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Inflight Magazine of Brussels Airlines

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The bread maker

Alain Coumont has made a roaring success of his artisinal breadmaking and country chic bakery-cafés. During a stopover in London, the Huy-born businessman talks to b there! about his business

When 45-year-old Belgian entrepreneur Alain Coumont opened his first Le Pain Quotidien in Brussels in 1990, he never imagined that it would one day become a global empire. Today, there are more than 80 branches of the chic bakery/ café, renowned in 10 countries for its organic bread and communal tables.

When did you first discover your love of food?
I’ve been cooking since I was three when I helped my grandmother bake apple pies. Shortly after entering catering school in Namur at 17, I began organising dinner parties for family friends. For the first one I prepared a salad of langoustines, peeled and sautéed very quickly with olive oil, saffron and a drop of lemon juice, followed by roasted pigeon and a charlotte bavarois with raspberry coulis and fresh fruit. It turned out very good.

What was your first big break?
After school I worked with some of the best chefs in France, including Michel Guérard in Landes (near Biarritz) the founding father of nouvelle French cuisine. Then I worked for about three years for private chefs in New York City before opening my own restaurant in Brussels in 1987 on the Place Rogier. Unfortunately, the partnership was not the right fit, so I sold my share and focused all my time on Le Pain Quotidien.

How did you stumble into breadmaking?
When I had the restaurant in Brussels I had a hard time finding decent bread. I tried importing bread from France, and had arranged to have 10 loaves sent a day by courier, but the paperwork alone would have cost more than the value of the bread. I decided to bake my own loaves, using only wheat, water and salt. The kind of bread I wanted to make was sour and very rich in fibres like we used to have in the Middle Ages.

What inspired the name Le Pain Quotidien (‘daily bread’)?
It comes from a conversation with my father, who said that something he didn’t like was not his “pain quotidien”. The idea for the bakery was already in the works, and the name seemed to fit perfectly. It sounds good in French, though it’s a bit more difficult in American English. In the beginning we used the Dutch name (Het Dagelijks Brood) in Flanders. Interestingly, the people in Flanders now prefer the French name. We opened our first bakery in a former clothing store on Brussels’ rue Dansaert. The rent was cheap and the street was eclectic, but there wasn’t much food traffic. We sold our first bread on October 26, 1990.

What would you say is the key to your success?
It’s the combination of good ingredients, the atmosphere, our locations and the friendliness of the service. Plus I wouldn’t be where I am today if I hadn’t found the communal table I used in my first store. I bought it in a flea market and decided it would be great for customers to sit at. People said I was crazy because businessmen and students would never sit together to share a meal. Now we have similar tables at all of our locations.

Describe your international expansion
We have a network of franchises and company-owned stores. Today, we have about 80 locations, including 23 in Belgium and 24 in the US. In 2007 we’re looking to open about 35 stores, including one in Moscow. When we go to different countries we always want to find local partners, specifically companies that know how to run a chain of restaurants. We aren’t in a hurry to sign deals, we want to find the right partner to be sure they’re able to deliver.

Do you ever miss working in the kitchen?
Every time I travel and visit stores I always spend time in the bakery, checking the quality, trying to make improvements and coming up with new products. It’s easy to find good people with MBAs who can run the finance and organisation, but the food is very personal. If you want the concept to stay true to its origins you have to stay involved. It’s hard work.

Why the emphasis on organic products?
It’s not a marketing tool, it’s something about which I’m convinced. We have to respect the environment and fight global warming, even if what we do is just a little part of the whole process. Some people claim organic food is more expensive, but I don’t agree.

What advice would you give to budding entrepreneuers?
Be in good health and don’t be afraid to work long hours at the beginning – starting a business is really hard. Also, it’s not always a good idea to start out with a lot of money, since you may get into bad habits. I didn’t pay myself for the first five years, but I discovered that a lot of good things can happen when a crisis strikes.

How do you spend your free time?
When you’re your own boss, you work whenever you feel like it, which means all the time. Whenever I’m on holiday I like to visit farmers’ markets or tend to my vegetable garden. I also travel all the time for work, which is very refreshing for getting new food ideas. The good thing about our business is that basically you can put anything on a nice slice of bread.

