The Belgian chain Le Pain Quotidien (Our Daily Bread) cultivates naturalness, and this is the reason why more and more of the ingredients it has used since 2005 have been organic. The chain now has more than 80 stores in 12 countries and it is continuing to grow in terms of both quality and quantity. Every two months a new restaurant with integrated baker’s shop comes on stream. “17 years ago, Alain Coumont was putting a large communal table in his shop and the people sat down around it.” This is how Harry De Landtsheer recounts the original idea of the founder of Le Pain Quotidien. The baker’s plus restaurant is still there in the Rue Dansaert in Brussels. The basic idea of eating good food together has not changed either. Mr Coumont quickly recognized that people not only wanted more and more to eat out but that they also wanted things to be natural. So the combined shops and restaurants have plain furniture made of pine; the metal or glass lamps are simple and the shelving for bread and bakery goods are old style. Often the floor is wooden too, a natural material under the feet of all who enter that shapes their perception of where they are. Wherever possible, the company tries to incorporate natural features in the spatial design, an example being the restoration of a stone wall in their premises in Paris.
In this special ambience you get the impression that time has stood still for the last 50 years. Soothing classical music encourages customers to relax. They can sit alone at a large communal table or in pairs. Alternatively, they can choose to sit at a communal table, something that brings lots of people into conversation with one another and perhaps explains why the concept has been so successful. People certainly seem to like the idea: in the USA alone there are 27 restaurants, most in New York, Los Angeles and Washington DC, and you find them also in Brussels, Antwerp, Paris, Istanbul, Dubai, Moscow, Sydney, Qatar and Geneva.
Some of the shop-restaurants in Belgium are run as franchise businesses with rules that are far less strict than in the case of, for example, McDonalds. The most important factors are the sense of naturalness and the communal table as the focal point. From the outset, these restaurants have been a haven for non-smokers. Ever since the first shop was opened, clean air has been regarded as sacrosanct – long before the public debate on protecting non-smokers.
“It’s all about seeing everything from the point of view of ecology,” explains Mr De Landtsheer, Managing Director of Le Pain Quotidien in Belgium. Originally, when the company was founded at the beginning of the 1990s, the main thing was the quality of bread and bakery goods, and organic was not an issue. They had to be made of sour dough and produced in stone ovens, undergo a long maturing process and be made by hand. “With our bread, much more work is done by hand than in the case of lots of other bakers,” assures Mr De Landtsheer. In 2005 they began to purchase organic grain, and gradually they have been converting more and more products to organic. He is pleased to report that, for example, a short while ago they de-listed Coca-Cola, and it has been replaced by a home made lemonade that they produce themselves.
The bakery goods in Belgium are produced centrally in Ninove, 30 km to the west from the centre of Brussels, and delivered every day to the shops. Mr De Landtsheer is proud of the fact that the company is the biggest user of organic grain in Belgium (over 1200 tons a year).
By the end of January 2008, all 25 Belgian shop-restaurants belonging to Le Pain Quotidien will have been visited by the organic control organisation Certisys, and they will be given a document acknowledging their organic status for bread and viennoiserie products. This will make them models to be emulated by other countries where conversion to organic has been started but has still not progressed as far. In addition to the bakery goods, jams, various sorts of honey, coffee, tea and wine come from organic production. Some delicatessen items like dried tomatoes, olive oils and olives are also organic quality. At the moment, the freshly pressed orange juice is not organic.
Kristel Geelen, who is in charge of certification, explains that regrettably it has not yet been possible to give organic certification to every product, mostly products used in preparations or pastries. On the other hand, more robust bakery items and bread carry an edible rice paper label. From the end of November 2008 the whole cakes and pastries range in the Belgian shops will also be converted to organic. “But we don’t use going organic as a marketing tool – we don’t go on the offensive with it as advertising,” is how Harry De Landtsheer explains the company strategy. In fact, they hardly advertise at all, since they rely on their message being spread by word of mouth.“The principle we operate by is simplicity, and in the restaurant, for example, you get just one sort of red, white or rosé wine, though it is, of course, organic.” The bowls come in only two sizes and can be used for soup or coffee (the French and Walloons traditionally drink coffee out of bowls). The American slogan ‘Keep it simple’ could well have originated with Alain Coumont, the founder of Le Pain Quotidien. The restaurant sells seven different sandwiches and six types of salad.
“We want to sell great and special products that are not available everywhere else,” explains De Landtsheer. Nevertheless, the prices are intended to be within everybody’s range. For example, there are various croissants for breakfast in the restaurant costing € 2.10 – 2.70 and a black or herb tea or cappuccino for € 2.50. For lunch there are sandwiches for € 6.20 – 9.30 and a small salad for € 3.20.Soup of the day costs from € 4.20 and big salads from € 11.60. For dessert you can choose from an attractive selection of cakes (see picture on right in Brussels).
The shops in Belgium are open from 7.00 and they close at 19.00. However, in Paris they are open until 22.00. Le Pain Quotidien recently opened a new shop-restaurant in the Rue des Varennes in the Government District in the capital
Le Pain Quotidien premises are in good but not too expensive locations, and on average they measure approximately 150 m² and have over 80 seats. The smallest premises, with 18 seats and a baker’s shop, are in Antwerp; the biggest, that can seat 125, is also in Antwerp and covers 400 m². Mr De Landtsheer estimates that between 200 and 500 customers eat in the restaurant and 250 to 600 customers do their shopping there every day. He expects the turnover of the Belgian shop-restaurants in 2007 to be 16 million Euros, which is an increase of 15 %.
And what about the founder Alain Coumont? What role does the 46-year-old still play? After temporary economic turmoil in the mid-1990s, when he sold the Belgian chain and later launched the international Le Pain Quotidien chain, he bought a vineyard in Montpellier and now produces organic wine. Today, he still acts as a consultant to the international chain on a wide range of matters concerning tradition and the natural look, the quality, the food, the organic vision and the training. As from day 1, he overlooks all aspects of the concept.