Writing this post makes me a bit sad if I’m honest, as I think about how much this place has changed (for the worse) since we moved to St Albans three and a half years ago. Looking back at all of the pictures I have of the ‘old’ Bakehouse reminds me of just how good it was.. and how bad it is now in comparison.
We first discovered Bakehouse at a food market soon after moving to St Albans. They had a stall brimming with cakes, flyers, samples and some treats available to buy. Despite only being a small city, St Albans is a huge foodie place with regular food markets, food festivals, a lot of independent restaurants/cafes and a ridiculous number of pubs!
Bakehouse opened as a café in 2012 so when we moved it was still quite new and had all of the charm and quality of an independent café starting up and trying to build a customer base – great customer sevice, huge attention to detail and it was clear that a lot of effort went into their bakes which both looked and tasted amazing. Immediately on the right as you enter the café, there is a counter displaying all of their baked items for that day.. I remember walking in and being faced with a huge array of cakes, cupcakes, cookies, brownies and pastries, each more enticing than the last. Each one was beautifully decorated and I could never decide what to have. Quite often we’d both end up having to narrow it down to two and share four things between us! I’m sure Marcus loved spending many delightful hours waiting for me to make a decision 🙂
They used to do lunch too and it was incredible. Perfectly thought out fillings on soft fresh bread, served with the cutest little pots of homemade salad or coleslaw and crisps. Of the ones which they had I remember my favourites being warm pulled ham hock with a mature cheddar cheese sauce on toasted sourdrough, hot honey chicken mayo, roasted vegetables with thick slabs of creamy goats cheese and the best of all (which we’d order at least one of every time without fail), the pork and leek sausage sandwich with mustard and caramelised onions – it was incredible! They’d even swap my coleslaw for a pretty side salad as I’m not a fan of coleslaw.
I tried a ridiculous number of cakes over our many visits and couldn’t fault any of them – a triple layer raspberry and white chocolate cake (which I actually once replicated for a competition they ran – I won and got free cake and coffee for two 🙂 ), fudgy Oreo brownies with an oreo frosting, a strawberry triple layer cake with the most beautiful pink frosting and the ever trusty carrot cake which never failed to impress – it was so moist (yes I hate that word as much as everyone else!) and perfectly spiced with the smoothest cream cheese frosting.
But then it all started to go downhill. The downstairs café disappeared and they opened a restaurant which we thought would be great, where in fact it just served similar fare to the lunch items offered in the café at a ridiculously inflated price. They started to serve more ‘refined’ dishes which were in fact just smaller and less appealing. The upstairs café area stayed though and for a while the lunch items stayed, albeit at a higher price, and they even introduced a few extras such as pulled pork on a brioche roll which was pretty good. But then the lunch items we loved so much started disappearing, being replaced with boring mass produced sandwiches which wouldn’t look out of place in a service station grab-and-go section. Rather than being freshly made to order, the sandwiches were just thrown together and stacked up in a cabinet, chucked on a plate when ordered without even the option of the cute little side salad or bowl of crisps that used to come as standard. (Now you can buy a packet of crisps for £1 if you choose..). For us though, the biggest disappointment of all was the cakes. It used to be a weekly tradition without fail for us to head to Bakehouse for an afternoon coffee and cake. For so long we tried to keep up the tradition and select the most edible/least mass produced looking cake we could see, but we’ve now given up altogether. The cakes both look and taste bad, half of their “baked” items look as though they come from Costco and to be honest, probably taste a lot worse! Gone are the beautifully decorated three layer cakes- they’ve been replaced with the same boring bland banana raspberry loaf and the hazelnut oat flapjack bars, both without an ounce of decoration and both (without fail) there every week, unbought and looking sorry for themselves. Even the trusty carrot cake which we must have had at least twice a month for over a year has become dry and crumbly (why they’d change the recipe unless there’s some huge cost saving I have no idea!).. we actually sent it back once as we thought it was a one off bad batch but sadly that wasn’t the case – the old carrot cake is well and truly gone. In the interest of supporting independent cafes we now usually go to The Pudding Stop (which certainly isn’t a bad thing!!) but if we fancy a cake, scone or something less pudding-y, we now choose Costa (I actually think Costa’s selection of cakes has taken a huge step up in the last few months and I love it!) or even Marks & Spencer where at least you can be sure of a decent selection and a good tasting cake.
Even the staff are worse. They used to be friendly, smiley and efficient. Now they’re (honestly) grumpy, unhelpful and completely incompetent. There’s a woman who isn’t dressed in uniform (so we’ve come to the conclusion that she’s in charge) and it literally looks as though she’s incapable of smiling. Seriously. And the time we politely asked if we could perhaps swap the carrot cake (we didn’t even mention it was because it was incredibly stale and dry!) it was as if we’d asked if we could burn the café down. We eventually got a different slice of cake but that tasted equally rubbish and they probably spat in it 🙂
All that said, they still do a decent coffee and it’s still a lovely place to sit – it’s modern but cosy and has a beautiful view over the cathedral grounds. My poor review of it is certainly influenced by my memories of how good it used to be and how sad I am that it’s changed so much. Due to a lack of other cafes in St Albans and its great location it’s still always busy and the cakes do generally still get sold (although I must admit that leftovers are a common sight). I regularly see/hear people complain about both the staff and the cakes when we go in for coffee, with many people leaving more than half of their cakes uneaten. From a business point of view, I’m sure that their change in strategy was probably for the best – since there’s a lack of competition they’re still filling the place out and they might be selling less and wasting more but they’re charging more than ever for products which are worse than ever! Unfortunately I’m sure that this is the sad reality for a lot of growing businesses – quality and attention to detail drops once they’ve built up a customer base and they become purely about maximal profits. It’s just a shame to have lost what was a great café and what was one of my favourite places to go on a lazy Sunday afternoon.
Please note that all of the pictures are of the ‘old’ Bakehouse – when they used to do good food and good cakes.. see below for an example of the same two bakes they now do every single week – a dry and crumbly looking ‘oat bar’ and a banana raspberry loaf that I have actually tried.. and I can vouch for the fact that it tastes just as bad (if not worse) than it looks..
Would I recommend it? I don’t think so – there are now far better places to go in St Albans in my opinion
Worth going out of your way for? No
Would I go back? I do (very) occasionally go for coffee.. but I make sure that I take my own cake! 🙂