Once our ancient ancestors had got a handle on fire and established the principles of agriculture they had the components to create that staple...

Once our ancient ancestors had got a handle on fire and established the principles of agriculture they had the components to create that staple of the human diet: bread. And whether it’s with a hand-kneaded artisan loaf, nutritionally-questionable sliced white or a communion wafer, the practice of sharing bread with our fellow man is as old as the hills.

Well Bread, Cowes

While some people prefer to eat in private, for the majority dining is a shared experience. And nowadays – even if you haven’t eyed your family across a table for months – you may find yourself compelled to eat with strangers at one of the new-fangled refectory-style eateries. Matt and Cat are big fans of both the delicious food and the communal environment of mainland Japanese restaurant chain Wagamama. They have also waxed lyrical about the simple, church-like seating arrangements in Newport’s Foundation Bakery. And now those two concepts – breaking bread and noshing with strangers – have been fused in Well Bread, Cowes’ bakery-cum-café.

Well Bread, Cowes

Matt and Cat were in Cowes looking for a late lunch when they wandered up to Well Bread. This unusual venue has been open for a couple of seasons, and seems to have garnered quite a reputation. The Telegraph says it’s one of the finest food shops outside London, yet there has been a mixed reception from locals – with some patrons a little dubious about it and others reporting that it was the best thing since, well, bread. That’s normally a cue for M&C to investigate.

The shop was prominently positioned on the High Street and looked not dissimilar to a traditional bakery from the outside, with a striking and huge enamelled sign covered in text. This delivered what appeared to be some sort of manifesto, but read as though somebody had run out of things to say long before they’d filled all the available space. Still, Matt and Cat are not literary reviewers, and they were hungry, so in they went.

It was, as promised, somewhat similar to being in someone’s (vast) kitchen. There was a huge counter groaning under the weight of acres of tray-baked cake – as this was the middle of the afternoon it was particularly impressive to see so much cake, presumably this is a popular item. There was also a variety of signs, boards and special offers written on card, on scraps of brown paper and on blackboards. Matt and Cat were quite overwhelmed by the initial experience – certainly this was unlike any place they’d been to before, and they were slightly perplexed by it. After they had been lurking vaguely for a while a kind lady from behind the counter took pity, and invited them to help themselves to the food and drink on offer. This is, you see, the unique feature of Well Bread – you take what you want, keep your own tally and give the details of what you’ve consumed when you pay. It’s all done on trust, which is quite a cute trick, and presumably, in Cowes, a successful strategy.

Matt and Cat were quite overwhelmed by the initial experience – certainly this was unlike any place they’d been to before

There wasn’t a vast choice of food – unless you wanted cake. But what was on offer was simple and plentiful. Some hearty-looking quiche was laid out in slabs, and a vegetable soup steamed gently in a kind of cauldron. Loaves of the eponymous bread were stacked up round and about – each loaf was pretty big, and some were rather startlingly priced at £10 each. Encouraged by the chummy lady, Matt gingerly dipped a ladle into the cauldron and filled a bowl with soup. He looked expectantly at the loaf of bread nearby, and she confirmed that yes, he could take what he wanted from it. This was an idea Matt thought he could get used to. Cat selected the field mushroom and pesto quiche, a rectangle of which was heated up for her. They each took a bottle of Fentimans from the nearby fridge to wash it all down, and set off to find a place to sit.

Two long wooden tables were set out with pews either side, one of which only had access at one end. Anyone who wanted to get up or down must, by necessity, oblige the other diners in the row to get up too. This was reminiscent of M&C’s experience of being wedged into a booth at Nando’s. In a venue where one is encouraged to serve oneself the result of this arrangement isn’t hard to predict – constant interaction with other people. Matt and Cat shuffled along the bench and sat down opposite a group of holidaying pensioners. The visitors were obviously Well Bread aficionados – they soon fell into conversation with M&C and explained how they had explored the range of delights that Well Bread offered. The gigantic bacon breakfast bap, confided one lady, was a bit too much for ‘him’. She gesticulated with a butter-knife at her husband, sitting at the end of the pew stoically reading the Daily Mail. “But we still come back every day”, she added, as if in mitigation for ‘his’ bacon-eating failings.

