Baking a future: The story behind Belgian bakery chain Le Pain Quotidien

December 6, 2021 | By 123

“It sounds like this, Luh Pan Koh-ti-dyan and means ‘the daily bread’, don’t be shy, it takes some practice”, Alain Coumont quipped. A Belgian chef and restaurateur, Alain is the founder of Le Pain Quotidien, an international chain of bakery restaurants known for its freshly prepared organic bread, baked goods, salads, sandwiches and beverages. Alain flew in from New York and was in Dubai to celebrate Le Pain Quotidien’s 30 years in the bakery retail business

The story behind Le Pain Quotidien and Alain Coumont’s passion for baking began since his childhood days. His grandparents ran a hotel restaurant and he spent hours watching them bake. Soon he started baking in his spare time as a hobby. “I had this passion since I was a kid. I loved to play with breads, pastries and used to keep baking cookies with my mother. Moreover, I didn’t like the quality of bread I found in Brussels and wanted to bake a better bread”, said Alain. Coming up empty-handed, he soon realised that the only way to satisfy his yearning for the rustic bread of his youth was to recreate it from memory. Passionate about quality, he decided to return to his roots and open a bakery where he could knead flour, salt and water into the loaves of his childhood. “Soon I bought a massive second-hand bread oven that yielded 48 breads per load. And baking sourdough is such a slow process, it had gone out of fashion. For me I knew the kind of bread I wanted, so I took the time to make the special hand-made sourdough bread”, he said.

Bread-making started as a hobby then grew into a passion. He began selling a handful of loaves made at the back of his restaurant before opening a tiny shop in central Brussels, with a single coffee machine and a communal table, 9m by 4m, that set the style for future restaurants. He found the long wooden table at a local flea market, where his guests could sit to eat together. This became Le Pain Quotidien’s first communal table and it’s trademark style.

People found this concept unique, queued outside to buy bread and started enjoying to sit together as it was a very casual inexpensive food experience. “The concept of the communal table was a total accident and an instant success in the new cafe business. The original concept was that of just selling old-fashioned sourdough bread, so I felt the store should be rustic. I saw a huge wooden table like this and got this into the store. It fortunately fit into the store”. The first Le Pain Quotidien opened on Rue Antoine Dansaert in Brussels on 26th October in 1990. “I wanted to make sure we had enough sales to run and to pay the salary of the workers behind the counter. So I thought why not sell some sandwiches, pastries and salads to increase the sales and make some more money”. And this is how Le Pain Quotidien’s chain of retail bakeries were born.

Soon, Le Pain Quotidien saw a massive expansion in the subsequent decade. Today, it has a global community of over 200 stores throughout the world, most run as franchises with an operating headquarters in New York. As for it’s presence in the UAE, they have six outlets and all of them in the malls.
Where there are malls, there are visitors. And where there are large numbers of visitors, some of them are bound to get hungry! “Frankly, our mall locations have always been the best performers. Our menu also has a lot of quick bite options which are perfect for shoppers on the go. We also find that tourists from all over the globe enjoy the Le Pain Quotidien cuisine – it caters to every taste bud”, adds Alain. The chain partnered with Alshaya group in the Middle East for its expansion. Over the years, the locations have grown in Dubai, from a single restaurant at Mirdif City Center in 2010, to six restaurants in 2021.

“The Alshaya brand team has also been a great support and it’s amazing to see how they have translated the Le Pain Quotidien values and culture to this region. There are some exciting plans in the pipeline, we’ll keep you informed about our plans once things are in motion”, said Alain.

Covid-19 disrupted every industry, but dining, in particular, took a definite hit in 2020. As per the National Restaurant Association report, more than110,000 eating and drinking establishments closed last year, either temporarily or for good, and 2.5 million restaurant industry jobs disappeared. The report, which surveyed 6,000 operators and 1,000 adults, said restaurant and food-service sales came in at $659 billion last year — that’s $240 billion lower than its pre-pandemic projections for the year of $899 billion in total sales.

In 2020, Le Pain Quotidien had to file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection, closed 98 US locations of the café and allowed the new owner, Aurify Brands to buy out 52 locations for about $5 million. However, Le Pain Quotidien withstood this economic downturn and relaunched after the pandemic in the beginning of 2021.

“It was a challenge to re-start definitely. We are happy to have made a comeback. Covid-19 has definitely been hard on the world, us included. Our GCC locations have still performed well. Thanks to the quick Covid-19 response, we are definitely looking forward to a brighter 2022. The second half of 2021 brings an opportunity for a rebound as consumers have pent-up demand. Since a lot of people were stuck at home, they have embraced re-opening of cafes and sales will push up”, reflected Alain.

At best, he said, it will take two years to recoup his lost sales. At worst, he projects five, as he relies on takeout and delivery.

Technology, changing eating patterns, health-and-wellness trends have led to dynamic shifts in consumers’ path to purchase over the past three years. The baking industry is selling to a consumer base more generationally diverse than at any point in history. And the market isn’t going backward, so bakers, retailers and food service operators are adapting to change faster than ever.

“For me, it was never about following the crowd or pandering to industry trends. I simply wanted to create high quality bread by mastering various techniques and using the best ingredients. The retail bakery chain industry is certainly competitive, but our added value lies in our freshly prepared, organic and healthy meal options that have proved popular for over 30 years”, pondered Alain. If a baking company can hit the right audience with the appropriate products targeted for the correct opportunity, Alain suggested that e-commerce can create a whole new market outside its traditional geography. “A ‘trend’ right now would be the whole shift towards organic produce. LPQ has been following this since its inception in 1990. So we have been ahead of the curve that way,” he added.

All great ideas and plans have simple origins. That is true for Le Pain Quotidien too. What has the key to it’s longevity been? The originality of sourdough breads, seasonal ingredients, artisan techniques, healthy, organic and nutritious food for a better lifestyle. Moreover, it’s an adaptation to the taste of today – the growing coffee culture, consumers opting for out-of-home consumption of deli food in a relaxed and hospitable atmosphere. From a single oven at the back of a restaurant to hundreds of stores worldwide, even now, 30 years after starting Le Pain Quotidien, the restaurant group is known for its signature appeal. “The sourdough bread I make is unique because usually bakeries use a lot yeast to bake it very fast. You create a product or a concept and the consumer validates your ideas. With such bakeries, the future of retail looks bright. People will always eat bread so the industry will always flourish. “We are eternally grateful to the hard work of our team in building the brand to where it stands today, and undoubtedly our Le Pain Quotidien community that inspires us to keep going” concluded Alain.

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