Anecdote Index






(11) by Gerald Diamond

In the early 1990's J. Lyons owned or part owned a string of bakeries across Europe from Panrico in Spain, to operations in France, Holland Germany and Spain (Sapori)

And in December 1991 I moved divisions to work with Jim Hubner who was Director of J. Lyons International. At that time with the fall of the Iron Curtain the group was looking at all points East, and had already established a John Bull pub and a Baskins Robbins ice cream parlour in St Petersburg, on Nevsky Prospekt, (the main drag), with a huge Ice Cream factory under construction in Moscow. So there was some prior knowledge of the city and possibilities of property acquisition.

Projects of this nature were supported by the Foreign offices 'know how' fund which subsidised travelling costs and training expenses

Our joint venture partner was the Kirov (re named Samson) Meat Company, who operated a huge meat processing plant on the city outskirts complete with its rail sidings, flocks of birds picking over the carcasses, and horse drawn open wagons -like stepping back to the middle ages! Within this complex was a butchers training school which met the labour requirements of a huge area around the city, but with the break up of communism and of central funding this building became vacant.

The objective of the Peter-Al venture was to set up a central bakery, with around 4 cafeteria style restaurants in areas of high people throughput, like the huge suburb dormitory high rise blocks which were largely built without any shop infrastructure.

We planned to manufacture a range of products unfamiliar to the Russians; This was to fill a perceived gap in the lunch break market: Filled baguettes, and rolls, Eccles cakes, jam and 'cream' doughnuts; sausage rolls, and croissants all displayed in a similar manner to the Oven Door Group of Coffee Shops in the UK ran by the DCA subsidiary. This involved sourcing in the UK flat wicker baskets, wire trays, shelving systems, fast cycles dish washers, and self service servery counters with heated and refrigerated sections, soup kettles, cash tills and studies of seating units, steel and pine wood construction that we planned to make locally.

For the bakery we needed a large range of small scale equipment; 15 tray capacity ovens, High speed mixers, Dough divider/moulders, pastry rolling and cutting equipment, proffers, doughnut fryers, baking trays, stainless tables and wheels racked -to be made locally; I scoured the large second hand market in the UK for reconditioned machinery and gradually we purchased everything and stored it in Greenford.

A Russian Director -General was recruited and other management for accounting, production and technical were added to the team. A Ford Transit was purchased and some of the seats removed for the locals to use to run us around, and move raw materials. Our technologist-was Ken Sydney formally Production Director of Hales Cakes but very much a hands on baker when required. He checked on the local ingredients to match our requirements and over several visits built up a working relationship with a typical Russian balabusta who ran a small development unit in the meat factory.

Meanwhile, over a period of 2 years I made visits of about a weeks duration every 6 weeks or so. We searched for the shop outlets and eventually we found one in an outer suburb called somewhat peculiarly- 'Avant Garde' on the ground floor of a 15 story complex of flats. The project was explained to the Manageress and she was enthousiatic.This was a bread shop already with a van delivery dock, and a series of small rooms plus a larger shop front area we could seat around 40. The seats were to follow the Oven Door design and be relatively uncomfortable to ensure no one stayed too long!; I drew up the steel frame and also the design for the bakery rack and passed these to Sergie to find suitable fabricator. On a subsequent visit I was taken to Peter the Great Ship yard, where after security calls we were allowed past the entry building and had a long walk along the bank of the River Neva to a fabrication workshop; This was a badly lit fume filled workspace, but they had successfully bent cut and welded steel tube into the seating frame and made the first few racks; castors were another matter; The Soviets did not have supermarket trolleys and steel castors with nylon tyres were unknown locally and had to be imported. I also went to a wood working concern offices; to the main St Peterburg lighting factory to source the lights for the shops and to a china factory

In parallel with the search for the shop-cafe premises the development of the factory commenced; After the building was surveyed and the floor plans produced, we did the plans for equipment installation; Yeast raised goods had to isolated, the fat fryers needed fumes extraction canopies, and the dust from sieving the bagged flour had to be contained with extraction equipment. Meetings with Sanson's building department were held and with their local architects; All this was incredible laborious and everything was discussed via an interpreter, Elena, who could speak virtually simultaneously or Julia who was nearly as proficient. Additionally all the elements of Soviet style burocracy were still in place; The mayors office; the Health department; and the City Planning department besides all the queries from Sanson management themselves had to be met; In the bakery we wanted to put some production equipment on one floor, while on the immediate floor above were existing toilets etc which were to be modernised; For reasons we could never illicit this was not permitted-it was against the norm-the rule book.