Matt dunked his bread in his bowl and sipped enthusiastically at the hot soup. Like the bread, it was simple to the point of blandness. If there were any bits of vegetable in there he didn’t get any – but then perhaps he only had himself to blame for not delving deeply enough in the cauldron. But the soup was nourishing stuff, and with all the bread one could eat he didn’t go away hungry. Speaking of bread, the arrangements for buttering it were also unconventional. On each table was a font-sized bowl of jam and a vast anvil of butter, and the diners were able to dig their jammy knives in and help themselves as required. One of the holidaymakers expressed some concern that the butter mountain was left exposed to the elements all day, but on tasting it, it seemed to be fresh, and clearly with the amount of bread on display this venue gets through an awful lot of of the stuff.

Matt and Cat’s bill
Soup £5
Quiche £5
Lemonade £2.75
Dandelion & burdock £2.75
Total: £15.50

As is the trend these days the warmed quiche was delivered on a wooden platter, although without cutlery. Cat was quickly able to procure some from the baketrix but had briefly wondered if she was supposed to join in with the self-service theme and forage for her own from one of the many counters and shelves, or embrace the rusticity of the venue and eat the slice with her hands, like a segment of pizza. Although it was unadorned – no salad or, surprisingly, bread were offered – the quiche was delicious. The big mushrooms were filled with tangy pesto and it was interspersed with chunks of potato: a pretty filling slice. Nonetheless, a fiver seemed pretty steep.

Well Bread, Cowes

Whilst they ate, Matt and Cat observed a few people enter the venue and, as M&C had done, stand bewildered on the threshold. Some persisted, others left. The two bakery staff who had previously offered guidance were by the ovens, having a conversation that drew the attention of the nearby diners when it strayed into an detailed exposition of the perils of laser eye surgery. “I could smell my own eyeballs singeing!” The line of pensioners opposite raised their heads. “You should have smelt my teeth when they drilled them,” was the retort. If the tutting from the pews had been inaudible before, it now began to reach perceptible levels. Usually, there’s nothing a senior citizen likes better than a good natter about unpleasant medical procedures – but there remains an unspoken social rule that precludes such conversations at the dining table.

Finishing off their dinners, Matt and Cat had to disturb a couple more grey-heads to get off the bench, before standing across from the huge array of cakes to make their self-certified payment. Although the lunches were a helpfully fixed price at £5 each, the fizzy drinks were a purse-pounding £2.75 per bottle, and had they gone for a cup of coffee they would have risked drinking what could be a candidate for Cowes’ most pricey Americano at £2.90 a cup. All this, mind you, for food and drink that you have to serve yourself. Matt and Cat couldn’t help but compare this to the far less prestigiously-located but equally characterful Foundation Bakery in Newport, where a bowl of delicious soup with bread costs £3.75 and a cup of coffee is £1.80 – and they bring it to you.

So Well Bread certainly has a charm of its own, and it’s a place that is popular. It didn’t really suit Matt and Cat. The food was basic, the tables were crumby, the prices were high, the service was distant. But that’s maybe simply a matter of taste. The place is unusual, attractive, homely and is making a real effort to do something new and different in Cowes.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

  • Rachel

    30th January 2016 #1 Author

    I agree with your summary. I vntured in for the first time this week (despite being a Cowes resident). I find the manifesto a bit pretentious and off-putting. I had the soup and it was unremarkable. Unlikely to return.

    Reply

  • Foody fan

    9th July 2014 #2 Author

    Went in here for a late breakfast last week. All I wanted was a plate of bacon, eggs and some toast. They offered me an ‘all you can eat’ toast round and a frying pan of breakfast which was more complicated than what I wanted. Left and went somewhere else.

