What’s the greatest barrier to growing a Belgian bakery chain in Britain? The crashing euro? A cataclysmic economic outlook? No, it’s a linguistically challenged nation whose preferred mode of communication is shouting loudly at foreigners. "We’ve got a virtually unpronounceable name to most English people and a virtually indecipherable logo, even for those who work in the company!" says Steven Whibley, managing director at Le Pain Quotidien (LPQ).
Not that that’s hampered progress. At 67 on the BB75 league table of bakery retailers based on numbers of outlets, with 14 clocked in January, one more added since and stores in Borough Market and Westfield Shopping Centre imminent, LPQ bucked the slump in organics last year. While bakery was the hardest sector hit, down 39%, the largely organic LPQ’s sales shot up by 50%.
The brand, founded by chef Alain Coumont, started life in Brussels in 1990. The first back-to-basics shop had a small bread counter serving only two breads wheat and rye with cheese, ham and jam, and featured a four-metre communal table.
"That was the basis of the concept and it evolved from there," says Whibley. "Pastries were added a year after they opened. Then quiche, salad and wine. There is a whole range now, but we try to centre the menu around bread." In fact, the menu has grown exponentially, to the point where it’s due a trim. "Our focus at the moment is to reduce the product range," he says.
Which brings us to the star of the show the bread, served up in assorted bread baskets and tartines (open sandwiches). In Belgium, Bellona Pattis originally supplied the UK outlets with breads and still supplies the par-baked croissants and baguettes, baked off in-store. Now, breads are made in partnership with Celtic Bakers, which can handle the 24- to 48-hour fermentations, and Shipton Mill.
"We’re a kind of a mass-market Poilane, for want of a better word. I think ours are as good as theirs. You cannot make this kind of bread in the basement of every store," insists Whibley, who needs space to make fresh tarts and cakes on-site. "The economics of it don’t work. And there’s a quality assurance issue. Our bread is as simple as flour, salt and water, baked fresh seven days a week and it’s 100% organic. When you’re buying sourdoughs elsewhere, they’re not always pure sours, and that’s something we’re very proud of."
There are few bakery-café-restaurant operators in the UK, which means LPQ is pitted against the likes of Carluccio’s and Pizza Express. The dining area accounts for around 75% of turnover, though the concept is more causal, with the communal table appealing to single people avoiding the stigma of sitting alone. Unit volume for LPQ is £30,000 net a week, which compares to around £20,000 for a Pizza Express. This is due to a bustling all-day trade, with quiet periods a rarity in the most successful stores.
"We do a lot of customers for our money," he explains. "We need those kinds of volumes to drive a similar profit. Our average spend per head is probably half what it would be in Carluccio’s. Our margin isn’t as much as most food operators, because we’re trying to deliver a quality, artisanal, organic product at a price range that is cheaper than bread that isn’t as artisanal, sold, for example, in food markets."
Store layouts are flexible, from 14 to 180 covers, and the smaller ones take 40% turnover over the counter. "It’s a concept that can be sliced and diced," he says. The deli range which accounts for a modest 2% of sales acts as the store pantry, with goods used throughout the menus, as well as adding decoration to the shop. Stores have wi-fi and there is a strong ethical element, from the reclaimed wood furniture to the triple-certified coffees.
Having blossomed into a 150-strong global brand, with the main UK, French and US business acting as the franchisor to Belgium, Germany, Spain, Holland, Russia, Australia, India, Japan, Mexico and the Middle East, how far can they take it in the UK?
"We’re not about putting flags on the map, but we’ve got 15 in London and we could do 40," he says. "Le Pain could go out of London, but once you do, you’re almost starting again to build your reputation. Our niche is quality and that is hard to match. There have always been opportunities to open more stores, take some debt in the business and roll the thing out faster, but we open at a rate where we can keep the business where we want it."