When we met senior Sanson management-our Jt Venture partners we would wait in an anti room, before being asked to the inner sanctum; A dour office, lined with cheap wood chip panels, basic chairs, glass fronted booked case, and the Director behind a desk with 4 phones on it; At that time Leningrad as it was still named had no western phone technology; They needed one phone for the factory internally; one for the city and one for calls outside the city- the fourth maybe was for the Kremlin!

Eventually we got to the stage that we had to test local ingredients while the building was converted, the plans having been virtually accepted. To make product tests we needed around 4 keys items of equipment, and it was very uneconomic to send these out, so a decision was made to load a complete 40ft trunker and send out everything we had ready in Greenford; The truck was booked; paper work prepared and checked and rechecked; On the appointed day the truck arrived -with a sense of humour; Its number plate was HI KGB.

On a subsequent visit we inspected the machinery now stored in a corrugated steel warehouse distant in the site; The access was terrible; no proper metalled road-just rough tracks, but there appeared to be no significant damage. It was only when later the trials began and the Prover would not operate correctly that the poor handling became apparent.

The changes we needed to the building were considerable; Pallets of bagged flour were to be stored on the top floor in the 3 story building, relying on the durability of the lift; and a goods-in dock was to be created; All the ventilation and fume and dust extract ducting had to be put in and walls built and walls tiled and the floor made good, plus all the staff facilities created.

By now about 2 years had elapsed and on a progress trip we visited the building and found that the floors were being removed -they had wonderful oak beams let into the half meter think walls, and were being replaced with 6 inch RSJ's and thin concrete pallets topped with shingle and cement; Russian technology did not run to pumping concrete as we would have done; It was all wood scaffolding, wheel barrows, labour intensive, very slow and of poor quality finish; (When Allied converted their shop to the John Bull pub they loaded a trailer with a completed prefabricated system, to line the wall, seating modules, bar and equipment and 2 weeks later is was done-we did not have that possibility).

We had not been told that they would strip out all the floors and add considerable to the building time scale; There were other obstacles to progress and Lyons management became increasingly frustrated. Also we still had only the one shop/cafe outlet in spite of considering at least 6 other premises. So even though 'Avant Garde' was transferred to the ownership of Peter-Al -our one triumph over bureaucracy - the project was abandoned during 1993, giving them a present of equipment.

In Easter 1994 I returned with my wife as a tourist for a few days, and was met by Julia and the Transit Van! We enjoyed the sights of this wonderful city, and visited the bakery building. The builders had left and the Director Sergie showed me the embryonic bakery-they were making 3000 bread rolls a day and assembling them into In Flight meals trays for Aeroflot; So in the end our efforts were not all in vane and we left behind a little western goodwill and technology.

It was a fascinating time to see St Petersburg; I said then to my friends that it would take a generation for Russia to bring its standard of living up to that of the West, and friends who have been there since do not disagree. If you want a bracing visit go in January when it is -22deg C.


1. Loading the Articulated Truck, HI KGB for St. Petersburg with bakery equipment - the top of a Proofer, for bread rolls and baguettes manufacture, is visible behind the driver. Date: some time late 1992.

2. Sergie Babayev, the 'Director General' outside the old Butchers school building that the local company, The Kirov Meat Company, gave as their share ot the Joint Venture. Note the quality of the building!; Also the crude wire grill over the lower windows.

3. The original 10inch deep Oak beams on 2 levels, which without consultation the local architects decided to remove.

4. The replacement floor; 6 inch RSJ's with thin concrete pallets, over which they laid shingle and poured cement. This gave us a well sprung dance floor!

© Gerald Diamond 2002