For the love of bread

For the love of bread

Alain Coumont, founder of Le Pain Quotidien, talks about how breaking bread became the cornerstone of his popular French bistro chain — and why he’s not comfortable with the idea of customers being kings

At 12pm on a sunny Tuesday afternoon, the large rooms of the bakery-café Le Pain Quotidien, straddling the Jumeirah Beach Residence boulevard, were getting a tad noisy. It was too early for rush hour but already the store was seeing a steady stream of lunchers walk in and out while a gaggle of cheerful British ladies entertained themselves at the large communal table in the centre of the room.

Nobody would have guessed the casually dressed man quietly thumbing through a book at the back of the stylishly rustic café was anyone to take notice of. Had they recognised the founder of the popular PQ franchise though — especially the regulars who’ve come to make the French bistro a favourite haunt over the last few years — there might well have been a lot more noise.

With his messy shock of greying brown hair and light blue eyes, Alain Coumont’s success story of how he started up the artisan bakery two decades ago because he was “unhappy with the local bread” in his native Brussels is an oft-told tale. Yet, it is also one with a happy ending to boot because 21 years down the line, Alain insists he is still only “doing (his) hobby” every day.

“I sold my first bread on October 26, 1990,” he says, the words rolling out fast in a strong French accent. “It was a small bakery without a business plan and was more of a hobby than a business. But today, we have 172 bakery restaurants in 20 countries around the world.”

According to the 50-year-old restaurateur, his affair with food was inevitable. “My whole family was into food… My father’s family used to run a fine food store and we lived in an apartment above it. On my mother’s side, the family was in the hotel restaurant business, so I guess I was born into it. As a teenager, I tried to escape the food business but then at 18, I told myself to stop — there’s no point fighting your DNA... Till today, I’m still trapped by my DNA,” he quips.

Once Alain decided to give in to his culinary calling, he studied the art for four years at a school in Belgium, and upon graduating, grabbed a copy of the Michelin guide and wrote to the 10 best restaurants in France. “At the time, the computer didn’t exist so I typed out the letter ten times on a typewriter and basically proposed to work in their restaurants for a year without salary,” he narrates. The aspiring cook went on to work in top restaurants in various parts of France, including under leading French chef Alain Senderens, before finally heading back to Belgium after four years to open his own place.

“I love good bread,” he says. “But at that time in Europe after World War II, the price of bread was fixed so low by the government that there really was no incentive for bakers to make something better. Their focus instead was how to be more productive: churn out more bread in less time to make more money.”

Alain figured if he wanted things to change, he was going to have to bake that change himself. “We bought a bread oven, a mixer and hired someone to man the counters, but realised: this was going to be an expensive hobby, just to sell a few loaves.” Sandwiches and salads were added to the menu — and from there, Alain says, things just took off.

Though not particularly religious, he named the place Le Pain Quotidien (meaning the daily bread, taken from the ‘Lord’s Prayer’ in the Bible). “It was a good name for a bakery selling fresh bread every day,” he shrugs. That original inspiration is not something Alain is keen to change.

“I believe one shouldn’t listen too much to the consumer that way,” he comments, when asked how much consumer demands have evolved since he first began. Say again? “Look,” he explains, “if the customer wants something new, it means it probably already exists because he’s seen it somewhere else before. But I think in any business you have to be one step ahead always. If you listen too much to the consumer, French bakeries will one day start serving pizza and spaghetti Bolognese and Indian food. I love Indian food and even cook it at home sometimes — but I think you need to stay very focused on what you’re doing as well. Le Pain Quotidien is not a fancy restaurant,” he states. “It’s a simple bakery where, if you’re hungry, you can have a bread-based meal.”

Known for firmly advocating organic food, Alain — who’s been vegan for 15 months — admits he is “very health conscious” when it comes to food. “It’s a personal conviction. I live in the countryside, and grow my own chicken and vegetables. When you see how much damage scientists have caused in some parts of the world with their systemic chemicals, it’s scary. The point is: I eat in my own restaurants and so do my kids and customers. So we’re very strongly organic (perhaps a little less in Dubai than in the UK or France) and careful of what goes on the menu. In this business, it’s a matter of how to reconcile pleasure, good food and health.”

Perhaps the only thing Le Pain Quotidien is better known for than its organic stance is its ‘communal table’, a concept Alain says came about entirely by accident. “My first shop in Brussels was so small, we had only one table with 14 chairs that I’d picked up at a flea market — the seamstress’s kind with round edges. There were no smaller tables that people could hide at and they all had to sit together to eat. I guess for our initial customers, it was like going parachute-jumping for the first time. They needed someone to push them out that door.”

Alain soon had plenty of seating space to offer when he opened bigger stores in later years, but the communal table became a fixture. “When I opened my first shop in New York, there was a big table with 24 seats but also plenty of small seats around. The first few days, people would be hiding at the smaller tables around, except during rush hour when there was no choice but to sit at the big table. Today when I go to that store at 7am, there may be just four customers — but they’ll all be seated together at the big table, talking to each other, reading the paper, passing each other the jam... it’s good to see. Perhaps, it’s true what they say about big cities: people like to be alone together.”

Does he ever tire of cooking? “There is always evolution where food is concerned,” Alain remarks, “always a way to improve things. The good thing with food is you try not to eat for three hours, and then it’s tough. It’s basic instinct to want to eat.”

Country-hopping and global store trips aside, any spare time the entrepreneur has is spent on his farm in Montpellier in the south of France, where he says the “real work” is. “Restaurant business is easy but farming is really tough,” he laughs. “I make wine and olive oil at home, grow my own vegetables and chickens, buy antiques, redo the kitchen… there’s always something to do at home.”

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