What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned from running your own business?
Nothing can be taken for granted, and if you don’t fight every day to stay on top you can fall very quickly. I also think the fact that Le Pain Quotidien’s current success has something to do with Belgium, where heavy labour costs push us to keep things simple. As soon as we enter countries with a labour market that’s a bit more flexible, we really outperform the local businesses.

Une affaire de pain

Alain Coumont est le fondateur du Pain Quotidien, la pâtisserie / café branchée, réputée pour son pain biologique et ses tables d’hôtes, et qui compte aujourd’hui pas moins de 80 filiales dans 10 pays du monde entier.

Alain a commencé à s’intéresser à la cuisine dès l’âge de trois ans, lorsqu’il préparait des tartes aux pommes avec sa grand-mère. Il s’est ensuite inscrit dans une école hôtelière à Namur, à 17 ans. Il a travaillé avec Michel Guérard, l’inventeur de la nouvelle cuisine française, avant un séjour de trois années à New York. De retour à Bruxelles en 1987, Alain ouvrait son premier Pain Quotidien.

Comme il n’arrivait pas à trouver un pain savoureux, Alain décida de cuire le sien, en réinstaurant la tradition venue du Moyen Age du pain aigre, riche en fibres, composé de blé, d’eau et de sel. Des tables dénichées au marché aux puces devinrent la marque de fabrique de ses établissements, malgré les objections de quelques amis qui ne croyaient pas que les hommes d’affaires et les étudiants puissent partager la même table. Son établissement, il le baptisa d’après une phrase favorite de son père qui aimait toujours avoir son ‘pain du jour’.

La société est structurée aujourd’hui en franchises, et elle vise à s’étendre à Moscou. Alain préfère trouver des partenaires locaux, et il a suffisamment de patience pour attendre la bonne personne.

Il joue toujours un rôle très actif dans la cuisine, apportant des améliorations et proposant de nouveaux produits. Il réserve également une partie de son temps à la visite de marchés agricoles et à la culture de son potager – il est un fervent défenseur de l’alimentation biologique.

L’enseignement qu’Alain tire de sa réussite professionnelle est que chaque jour, il faut se battre pour rester au plus haut niveau. Et même si le coût du travail en Belgique l’a forcé à adopter une approche simplifiée du service, il peut mettre aujourd’hui cette donnée à profit sur les marchés étrangers.

Een zaak van brood

Alain Coumont is de oprichter van Le Pain Quotidien, de hippe eetbakkerijen die bekendstaan om hun ambachtelijk brood en gemeenschappelijke tafels. Ondertussen zijn er 80 vestigingen in 10 verschillende landen.

Alain begon te bakken toen hij drie was en appelcake maakte samen met zijn grootmoeder. Op zijn 17e trok hij naar de kokschool in Namen. Hij werkte samen met Michel Guérard, de geestelijk vader van de Franse nouvelle cuisine, en bracht drie jaar in New York door. Bij zijn terugkeer in 1987 opende Alain de eerste Pain Quotidien in Brussel.

Omdat hij nergens echt lekker brood vond, besliste Alain het zelf te gaan bakken met als inspiratiebron het zure, vezelrijke brood dat al sinds de middeleeuwen wordt gebakken met tarwe, water en zout. Hij vond de tafel die later zijn handelsmerk zou worden op een rommelmarkt en nam ze mee naar zijn zaak, ondanks de sceptische reacties van vrienden die nooit geloofden dat zakenmensen en studenten naast elkaar zouden zitten om te eten. De naam van de winkel kwam van een uitspraak van zijn vader die er altijd zeker van wou zijn dat er ‘dagelijks brood’ op tafel kwam.

Vandaag staat de onderneming voor een netwerk van franchises. De expansie leidt zelfs tot in Moskou. Alain werkt het liefst met lokale partners en kan geduld opbrengen tot de juiste persoon zich aandient.

Hij speelt nog steeds een actieve rol in de keuken, waar hij zoekt naar verbeteringen en nieuwe producten. Hij trekt ook graag tijd uit om veilingen te bezoeken en om in zijn groentetuin te werken – hij is dan ook niet toevallig een grote voorstander van biologische voeding.

Alains motto is dat je elke dag moet knokken om aan de top te blijven. De loonkost in België noopt tot een eenvoudige aanpak, maar dat komt hen nu goed van pas op buitenlandse markten.

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