An interview with Master Boulanger Philippe Soulard by Kathryn Gordon
Name of Business: La Maison du Pain
At location # 1 of 3, Angers France
Kathryn: So Philippe, I’ve been coming here to visit with you at la Maison du Pain for the annual ICE culinary course to learn about artisan, levain leavened breads since 2006. Now I hear that you have opened 2 additional locations of la Maison du Pain?
Philippe: Our city, Angers, underwent an extensive 3-year construction project for a tramway. After the first few years, the construction really impacted our business. Nobody could really drive through the city so demand for our product was limited to neighborhood walk-in customers, so we were forced to expand to other locations.
Kathryn: Do you offer the same products in the new locations as you do in the original location, or does it vary by neighborhood?
Philippe: We sell the exact same products at each location. We make 65 different bread products from 29 different doughs! The second location is a second production bakery that I took over – and the third location is retail only. Honestly, the third location is in a better neighborhood (people with more income) than the second location, and the demand is steadier there across the product lines.
Kathryn: If you took over a production bakery, how did that go, if you changed a pre-existing product line over to your products and renamed everything to the name of your business, “la Maison du Pain?”
Philippe: The transition was a bit rough at first. For example, there was a type of bread people wanted, but I didn’t want to make it so I didn’t bake it. We lost some people at first but since then, demand has stabilized. We’ve been open in that second bakery location about 6 months. The third location has only been open a few months.
Wife Catherine, who manages the retail operation
Kathryn: I know you use a lot of organic (biologique) flours – but you’ve also said your customer base is not affluent enough to solely demand organic products because of the higher retail price. What are your food costs?
Note: the stone-ground, water-driven mill that produced Philippe’s organic flours is Moulin de Sarre, www.moulin-de-sarre.fr and is very interesting to visit if you are in the Loire Valley.
Philippe: My food costs are about 25%. I don’t look at it on a product-by-product basis, but overall that’s what it is.
Kathryn: You and your wife Catherine live here with your family above the original location, and she manages the retail shop. And that has allowed you to tell if your staff are starting work on time at 4 am! How on earth are you managing the other full scale production bakery you are now operating?
Couche, new, 10 years old and 50 years old
Philippe: I only need 4 hours of sleep a night. It was difficult at first, because I needed to find very good people, including a very friendly retail staff. In France, firing employees is difficult so you have to be very careful making sure you are selecting the right employee… For the production staff, I moved over one of my sous chefs as the manager of the second production bakery. I kept the bakers who had been employed by the bakery I acquired and brought each of them to work here with my staff to learn my product. Gradually everyone was trained.
Kathryn: Your specialty is levain leavened breads – you seem to try to only use commercial yeast minimally, like for the rich yeast products (brioche, croissants) and for one of your 10 different baguettes.
(Philippe produces one cheaper, machine driven, yeast risen baguette for the older generation who lived through WW II and don’t care for the more chic/nutritious/high end breads with whole wheat, rye and grains. That customer base likes the commercial white flour).
Kathryn: Are the breads truly the same in each location, because I’ve tried making “your” breads in NYC and they work. They’re great breads, but they’re not exactly what you make here in Angers. And your 3 locations of la Maison du Pain are all within the Angers city-limits (or about 5 miles apart).
Philippe: It’s true. I try to have the same product line at all 3 locations but at the second bakery location, even using the same brands of flour, and having trained the staff myself, – some of the breads come out a little different.
Kathryn: And within the same city, the available city, water in the bread doughs is presumably the same! For instance, if I try to make your formula using water from NYC (which has chlorine, fluoride and who knows what else), I should expect a different result! Of course – you have a bit more of the “wild yeasts” available here in a location that has been a boulangerie for decades, than some people have at their US bakeries (or their homes).
Kathryn: How much commercial yeast to you use in your dough formulas?
Philippe: There’s nothing wrong with using a bit of commercial yeast and I use the fresh variety in some of my doughs.
If you strictly use levains for all your doughs, the levains and the doughs take up more space in your bakery. You need space for longer fermentation of the levain and space for longer fermentation of the pates (doughs). And space equals money.
Kathryn: How did you finance your expansion?
Philippe: In France, you can get a bank loan for 7 years if you file an application that includes your resume.
After 7 years of operating a business, I would have to pay a higher tax to the government than for the first 7 years.
It is more economically viable in France to re-mortgage and expand a business, or at least try to expand until you retire and sell your business (where you would then pay less taxes because you are in retirement).
I was able to get the bank loan for the expansion because we were successful with the first location.
Boulanger Philippe showing how his ovens work in a class; we visit Philippe for an artisan bread lesson in the annual ICE Cuisine Course in France (www.moulinbregeoncuisinecourses.com)
Kathryn: And you have quite a resume! You even come from a family of bakers.
Philippe: My father was a baker, and my brothers are bakers. I went to school for several years for bread, and then I travelled around the country to boulangeries working for a flour company. I had to help work at different bakeries every day. I really learned a lot about bread doughs, in different environments, and what I wanted to produce for my own line of levain leavened bread.
Kathryn: With all this expansion, you need a website! You have all this cute stuff in the retail shop: aprons with your logo, bread baskets with your logo, reuseable shopping bags…
Philippe: Yes, we know! As we’ve been discussing for years. It will be live this summer.
Kathryn: OK Philippe, thank you! And we’ll follow-up again with you in a few months when the website is live.
Couche, used for proofing shaped breads, 50 years old
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