The frustration of not finding the right quality bread anywhere goaded the Belgian chef and restaurateur Alain Coumont to become a baker. Back in the 1980s, the Belgian government regulated the price of bread. The only way for bakers to make money was to invest in machinery. But dissatisfied with the assembly-line variety of bread available in the market, Coumont bought a bread-oven for $40,000 and started baking bread himself. That’s how the Le Pain Quotidien of bakery-cafés was born. Today, it has outlets in over 18 countries, including Belgium, France, Germany, Switzerland, the UK, the US, the UAE, Australia, Spain, and Mexico.
It opened its first outlet in India at Colaba, Mumbai, followed by another in the suburbs at the Bandra Kurla Complex in the same city. FoodService India broke bread with Coumont at Quotidien’s rustic, long and antique-style communal table in Bandra and asked him some questions.
From 1990 to now, how has the journey of Le Pain Quotidien been?
Le Pain Quotidien (LPQ) started in Belgium in 1990 as a small artisan bakery selling three types of bread and a few cakes and sandwiches. The company got off to a shaky start and I had to shut store as I became bankrupt even before I had sold my first loaf! But I raised more finances and within the first year, added three new locations. The first LPQ outlet in the US opened in Manhattan in 1997, and we entered London in 2005. It has been fun. Time has flown by and it still feels like the adventure is just beginning.
The biggest challenge in those days was that the labour cost in Europe was extremely high – approximately Euro 20 per hour. I got around this by working very efficiently myself. I hired only one employee in the first store to work with me, to take orders and pass on the orders while I myself baked and cooked. I also kept my offering short to a certain number of hours in the day, and developed efficient preparation.
The community table is a much talked about concept at LPQ. How did it come about?
It was a happy accident that happened in our first bakery in Brussels. When I opened, I had a rush of people coming in to buy bread and try the soups, salads and tartines. The shop was tiny and there was nowhere for the people to sit. I didn’t have much money in those days, so I went to a flea market and bought a long seamstress-like table that I plonked into the middle of the store for people to sit together and eat.
How do you choose a location for an LPQ outlet?
We have developed our own location formula over the years. We typically consider a location which is close to high-end residential blocks, offices, and retail spaces as well as tourist attractions so that we can tap the local and transient communities. We look for strong communities that we can serve, as our concept is all about community. Also, the space itself is important. We look for the total volume of space, not just square footage, with iconic architecture if possible, just like our location at Dhanraj Mahal in Colaba, Mumbai.
When did you move to organic? How does going organic affect the business?
Our first organic products were flour, coffee, milk and sugar. It took us seven to eight years to add eggs, cheese and ham. We introduced organic ingredients in 1999 to end the century on a good note! The implications of going organic are that it increases your cost of goods, but our experience is that we have satisfied customers who keep returning.
Are all your cafes organic now?
Yes, to a different degree, depending on the local market availability and consistency of supply. We also believe in supporting local producers and farmers. We keep innovating and adding more organic ingredients all the time.
What’s the next big thing in food?
The old stuff – staple ingredients, back-to-basics, what we call the “peasant food” in Europe.