    Reply

  • Malcolm Alder-Smith

    7th May 2014 #3 Author

    Some interesting comments above, especially those about the all important customer service, or alleged lack of it.
    I have walked past Well Bread on a number of occasions during the summer months and thought what a great looking bakery. The target market for the el gordo sized loaves displayed in the window seemed fairly obvious to me and I thought what a great idea for feeding ravenous yacht crew berthed in the local marina during Cowes Week. I had never stepped over the threshold previously as I hadn’t realised it was also a coffee shop – is that the right description? Having lived in France for a while, I guess I should have been a bit more perceptive.
    Any which way, I was in Cowes a few weeks back and needed to make a couple of phone calls and as it was trying to rain again and I needed some warmth and shelter I thought “why not”. As I did my usual double-take at the rustic yeast based door-stops on view in the window (they do look good), I peered inside to see a seated customer multi-tasking by i.padding and tucking into toast, butter and jam at the same time.
    I entered for a warming Latte and not knowing the ‘self-service format’, I was directed to the help yerself to coffee machine when I noticed two mega-slabs of butter displayed on the refectory style table. I ventured some info’ from the multi-tasker, who told me how good the self-service toast was, so when I asked the lady who had previously directed me to the coffee machine about the cost I was told that it was a fixed price even if I only had one slice, so I gave it a miss on that occasion, but would go back to try it out sometime soon. I enjoyed sipping on my coffee while making my phone calls and engaged in an informal chat with the multi-tasker, who was happy to tell me about the out of season bohemianesque clientele and the whole laid back, do what you like ambience of the place.

    As for many of the comments above, I agree that self-service is no excuse for a lack of good customer service and although I wasn’t welcomed like the return of the ‘prodigal’ and why should I be, I didn’t really engage sufficiently to make further comment or judgement either which way. However I have to say that on the food front, the freshly baked products on show looked very good if not a little challenging on the size front!
    I guess that I feel for Clive and Lucy, who came up with the original UK concept and own of The Town Mill Bakery, The Royal William Bakery, Butter Market Bakery over there on the North Island, where this great bakery/coffee shop format originated – or did it?
    Most folk wouldn’t know about the mainland outlets if it wasn’t for the pages of Matt & Cat and I really did like the concept, but am not convinced that it is anything to be claimed as original. Although not a 100% look-a-like, check out The Rose Bakery at 46 Rue des Martyrs, 75009, Paris which opened in 1988. Run by the famous Rose Carrarini and husband Jean-Charles, they have since opened another 3 outlets in Paris. Well worth a visit for those who venture over the other side of La Manche or check out their book Breakfast, Lunch, Tea – Rose Bakery (Phaidon Press Ltd).

    As for Well Bread in Cowes, I really must go back and check out that toast, butter and jam sometime soon.

    Reply

  • Kezza

    29th April 2014 #4 Author

    Went in once and wouldn’t go back again. Very uninviting and poor customer service. Wanted to choose an item and was told I had to have what was served. At £5 per item I think the customer should have some input.

    Reply

  • June

    15th August 2013 #5 Author

    Not living on the island we decided to,try well bread in cowes. While the breakfast
    Comprising a pan of mushroom and cooked tomatoes was tasty and bread and butter
    Excellent it is rather do it yourself, the lady at the counter seems rather detached
    And was doing a crossword puzzle on day in question. You are left to your own devices
    Although th assistant was quite helpful. The concept is an Interesting one.

    Reply

  • Wendy

    15th August 2013 #6 Author

    The first sentence on my previous post has disappeared.
    I commented that the proprietor was probably one of the most unfriendly people that we have come across in a service industry. As previous posters have stated there is no warmth of welcome and I would never set foot in the shop again.

    Reply

  • Wendy

    15th August 2013 #7 Author

    We are bemused about what happens to the large quantities of bread and cake that are still around at 4.00pm! I am not sure that they throw away daily.
    We are in Cowes frequently on our boat and it is a shame that this outlet is so poor as there is nothing better than freshly baked bread.
    Matt & Catt’s review is very balanced and we had to smile to ourselves.

