it Four Bakery. I said: “Look, we’ve got four different types of bread, four different types of rolls” – it seemed that we had four different varieties of everything we stocked. We then had exactly the same thought at the same time, which is that “four” is also the French word for “oven”.’
And so it was Four Bakery & Chocolaterie was born.
‘It just works,’ says Simon. ‘Naturally everyone then started searching for more things that come in fours. I had someone say “ooh, you’ve got four daughters”, and then my brother-in-law pointed out that, because I had two toes amputated, the average number of toes I’ve got on each foot is four.’
On the subject of which, I ask Simon if he was wary about opening a new business so soon after undergoing surgery and in the aftermath of a global pandemic, but he says not.
‘The whole idea for the bakery came to me right in the middle of the pandemic, and I was doing my business plan while lying in a hospital bed with a couple of hundred stitches in my legs following an arterial bypass. The uncertainty surrounding Covid-19 was ridiculous, obviously, but there will always be reasons not to do something if you search for them. There is uncertainty now over the economy and I think that, at least in business terms, it is probably even worse [than Covid-19]. I would certainly think harder about opening a business now.
‘I think the Tories have shot themselves in the foot,’ he adds. ‘I don’t think they stand a chance in hell of winning the next election. I’m a dyed-in-the-wool Tory but, if I was voting in the UK now, I’d struggle to vote Conservative. Just because you’re a Tory doesn’t mean you don’t suffer from huge cost-of-living increases.’
The health-damaging levels of hard work during his decades in banking may have paid off financially, but – as a new business owner – the cost-of-living crisis is nevertheless a cause of concern for Simon.
Despite this, his appealingly easy-going and stress-averse attitude to running Four Bakery & Chocolaterie rarely falters.
‘I really don’t think of it as my empire,’ he says. ‘For me, it’s just a nice place where nice people come to make nice things that nice people then buy and have a nice time eating. It’s that simple. I don’t need for it to be franchised or whatever. It doesn’t need to make millions of pounds.
‘As long as it’s running and the team are happy and the customers are happy, then I’m happy.’
Four Bakery & Chocolaterie is located on Bath Street in St Helier, directly opposite the JEP offices. For more details, visit fourbakery.com