"Each baker must tailor their offering to the nearest croissant"

"Each baker must tailor their offering to the nearest croissant"

Jean-François Astier analyzes the French market and its trends. He gives very concrete solutions.
A 50-year-old from Vendée, the former HR director at PAUL, is in charge of the French Institute of Baking (INBP). He analyzes the French market and its trends. And provides very concrete solutions.

You're the one who see the figures... how is baking doing this year?

The market is sluggish, like retail food in general. Bread baking is even decreasing slightly, as sales of bread slump. But patisserie is doing slightly better.That's the overview. Now, when we look at each individual artisan, a very varied picture emerges. Those who adapt to consumer trends in their market work very well, for example...

About, what are these trends?

Generally speaking:
• Customers are looking for a variety of quick and healthy food options.
• Budgets are tighter for everyday products.
• Meals tend to be eaten more outside of the home.
• Less and less time is spent on lunch. We are now closer to 20 minutes than 30.
• Morning and afternoon snacking is rapidly growing.

And how is the offering changing among artisans and their competitors? 

Artisans have developed a strong breakfast and lunch offering (salads, catering dishes, etc.) and have diversified into regional and other specialities (macarons, crêpes, etc.). But meanwhile, manufacturers, bakeries and the mass market have increased sales in cakes, Viennese pastries and snacks.

So the whole core business is under attack?

Exactly. And in our opinion, that is what artisan bakers should start to work on. They need to reclaim their historical products. Take sliced white bread for example, manufactured mostly by two major groups founded by former artisans. Bakers need to put it back in their shops, with an authentic taste and fair pricing. The same goes for pre-baked bread, which is showing good sales in the mass market. Bakers can sell baguettes that can be finished in the oven at home. Which incidentally would satisfy customers who want "very" or "not well" baked baguettes...
Recently, for a miller, we developed a brioche with a shelf life of 8 days, without preservatives, just by changing the production process.

Does that mean old specialities can be brought back?

Yes, exactly. For example there is sailors' bread from the Opal Coast, which had a special flavour, and could be kept for several weeks... We also wanted to "save" the recipe for Lenten bread, given to us by a retired baker, in Vendôme, before it disappears with him. We are going to redevelop it and offer it to all bakers. People will know where it comes from! After that, it is important not to embark on a race for old recipes: at one time, there was a mad search for artichoke bread, etc., which did not appeal to consumers.

You said that each baker must adapt their offering to their market area...

They need to tailor their offering to the nearest croissant! One of the reasons of why outlets are running out of steam is that their window displays are all the same. Bakers must ask themselves why are their sandwich are sales collapsing. Are my options well suited, does the packaging make them convenient to eat? Should I really offer traditional crusty bread rather than soft breads, buns and donuts, which are back in fashion with the fast food generation?

Is it not the case that competition from industrial manufacturers also pushes prices down and encourages simple products? 

I often say that we must fight with promotions, for example buy 3 get 1 free. In hindsight, for the baker who does not win any customers back and loses in turnover, the only solution is going upmarket with good products, Viennese pastries for example, and increasing prices! The customer comes to the bakery for flavour and quality and not necessarily for promotional offers.

Good products are therefore back in fashion?

Yes, consumers want to know what they eat and want to eat well. And I am not only talking about "locavores". Look at the dairy sector which has recovered in the past year with authentic products around which it tells a story. You, at Les vergers Boiron, are a reference from Europe to Asia. You are capable of precisely saying that your fruit comes from this or that orchard...

Are there other ways to increase traffic in outlets? 

Yes, it is necessary to create events during the day, in the week and over the year. During the day, a breakfast offering in the morning, a sandwich corner set up from the opening, an evening meal offering available from 6 p.m. In the week, the takeaway offering should be renewed almost every day (savoury pie, hot dish, quinoa or rice-based salad, etc.) as customers do not want to eat the same thing day in day out and it is possible to create a weekend offering, for example éclairs made with puffed rice or brownies with crushed M&Ms if the neighbourhood has a lot of elderly people who look after their grandchildren! Finally, over the year, it is advisable to live with the seasons, to offer benoîtons for the Beaujolais Nouveau, ranges of breads or sandwiches with new flavours, new pastries and cakes made with semi-candied fruit, the new trend of the moment. I have seen that Les vergers Boiron are at the forefront on this subject, well done! We actually offer two collections a year, Autumn-Winter and Spring-Summer, like the fashion collections.

What about the latest trends: organic, gluten free...?

Organic is still in tune with the times, but it is not what consumers want most. You really need to specialize completely in it, then it works. The same applies to gluten-free or lactose-free which will not take a large share of bakery business. In contrast, sugar-free products are making a great breakthrough. It is healthier and reveals the authentic flavour of food. I know that Les vergers Boiron has a very good range of sugar-free products, in purees or pieces, which is very popular with artisan bakers and pastry-makers.

How should these product ranges be managed?

Generally speaking, you should not think in terms of time of day but in terms of consumption: is it a recipe eaten at a stand-up bar, sitting down, as a takeaway? The same product may be eaten in each of these ways by simply adding or removing containers, a side dish, etc. The cost price is calculated in the most rational way, in implementation of the products and profitability is guaranteed. For example, we have developed sandwiches with the same filling (cheese and beetroot for example) which can be eaten cold or slightly warmed without losing their crustiness. No need to invest in an overhead grill, which usually creates queues and frustration.

All this is very ambitious, but financial reality often catches up with artisan bakers...

That's true. Bakers, although impassioned by their trade, are rarely outstanding managers. The key is to control costs and set accurate pricing. It should be constantly kept in mind, especially when a new product is presented. We actually offer our customers software which, in a few seconds, calculates everything - including packaging and labour - to the nearest gram and is used to set the sales price or quantity needed to be profitable. What you should know is that it is not the price per kilo that is prohibitive, but the weight of the ingredients used in the recipe. You can make a perfect, well-flavoured premium product with lesser amounts. That's what in fact the consumer is looking for: eating less but better. At the INBP, when we launch a collection of Christmas logs, we offer 3 price levels (simple, gourmet, spectacular) so that artisans can adapt it to their market area. And since you are here, I can also take the example of Les vergers Boiron products which are easy to use, with no loss of ingredients and an intense flavour. It is not necessary to use a lot so the cost is acceptable.

A good baker and patissier therefore needs to be a good businessman...

Absolutely, it is not a generational thing. Everyone is focusing on it. You can feel the change through several signals. Every year, we receive 500 people who want to convert and who come with their business vision and new ideas. At the SIRHA exhibition, the vast majority of bakers that I meet have at least two outlets ... The world of bakery is changing. But we should not forget that "the future has a memory": everything is built on our values and our history. 
October 2015