    Reply

  • Laura

    8th August 2013 #8 Author

    Never been here, but find it awful that they think it is okay to directly duplicate the format of The Town Mill Bakery in Lyme Regis, and the other bakeries owned by Our Bakeries Ltd. Very bad business ethics as far as I am concerned.

    Reply

  • da yw wyth

    25th July 2013 #9 Author

    Gave up here and walked out like a fair few others. Clearly it caters for a “certain crowd” who know by osmosis how to negotiate the Byzantine choice and ordering system. The last straw was being told that a fruit juice could not be supplied by glass with what you had chosen to eat – the purchase of an entire bottle was required – and of course that was not cheap!!

    Reply

  • max-o

    24th July 2013 #10 Author

    we are local to the well bread and I’ve been a few times to buy baked goods, although have never eaten in. The produce seems to be something of a curate’s egg – the bread is all right but nothing remarkable, certainly for the price. It is probably however fair to point out that they are huge loaves. The croissants and brownies are however fantastic, but they’re also pretty expensive, even by Cowes prices.

    Reply

  • sean

    24th July 2013 #11 Author

    I visited when it first opened and saw a waitress brushing the floor then use the same broom to brush off a table! Classy stuff.

    Reply

  • JanFran

    23rd July 2013 #12 Author

    We are coming up to our precious annual trip to your lovely island and a huge pleasure for us is enjoying what the Island has to offer in the way of excellent pubs and eateries. Of course, a week is not long enough hence we will be giving this establishment a wide berth given the reviews here about Well Bread. One day I will look forward to visiting the real thing in Lyme Regis. Clive – by way of comfort I may not have known about your bakery if I had not read these reviews, and I wish you good luck and continued success.

    Reply

  • Alex

    23rd July 2013 #13 Author

    I was going to mention the Town Mill Bakery as well. We have a holiday in Lyme Regis every year BECAUSE of the Bakery (sad soul that I am!) for the best bread in the world. We end up in there at least once a day. On the way down we will drop into the new one in Poundbury. All the staff are wonderful and I wish we had a branch where I live.

    Do try it if you are in the area.
    http://www.townmillbakery.com

    No, I don’t work for them but if I was younger I would move down to Lyme and make them employ me. I truly love the place, brilliant concept, brilliant food, brilliant staff.

    I won’t be going to Well Bread.

    Reply

  • Rosie

    23rd July 2013 #14 Author

    I’m so glad others have picked up on the poor customer service. The first time I went in there I asked if the ‘flat wight’ was IOW coffee and the woman insulted me and basically said I was stupid. I just felt so awful that I left and felt humiliated even though I know there is Island roasted coffee I just couldn’t bring myself to say anything to her! Ugh. Then went in out of desperation when it was raining and we were seeking cover and I felt constantly judged and uncomfortable. It’s such a shame because if they were nicer and it was a bit better organised it would be such a good place, but it’s a shame the owners are letting themselves down.

    Reply

  • Clive Cobb

    23rd July 2013 #15 Author

    You are right Eleanor, it’s a copy of not just our concept but our design. The sign outside is word for word the same as ours. Words can cannot get close to describe how angry we are. We have invested 8 years and a fair chunk of money growing our business to three sites around the South West. http://www.ourbakeries.com

    Reply

  • Eleanor Bell

    22nd July 2013 #16 Author

    I reminds me a little of a fantastic bakery in Lyme Regis which has got the ‘help yourself then sit on pews thing’ – in fact it gives the air that they invented it. The food is amazing and we visit every summer. Well Bread seems a very poor imitation of the Town Mill Bakery.

    Reply

  • andrea

    22nd July 2013 #17 Author

    I found the place uninviting and as for customer service, it is none existant and rude. I wasn’t impressed at all which is a shame. If you are going to launch something so ‘unique’ , in a town already filled with other eateries, it pays to be friendly and helpful giving as much help and guidance as possible. My friends and I refer to it as ‘Ill bread’ for terrible service and a product that will break every tooth in your head!!!

    Reply