Sunday, February 15, 2009


What makes Poilâne special? It is the most famous boulangerie (pronounced as boo-lun-ger-e) in France. Behind its modern glass doors, hidden is 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. Sounds so much like a soapie.

The Business.
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 25-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.

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 (Pierre-Léon) 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. (which is from Vienna, Austria). 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 Normandy 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.

The Rift.
However, things weren't always smooth sailing on the family front for Pierre-Léon. While still running the business, his two sons, Max and Lionel fell out. Max moved to the south of Paris to open his own bakery. 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.

Taking Over the Family Business.
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. 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 (her father, mother and the family dog) overnight and had to take charge of the family business while grappling with her grief.

As an undergrad, Apollonia manages Poilâne's operations trans-Atlantically during the school term, returning to Paris every four to six weeks to check in. 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) in 2007. 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.

The Poilâne shop in Paris.

Apollonia in front of her shop.

Shaping the dough before leaving them in baskets to rest individually. The starter dough is used from the first batch that they've made after the war (the store reopened after the war).

Putting on the iconic P on the breads. Bread is still lovingly made by hand.

Putting the bread the 200 year old wood fired oven.

The finished product on the shelves.

These are for the 2400 resellers that use or sell their bread.

These are to be sent overseas. Bread can be bought online through their website.

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