(Bloomberg) -- Harrods is a destination for shoppers from around the world, but ask most Londoners when they last visited and you may get a blank look.
The Knightsbridge store, housed in an exuberant Baroque building that ranks among the city’s most historic, is sometimes dismissed as a stop on the tourist trail, where jetlagged visitors mingle with hedge-fund managers and princes as their drivers sit in the Bentleys idling outside in the rain.
It’s not where many Londoners get their milk and meat. The magnificent Art Deco food halls, offering everything from mustard to rare Champagnes, in recent years have begun to look tired: not retro, just dated.
To say that’s changing is an understatement as grand as Harrods’ new ambition. The Qatari-owned department store, where no luxury is too extravagant, has begun a makeover that is transforming the site. The first of the four halls—the Roastery and Bake Hall—opened just before Christmas, and the other three will come in phases over the next two years. Harrods is calling it a Taste Revolution, but I call it about time.
It’s the first big change in more than 30 years. Things move slowly at a store that traces its history in the area to 1849, when a grocer called Charles Henry Harrod opened a store with two assistants selling tea, coffee, biscuits and other goods from a single counter.
Business boomed and Harrods installed the U.K.’s first escalator—then called a “revolving staircase”—in 1898. The Food Halls opened in 1902 and evolved over the next century.
Harrods wants to revive the whole experience of shopping. In this era of Amazon.com, the aim is to offer something customers can’t get online, especially the chance to see, smell and decide after consulting in-house experts.
The hall is now home to some big personalities, including Master Baker Lance Gardner, who has worked with some of the top chefs in Michelin-starred kitchens. He operates in full view of shoppers. A board on the wall shows what breads are done at what time, and a bell rings when the loaves are pulled from the oven. Gardner and his team bake 15 varieties of bread, as well as pastries, cakes and cookies.
Across the aisle, Bartosz Ciepaj is roasting coffee. Ciepaj has a decade of experience and has competed for the title of world’s best barista. He can talk for hours about different regions, varieties and roasting methods.
Nearby, Tea Tailor Angelo Tantillo can develop your own blend, which you can re-order at any time.
Of course, none of this is cheap. The “bespoke tea experience” costs £30 ($41). Personalizing bread costs £4, on top of the £5 loaf. The cakes are absolutely beautiful (and delicious)—as they should be: Some cost £50.
Having said that, few enter Harrods looking for a bargain.
Alex Dower, Harrods director of food and restaurants, says his aim is to entice more Londoners into the store, a noble goal. Even a pop-up restaurant in 2011 by the revered American chef Thomas Keller—the French Laundry at Harrods—failed to set the world alight.
The store’s website lists 24 restaurants, and I don’t know if many people could name a single one. I have been writing about restaurants for Bloomberg since 2004 and have never dined at the flagship Georgian. (It dates to 1911 and was named after the then-newly crowned King George V.)
I took some persuading to visit the new Roastery and Bake Hall, mostly because I’d rather support small retailers and local markets than a big business catering to the super-rich and curious tourists. I have changed my mind. The Food Halls are worth the trip.
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