Tuesday, December 06, 2005

French bred

Our auto industry is tanking, and U.S. furniture makers are struggling to beat back a do-or-die challenge from Asia. But in the foodservice balance of trade, we’re Superman on steroids. For decades we’ve exported burger and fried-chicken concepts to the Continent without seeing much flowing back in return save a Jean-Georges Vongerichten here, a Daniel Boulud there. It must irk the French in particular that you can find a McDonald’s on the Champs Elysee, but not even Vie de France is truly Gallic anymore (it’s now Japanese-owned). We give them Jerry Lewis, they send us Champagne and foie gras. Sweet.

But wouldn’t you know our brethren from across the pond have been quietly infiltrating one of the U.S. trade’s most promising markets, bakery-cafes? While Panera was opening stores like Starbucks on Red Bull, three European entrants were quietly laying their berets in the ring.

The newest arrival is Brioche Doree, whose first U.S. unit, a franchise managed by HMS Host, opened during October in the Los Angeles International Airport. Apparently more HMS franchises will follow, given the statements of both parties. Brioche, which offers foccaccia and ciabatta sandwiches as well as arrays of salads and baked delectables, has 325 units in operation in Europe,

Paul Bakery and Cafe, the 115-year-old, 270-unit French chain, opened its first U.S. store this spring in North Miami. The place offers both tableservice, at about $10 a head, and takeaway. Miami-based Apety Group has secured development rights to another 100 stores in the U.S.

Very similar in approach is Le Pain Quotidien, a 60-unit chain with outlets in Los Angeles, New York and Europe. It hails from Belgium, but founder Alain Coumont amassed his burns and knife scars studying under French chefs. His specialties include café au lait served French-style, in bowls, as well as jams and other condiments available for retail sale.

Of course, European-born bakery cafes aren’t exactly new to the U.S. The Il Forniao chain was patterned after an Italian outlet. Cosi took its name and approach from a French place, and Le Madelaine has been around since pre-Freedom Fries days. Interestingly, with American ill will toward France running high because of differences over the Iraq invasion, the chain has tried to position itself as an American-owned operation with a French theme.

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