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Asia's Paradoxical Battle For The French Baguette

Though French bread and pastries have become popular across Asia, French chains have had trouble breaking in. Now one Korean boulangerie is opening up in Paris.

Baguettes are the stars in Asia
Baguettes are the stars in Asia
Yann Rousseau

TOKYO — The wooden decoration is elegant, the storefronts are filled with custard tarts, jambon-beurre (ham and butter) sandwiches and quiches. There's even French music playing. Two steps away from Tokyo's central train station, the brand new Brioche Dorée shop aims to give its customers the full-on French experience.

The chain founded by Louis Le Duff already has more than 500 shops across Europe and North America. But Brioche Dorée is just starting to open locations in Asia, where the growing pain au chocolat market has until now been solely in the hands of powerful regional groups.

The streets of Beijing, Seoul, Tokyo and Hanoi are jammed with bakeries with names such as Paris Gâteaux, Vie de France, Paris Baguette or Tous les Jours, almost always decorated with the blue-white-red flag and Eiffel Towers. But none of these shops is actually French.

"We're lagging behind our Asian competitors," explains François-Xavier Colas, who's heading the new Asia strategy for the Le Duff group. "The Japanese and Koreans understood very early on the huge potential of the bakery market."

In Japan, he opened the second Brioche Dorée shop last moth. Seven were inaugurated in South Korea and two in China. Another bakery chain, Paul, has 12 shops across Southeast Asia and is planning to open six more before the end of 2015.

Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos, all former French colonies, do consume bread, but until recently it wasn't part of the regional diet, which is dominated by rice and noodles. Traditionally, people in China, Korea and Malaysia ate small brioche rolls, often stuffed with mince meat, and steamed. White bread didn't reach Japan until after World War II, when the U.S. started to deliver wheat to the country, then faced with severe food shortages.

French-style bread didn't come to Japan until the 1960s, when Raymond Calvel, a globetrotter and professor of baking at the National Graduate School of Milling introduced it. He brought to Tokyo young "baguette missionaries" who established themselves in the 1980s. Other Frenchmen later developed their own networks, with Maison Kayser now the most significant in Asia.

Their Asian competitors are already operating several thousand shops and want to conquer markets around the world. Tous les Jours, a creation of Korean conglomerate CJ Foodville, has 1,280 bakeries in South Korea and 160 abroad. In China, the Philippines and Vietnam, its shops, decorated with light wood and red brick, sell cheese fougasses, almond croissants and apple-gorgonzola-filled brioches.

Also from South Korea, Paris Baguette hopes to become the McDonald’s of bakeries, with plans to multiply its presence from its 3,200 national shops and 200 abroad to a total of more than 6,000 shops in 60 different countries by the end of 2020. "I'll do everything so that Korea earns the reputation of being the world's Mecca for bread and pastry," Hur Young-in, chairman of the SPC Group, which owns Paris Baguette, declared last year. A few weeks before that, he opened its first bakery in Paris, of all places.

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Baguettes being delivered in Quang Nam province, Vietnam — Photo: Norton Ip

While politely praising the French bakery tradition, he's betting on globalization mixing together cultural and gastronomical identities, and is convinced that a good marketing model will enable him to build himself global "French" legitimacy.

Its Parisian shop, which is expected to attract primarily Asian tourists visiting the French capital, is already featured in the group's ad campaigns. A little bit of accordion, images of the Eiffel Tower and hand-kneaded dough.

SPC established itself as a market leader by applying to bakeries the recipes for success behind large South Korean conglomerates in electronics, car manufacturing and naval construction. To secure its expansion, the group acquired Mildawon, a large Korean flour producer, in 2008. Then, as it prepared its expansion, SPC was the first Korean producer to import French wheat to transform locally into flour, convinced as they are that the French cereal is the best suited to produce a crispy crust for its baguettes and other traditional country breads. As for the rest of its ingredients, the group has signed partnerships with South Korean farms, especially in the Pyeongchang county, where it gets, for example, the strawberries for its cakes, thus enabling the company to “reinforce the quality and homogeneity of its products,” as one market analyst noted.

Together with its Asian competitors Tous les Jours and Bread Talk, SPC and its Paris Baguette brand are now looking to expand their business abroad. “These groups can rely on their strong national base to conquer the world. No French company can boast a similar national foundation. That’s probably a problem shared by a lot of French companies, in various sectors,” says Jean-Pierre Erba, Paul’s CEO for Asia and the Pacific.

But while acknowledging the might of their Asian rivals, French bakers believe this boost will feed their own growth. “If they ‘stole’ our products, it’s because the Asian public likes what we have to offer,” says François-Xavier Colas from Brioche Dorée. “The clients are fully aware of the brands and authenticity. They want French quality at a good price."

Jean-Pierre Erba emphasizes that the bread at every Paul’s is made on location. “Asian groups are targeting a mass market but we’re aiming more at an established, more mature clientele that can tell one product from another,” he said.

Still, a key to success for the French producers is the need for a local partner. “It’s indispensable,” explains François-Xavier Colas. “A local partner can help us in our relations with the administration, in understanding local legislation or in the negotiations to obtain new shops with normal conditions.”

On May 1, Colas inaugurated a Brioche Dorée shop in a large Seoul store with its South Korean partner Daewoo, which has offered to open a total of 90 bakeries in the country. Meanwhile, in Japan, Brioche Dorée is relying on Suntory to obtain the promised 105 shops in the next ten years. “There’s a certain French arrogance in believing we can do everything by ourselves in this region,” Colas concludes. “It’s probably what’s stopping French companies from conquering these markets.”

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