"All I did was steal some bread."

It can be said that Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables elevated the humble baguette, giving it a place in the moral and social fabric of France, when his protagonist Jean Valjean was arrested and thrown in jail for stealing a flûte.

Today, the country’s famous bread shops, brimming with buttery croissants and crusty loaves, are among its most widely recognised symbols of heritage.

It is these veritable pieces of France that Maxime Holder, chairman of bakery-café brand Paul, has brought to SA. Holder’s family has been in the boulangerie business for five generations.

"It is very common in France that the man makes the bread and the lady [wife] sells it, and that was the story of Paul, over three generations. After World War 2, my grandparents bought a bakery from the Paul family on the Place de Strasbourg in Lille. It was quite famous and they didn’t change the name.

"My grandfather died when my father was 17 and he worked with his mother and decided to develop shops outside the city," Holder says in an interview with the Financial Mail at the newly opened Paul store in Melrose Arch, Johannesburg.

The aroma in the store is a trifecta of café utopia: caffeine, butter and bread.

The expansion by Holder’s father, Francis, was unusual in that artisan bakers who pass their craft on through generations tend to stay in the area where they were born and don’t spread out nationally. Holder senior went on to found Groupe Holder SAS, a holding company in Marcq-en-Barœul, in greater Lille, France.

The aroma in the Melrose Arch store is a trifecta of café utopia: caffeine, butter and bread

It houses the Paul brand — which has 673 outlets across 36 countries — as well as Ladurée, the famed patisserie that was founded in 1862. It supplied French kings and queens with mini viennoiseries, pastries and macaron.

"When my brother, sister and I went off to university in Paris, my parents were exasperated because there were no more kids at home, so they would travel every weekend to see us. We used to have lunch every Saturday at a little place called Ladurée. In 1993, the owners went to see my dad and negotiations started," he says.

Holder’s sister Elisabeth and brother David run Ladurée (it has close to 100 boutiques), while he oversees the international expansion of Paul.

Tailored to SA tastes

The SA licence holder of Paul is Famous Brands, owner of eateries including Tashas, Mythos and Mugg & Bean. The JSE-listed company has been expanding its portfolio to cater to a more affluent type of consumer (well-educated and well-travelled), who is looking to indulge in premium brands that offer quality.

Given Paul’s 128-year heritage, the local team received training across the operation (from operating ovens to plating). This took more than 15 months.

"We tested hundreds of Paul recipes in the Famous Brands kitchens," says Brent Kairuz, managing executive of Paul SA. "We cooked them, plated them from a portion point of view — SA consumers like big portions — and we made slight adaptations to allow for local taste profiles."

In terms of sourcing, it’s 10% from France and 90% local.

"The viennoiseries — the croissant, the pain au chocolat — we would like to be exactly the same all over the world, so that comes frozen from France, the quality of the butter is very important," says Holder. "The rest [of the product] is made on site with local ingredients."

Paul stores have three formats. The largest is a bakery-patisserie-café flagship (like the one in Melrose) that tends to be about 300m². It is essentially a full-service restaurant with a fournil or bakehouse. Smaller by design is the satellite restaurant (about 150m² in size), which gets deliveries from the flagship. The third footprint is called a kiosk, which is a typical grab-and-go, transit-type offering that could be anything from 25m² to 50m².

"The next store in SA will be in a nearby zoning area — so Hyde Park, Rosebank, Sandton or Bryanston,"
Kairuz says.

Holder’s menu recommendation? Naturally, in understated French fashion, a croissant with Emmental cheese, jam and butter (R46).

I’ll take it.

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