Late last year we featured an article from retail expert MPC, saying that the UK must learn lessons from France if it wants to revive bakery retailing on the high street (BB, Nov 30, pg 14). So what do we find on the streets of Lille? The Covent Garden Expresso Bar and Notting Hill Coffee.
In fact, the rise of London-style cafe culture was not the only sign that the French may be taking tips from UK trends. Previously a reserve of the cafés, bakeries now account for around 30% of fresh sandwich production in France - a figure close to the UK. "People want - how do you say - food to go? That’s it! We say ’nomadic’. People eat at any time of the day, which is different to how it used to be," says JP Broutin, organiser of the Europain exhibition.
Of Lille’s bakeries, Yanka, a boutique in the town centre, had the niftiest baguettes and packaging. Meanwhile, sightings of bakery chain Paul were as common as McDonald’s, but its marketing policy of retaining the original features of old-fashioned stores avoids repetitive frontages. Best of the lot, though, was Aux Merveilleux de Fred, which attracted queues to see the bakers at work from the window.
In the Lille suburbs, baker Eric Maes said the baguette de tradition, branded La Banette, was gaining sales and made up a quarter of his 2,000-strong daily baguette production. Around 85% of bread consumption in France is baguettes, and white baguettes account for 62% of this, while rustic-style baguettes make up 17% and the rest is the baguette de tradition - a strict back-to-basics standard that was introduced into law in 1992.
Maes added the trend in France is towards central units serving a number of shops rather than one-off shops - a development similar to Germany, where bakery firms have an average of seven shops.
The most intriguing parallel to UK consumers came with Bakery Aux 2 Moulins. Situated outside Lille, it opened to a 6,000 population that had grown used to 20 years of having no specialist bakery.
The locals hated the sourdough when it opened in May 2005, recalls the head baker, M. Bazin. But by explaining the qualities of the stone-baked bread to customers, the hard crust and the open texture, even- tually won them over and tripled its turnover. And that’s despite using ghastly fluorescent hand-written price tags.