If you’re walking down Wardour Street in Soho from Oxford Street at any time of the day or evening, you can easily miss Princi. There is no A board on the pavement, nor hanging sign to stop you in your tracks. It is situated at the bottom of an interesting building, opposite Busaba Eathai, part of a small Thai restaurant chain founded by the same owner.
By the time you hit the second window of the unit, and see a brass alloy zinc counter, you realise you have just passed by something special where the most extraordinarily beautiful pastries, sandwiches and salads are displayed along a seemingly endless counter which stretches through to the back.
Some sandwich bars go for gimmicky fillings to attract attention and headlines, forgetting that the bread is more than 50% of the product. In my previous existence as a sandwich bar chain owner, I was constantly working with small artisan bakeries in the North West of England, to get them to bake the bread I wanted. Princi has no such problems. The bakery is the heart of the enterprise.
Each morning by 11.30 the stage is set. The breakfast section with granola, fruit salad and yoghurt has been cleared away, and every section of the glass and stone-faced counter is completely filled up with glistening swathes of strawberry tart, apricot crostada, chocolate and amaretti slices, pizzas, focaccia, savoury pastries and filled sandwiches.
The freshly baked squares of focaccia are simply filled with the best mozzarella, ripe tomatoes and rocket. The rustic baguettes may have chicken, pancetta, mustard and salad inside. And what was a revelation to me, and part of a new development as described in the interview below, a completely innovative kind of soft pretzel bread. These round or torpedo-shaped buns were filled with salami, or speck, brie and gherkins. The freshness of all these products is evident from the first bite, and so fast is the turnover that no display packaging is necessary.
Alan Yau, the owner, was the originator of Wagamama. He no longer owns it, nor Hakkasan a glamorous Oriental restaurant/bar concept which now has branches worldwide. Nor Yauatcha, a Chinese restaurant he set up to specialise in dim sum and inventive patisserie. But as a result, he has clearly developed a penchant for edgy and high quality pastry goods.
By arrangement I met up with Alan Yau recently in Princi.
JS: Your other concepts have been mainly Asian-based. What made you switch to Italian food, and not just regular Italian food, but producing what I think are the best bread, sandwiches and pastries in London?
AY: That kind of happened by accident because I used to own a now defunct Italian restaurant in Baker Street. An Italian banker who visited asked to talk to me and said he was amazed by the authenticity of the cooking for a restaurant outside Italy. He said I should meet up with one of his clients in Milan who was equally as passionate about bread as I was. His client was looking for a partner to help translate what he had in Milan to another place outside Italy. And that’s really how the whole thing started. I met up with Rocco Princi two years later and we started looking for a site.
JS: How much are you personally involved with the products here?
AY: Absolutely 100%. Initially I let the Milan team do most of the operational stuff, but the problem was it didn’t really translate well both in terms of the business model as well as the products in relation to the London market. For example in Milan a lot of retail trade is done in the morning when the housewives come in for coffee and buy their bread to go home. It doesn’t happen in Soho. It needed to change and that’s what we’ve slowly been doing for the last five years.
JS: Were sandwiches part of the original plan?
AY: Yes, they were. And we continue to develop them. For example we are now looking at Viennese sandwiches which are extremely popular in Italy, using white and brown bread. And that’s on our next development list, as it were.
JS: Are there plans to open more branches of Princi?
AY: I don’t know yet. This one is not yet finished. It will take us about two more years, in terms of improvements. And what I would really like is it to become a Soho institution.
A striving for perfection is what defines this calm-featured man, although from a business perspective, there is a need for as high a turnover as possible. This is 5,000 square feet prime Soho retail, space with a large frontage, with a further 5,000 square feet in the basement for the bakery and kitchen. Having such a large amount of preparation area, (including probably 2,000 square feet of the ground floor allotted to finishing, pizza preparation and service), the place has got to be very busy indeed.
And it is, day and night. The opening hours are 8am till 12 midnight Monday to Friday, closing at 10pm on a Sunday. Although I wouldn’t think the bakery rests for one minute. What I find so fascinating is the fact that Yau has managed to turn what is traditionally a daytime operation into a cool premises to hang out in in the evening. Before the arrival of Princi, it was difficult to imagine a sandwich café filled with glamorous people in the evening drinking aperitivos and coffee, with their sandwiches, hot food from the self-service counter. And it’s not just a pit stop before moving on to a Soho bar, but a destination in itself.
So, what is the secret to this particular achievement? In my view, it is partly due to the superior fit out by Claudio Silvestrin, the Italian architect responsible for the four Princi shops in Milan. There is continuous trickling water along the side wall which softens the slight chaos of the busy self-service. There is beautiful halogen lighting (angled at precisely 8 degrees on to the tables Alan Yau told me), and there is the carefully chosen quirky music.
Until this summer, half the frontage was extravagantly given over to the spectacle of the wood fired oven in operation. Logs were stacked ceiling high, and passers-by watched through the window for the bread to emerge. But, with the main shop and café section bursting at the seams, it made more sense to Alan Yau for this to be used to generate more income. So the bread oven seamlessly metamorphosed into something which bakes pizzas instead. It also means that a premium on the average spend can be generated through providing a table service in a more comfortable space.
What makes Princi unique is undoubtedly the tantalising display of the exceptional bakery goods, sandwiches and salads combined with Alan Yau’s genius in understanding how to create a relaxed but stimulating atmosphere. He attends to all the details himself involved in this experience, right down to the music selection. He understands that the quality of sandwiches, cakes, salads and coffee must be as high as possible, but that the environment of the premises is equally as important.
135 Wardour Street
London W1F 0UT
Tel: 020 7478 8888
Monday to Saturday 08.00-12 midnight
Sunday 08.30 – 22.00
(First published in International Sandwich and Snack News February 2012)