Bread and business in France

Cultural Insights — By on February 13, 2007 at 1:18 pm

There is a unique story in Business Week about the bread that is made by Paris’ Poilane bakery and the circumstances that led 23-year-old Apollonia Poilane to become the company’s chief executive while still an undergraduate at Harvard.

Ms. Poilane was thrust into a management position when her parents were killed more than four years ago in a helicopter crash.  Remarkably, she has grown the business even while keeping up with her university work.

Now a senior majoring in economics, Apollonia manages Poilane’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, Poilane’s annual sales have grown from $15 million in 2001 to $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. … The company now produces 12 to 19 metric tons of bread per day, some 20% of which is destined for international markets.

As interesting as the story about this young executive, though, is the tale of the bread and its iconic role in French culture.

Making bread may seem like a prosaic task, but Poilane is no mere bakery. Started in 1932 in a tiny shop near St. Germain des Pres in Paris, Pierre-Leon Poilane’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. …

At the same time, Poilane 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 Poilane.

The article includes a slide show about the Poilane bakery and its bread.

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