A French Bread Obsession
This is a story about bread. But it's also a tale of a third-generation family business, a bitter fraternal rift, a tragic helicopter crash, and a young woman thrust suddenly into managing an icon of French society while completing her undergraduate studies at Harvard.
Making bread may seem like a prosaic task, but Poilâne is no mere bakery. Started in 1932 in a tiny shop near St. Germain des Près in Paris, Pierre-Léon Poilâne's storefront has grown to become a potent national symbol. The rich, dark sourdough loaves—a marked contrast to France's ubiquitous fluffy white baguettes—are the gold standard for country-style bread in supermarkets and restaurants across France. And now, under the steady hand of 23-year-old Chief Executive Apollonia Poilâne, some 20% of Poilâne's output is shipped abroad by air courier to devoted customers in New York, Johannesburg, and Tokyo.
At the same time, Poilâne maintains its hand-crafted feel. Walk down a quaint street in the Left Bank and you will notice a long line of sophisticated French customers queuing in front of the original store for their daily bread and pastries. Forget low-carbs or wheat-free. "Our bread is food for the body," says Apollonia Poilâne. The loaves are still shaped by hand and baked in brick-lined wood-burning ovens. Even the bread wrappers and the company's familiar logo have a tasteful and reserved quality.
Bread in the Bone
It all starts with Poilâne's celebrated miche, or sourdough loaf, made from stone-milled grey flour, salt from the Guerande region, and a sourdough starter that dates from Apollonia's grandfather's original batches. The choice of grey flour is deliberate: After World War II, most French bakers reverted to using the refined white flour characteristic of baguettes. ("An Austrian import," Apollonia confides). Poilâne's sourdough loaf in contrast, retains more of the wheat's nutritional content—and keeps for a week.
The third-generation proprietor holds close to her grandfather's philosophies and business practices: using the best ingredients, attention to detail at every stage of the process, and nurturing long-term customer and supplier relationships. To that, she's now adding brand management and a growing international distribution network.
"My grandfather came to Paris from Normandy to bake," says Apollonia. "We dedicate ourselves to preserving the best of our food culture and sharing it with our customers."
Apollonia recalls growing up in the shadow of her grandfather, counting loaves, distributing cookies in bags, and making figurines out of dough. But family life chez Poilâne wasn't always so idyllic. While Pierre-Léon was still running the business, his sons Max and Lionel had a huge falling out and Max left to set up his own bakery on the south side of Paris. Lionel, Apollonia's father, took over running the original operation in 1973.
The rift never healed. The rival brother markets his nearly-identical line of baked goods under the name Max Poilâne and distributes the products to supermarkets and via two bakeries in Paris. Lionel and the rest of the family sued him for trademark infringement, but lost the case when courts ruled that Max had the right to use his own name. Remarkably, Apollonia has never met her uncle and refuses to speak about the fraternal battle, though the tussle over the brand name clearly still rankles.
"I am completely dispassionate about the split," she says. "My concern is that I have clients calling me saying they found my bread unsatisfactory. Then they realize it's not my bread. That's an issue."
A Tragic Turn
After high school, Apollonia made the decision to attend college in the U.S., in part because her mother, Irena, was Polish-American. Her Harvard entrance essay was on the importance on bread in her life and how she would one day run the company. "You might say, that flour and not blood runs through her veins," says Geneviève Briere, Poilâne's communications manager.
But Apollonia had no idea how soon and unexpectedly her future career would arrive. In 2002, when she was just 18, her parents were killed in a helicopter crash off the coast of Brittany. The Harvard freshman lost her family overnight and had to take charge of the family business while grappling with her grief.
Now a senior majoring in economics, Apollonia manages Poilâne's operations trans-Atlantically during the school term, returning to Paris every four to six weeks to check in. "She had always been groomed for the role, and it was understood that one day she would be running the show," says Briere.
Despite her youth, the sharp scion of the French baking dynasty is well in control. Under Apollonia's leadership, Poilâne's annual sales have grown from €11.6 million ($15 million) in 2001 to €13.8 million ($17.9 million) last year. Though known for her decision-making skills, she relies on a team of responsables, many of whom worked alongside her father and have been with the company for more than 35 years.
Apollonia's management has already earned praise from longstanding associates of Lionel's. "Respect for the finest ingredients and a passion for artisanship were inculcated in Apollonia by her father," says Ariane Daguin, chief executive of D'Artagnan, the largest retailer of foie gras in the U.S. and long-time business partner. "I admire this devotion to quality—something that is fast dying out in a market obsessed with industrial processes and production objectives."
Poilâne's transformation from local Parisian bakery to international business is largely due to Apollonia's father. When Lionel took over the business, his mission was to preserve the artisanal techniques and know-how of the past, while combining them with the best of present day technology. "His idea of 'retro-innovation' is the cornerstone of our business success," says Apollonia. Known for hanging out with the artists and philosophers of the Left Bank, Lionel incarnated the Epicurean lifestyle.
To expand the business, Lionel opened a "manufactury"—a sort of bread factory—in Bièvres, near Paris, that employs 50 bakers working round the clock to feed 24 wood-fired ovens. He also launched international distribution through third-party retailers and opened the company's first British boutique, on Elizabeth Street in London. In the last years before his death, he launched Internet sales, which now account for 20% of revenues.
But even as sales surged and Poilâne became an internationally-recognized brand, Lionel resisted industrializing its processes. "It would be foolish to assume that we don't use some technology to make our bread," says Apollonia. "But we hold tight to certain fundamentals. Bièvres is a 'manufactury,' not a factory, because we use hands, not machines." The dough is still cut by hand, and the "proving," or letting the dough rest under a wet cloth before baking, is done naturally. The company now produces 12 to 19 metric tons of bread per day, some 20% of which is destined for international markets.
Bread Is Life
Today, Poilâne gets 80% of its sales from retail distributors, including some of the most prestigious names in the gastronomy business—Agatha and Valentina in New York, Takashimaya in Japan, and the upscale Monoprix supermarket chain in France and Germany. The bread is served in restaurants such as London's Mirabelle and The Ivy. "Poilâne stayed true," states Jean-Louis Dumonet, executive chef at SnAKS at Saks in New York, and Maître Cuisinier de France. "They haven't deviated from their brand. They understand that the recipe and preparation are healthy and natural, something I prize as a chef."
The thriving Internet business is Poilâne's newest means of reaching demanding customers around the world. Its global clientele includes Hollywood film stars and titans of the French entertainment industry. Apollonia says she prefers to decline orders if delivery cannot be guaranteed within 24 to 48 hours. And though it's known that she also supplies bread to the Elysée Palace, home of French President Jacques Chirac, she won't discuss specific clients.
"In France, we have an expression, 'Le pain, c'est la vie' (bread is life)," Apollonia says. "It's the common denominator of all civilizations, and a friend is someone you share your bread with." For 75 years, this is how Poilâne has seen its role in its customer's lives. Now, for the young woman taking charge of a French icon, bread is more than ever a family affair.