Traders Turn Bakers in Pursuit of Life, Liberty and Bread

Traders, eyes fixed on their screens, might be forgiven for dreaming of another way to earn a crust. For two such professionals, that vision took the form of a loaf.

Tom Molnar, 46, who specialized in trading energy with Cargill Inc., helped create a bakery. Stephen Harrington, who worked in foreign exchange with Trade Development Bank, began more modestly, founding a baking school at his London home.

“When I first started trading, it was very stressful and with this it was also very stressful,” Molnar, who co-founded Gail’s Artisan Bakery, said in an interview.

“With trading, sometimes it just became esoteric. It became so big you didn’t touch it and feel it any more. Now, you are dealing with making a product from flour to bread every day. If you’re a trader, you’re in these big buildings and you’re dealing worldwide: You live two existences. And I actually live one and the tradeoff is you work all the time.”

Molnar, who lives in Camden with his Italian wife and their children, who are four and five years old, was born in Silver Spring, Maryland. His dream, growing up in Cocoa Beach, Florida, was to become a fish farmer. He studied aquatic ecology at Dartmouth and conducted tropical research in Costa Rica and Jamaica.

He went on to work with Cargill in Boston, Houston and Geneva before quitting. He surfed in Mexico for a few months and then went to study at the Insead business school and landed a job at McKinsey & Co., where he stayed for more than four years. Along the way, he studied Arabic in Beirut and spent time in Syria and Jordan.

Good Bread

“I wanted to do something different,” he said of the move into baking. “A friend of mine from McKinsey, Ran Avidan, and I were thinking there just wasn’t any good bread in London and saying how frustrating it was. We set out to meet the top two or three bakers in London and Gail (Stephens) was one of them.”

Stephens was supplying some of London’s leading restaurants -- many don’t bake their own bread -- and Molnar and Avidan went into partnership with her to found the retail business. Gail’s Artisan Bakery started in Hampstead about eight years ago. There are now 13 outlets and 200 employees, with sales in the latest year of about 7.6 million pounds ($12.2 million). The company added a restaurant, Gail’s Kitchen, in Bloomsbury last year.

(The entrepreneur Luke Johnson acquired a stake in the business in 2011 and is backing its expansion. Gail’s competes with Paul, which has more than 30 outlets across London.)

“We’re the kind of guys who keep on liking to do new things,” Molnar said. “My sanity check is I take my kids to school every morning, even on my bike or my skateboard. They’re on their scooters and I deliver them. It’s a beautiful time.”

Kitchen Passion

Harrington’s Kitchen, based in Beckenham, is a much smaller business in scale, though big on passion.

Harrington, 55, started in London, working in foreign exchange and money broking. His career took him to Tokyo, then to Paris, where he was a bond broker, with Pollack & Cie. He returned to London at the end of 1997, working for Fimat.

“Our job was to come up with trade ideas and put those ideas out to traders at banks and hedge funds,” he said. “We got paid commission. If you performed, you did very well.”

He bought a house in the south of France and started a cookery school that failed, not helped by a shortage of visitors from the U.S. around the time of the first Gulf War. Harrington returned to the U.K. in 2004 and worked as a head-hunter before coming up with the idea for his baking school in 2011.

“I decided to do something food-related,” he said. “Food is my life: It’s my passion and I didn’t immediately know what to do. I went through the possibilities and came up with bread-making classes. For one thing, it didn’t require any investment.

“My ex-colleagues all say: ’Hats off to you. You’re doing something different.’ I think a few of them feel a bit envious because they’re doing something which is paying them a lot of money but they’d like to be doing something more enjoyable.

“I never found trading or broking particularly stressful, although there are pressures on you to perform. Now, my stress is very much based on getting what I’ve started off the ground.”

(Richard Vines is the chief food critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. He is U.K. and Ireland chairman of the World’s 50 Best Restaurants awards. Opinions expressed are his own.)

Muse highlights include Lewis Lapham on history and Greg Evans on television.