Le Pain Quotidien – Passion and Providence

 

 

Making a sandwich is something everyone knows how to do. But Belgian national Alain Coumont does not simply make sandwiches; he has made a business. And his chain of restaurants, Le Pain Quotidien, or “our daily bread,” in over one hundred locations worldwide is proof that passion paired with providence can lead to success.

The morning customers have left, leaving behind eggshells and a few lone croissants in the breadbaskets. At 11 o’clock, the bakery-restaurant Le Pain Quotidien on Marché St. Honoré in Paris looks like the kitchen of a large family that left the breakfast table in a big hurry. The servers use the short respite to make everything spick-and-span again. For the first time today, the coffee machine is silent, and classical flute music can be heard piping softly in the background. Then, abruptly, the peace is shattered as Alain Coumont bursts in, suitcase in tow. He is founder and co-owner of the restaurant chain that has become established as an international franchise.

He has just arrived from Brussels where the company’s headquarters are located. Tonight, he will fly on to his adopted French hometown of Montpellier. Last week he was in Mumbai, and next week he will be traveling to São Paulo to choose the locale for the first Brazilian restaurant. “I travel a lot,” says Coumont, furrowing his brow. Although the fifty-year-old retains only a minority stake in the company he founded in 1990, he is still 100% involved in the daily operation. As Chief Creative Officer he is in charge of choosing the locations, deciding on the decorations, selecting the tableware, and naming the suppliers.

But first and foremost I look after the products. That is of prime importance – in any business.

The product around which Le Pain Quotidien revolves is – as the name indicates – bread; more precisely, traditional farmer’s or sourdough bread that is baked without using additional yeast. Four different kinds are on offer: the classic bread is made of wheat, but loaves of spelt, rye, and multi-grain bread are also available as is a delectable range of pastry and cakes. Production is organized locally, and every city has a central bakery to supply all the restaurants in the vicinity. Paris is the exception to the rule. Here the bread is delivered directly from Brussels at 5 o’clock in the morning. A separate bakery on the Seine would be too costly, and, in any case, Coumont prefers to spend money on the ingredients. Roughly 90% of the ingredients in the baked goods available in Paris are grown organically.

To us, organic is not a marketing gag as it is for other businesses who only offer environment-friendly coffee and basically greenwash the rest. Our ingredients are expensive, and we invest a lot of time and effort in locating the right suppliers. Organic is a tough business.

Alain Coumont started putting the focus on organic produce roughly ten years ago. “At the time, I lived in New York and catered to an average of 10’000 people a week using ordinary products, all the while using exclusively organic products to do my own cooking. I was a monster.” After an epiphany, the Belgian began, step-by-step, to replace ingredients used in his restaurants with organically grown produce. Today, they have left the competition far behind, the wiry manager reckons proudly, gesticulating busily the entire time. In the present surroundings, it is difficult to imagine him working his own organic vegetable plot and organic vineyards. Food, however, runs in Coumont’s family, and the trained chef lives with his wife and daughter in an old farmhouse some 25 miles outside of Montpellier. Apparently there are no restaurants nearby, which is why he cooks himself – for friends and family.

I have a 17-foot long table standing in my kitchen with 16 chairs around it.

The community spirit that he celebrates in his private life is also firmly anchored in the concept of Le Pain Quotidien. A large, rustic wooden table is set up in every locale for its diverse guests to sit at and break bread communally. Indeed, the so-called “communal table” has been in existence since the company was founded. “Without this table we would not be where we are today,” says the creative head of the company whose love for cooking was handed down to him by his grandmother, and who remembers baking his first apple pie at the tender age of three. A big table, he tells us, is like a good movie; the setting is not the only criteria – the actors are also important. According to Coumont, the main actors at Le Pain Quotidien are the large loaves of bread, the coffee pots, the attractive table settings, and the absence of Coca-Cola on the menu. “Together, these little details result in a harmonious overall concept.” Which has remained unchanged in 20 years and – remarkably – succeeded by pure chance.

Back when Alain Coumont worked in Brussels as chef in his own gourmet restaurant, he could not find the bread he needed anywhere. So he baked it himself. And to justify the expensive oven, he opened a small bakery outlet. The shop boasted a creaky oak floor, a large table from a flea market, and an old kitchen buffet – the same decor that visitors will find in every branch of Le Pain Quotidien today. “I never made a business plan. I wouldn’t even know how,” says the successful entrepreneur who, with his checked logger’s shirt, bears more resemblance to an organic farmer than a business manager.

At the time, I thought this would be a cheap hobby. It was sort of a boy scout’s canteen and making a profit was not a criteria. In fact, I’m still not sure how it turned into a profitable company.

Coumont’s bemusement at his own success is not an act; he is genuinely surprised. To him, other values matter more than high profits: “Employees are the key, whether they butter rolls or work in management.” But to attract and hold talented workers, an employer has to be able to offer something in return. “That’s why growth is important. But only if that doesn’t mean polluting the planet. In fact, would you like know what my personal goal is?” asks Coumont with a mischievous twinkle in his blues eyes. “I want to ban tomatoes from our menu during winter. But, regrettably, our customers have yet to learn to value the use of seasonal vegetables. Though, surely, eating food in season is one of the purest pleasures of all.”

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Comments (2)

Mary Iliadis | 23.04.2012

Dear Alain,

Upon my visit to New York City last December, I discovered the beautiful chain of bakeries Le Pain Quotidien. I particularly enjoyed eating at the one located on 58th and 7th ave! I am from Melbourne Australia and it would be a dream come true if you could please consider opening a Le Pain Quotidien here in Melbourne. It would do so well as our cuisine in Melbourne highly reflects that of the French, as well as other European cuisines. We are very multicultural and I just know that a bakery/cafe such as Le Pain Quotidien would excel here!

l.maiden | 07.04.2012

What a beautiful shop and concept. The whole holistic, simplicity and natural organic beauty behind the ingredients, bread and decor is truly inspiring. It's kind of like having Axel Vervoordt, the prolific Belgian antique and art dealer/interior decorator cum lifestyle creator having created the vision for the interior space. Absolutely beautiful. I visited the shop in Abu Dhabi, UAE, and was extremely impressed.

l.maiden
Abu Dhabi, UAE

 


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