Let Them Bake Bread! France's Independent Bakeries Struggle To Survive
The baguette is now on UNESCO’s cultural heritage list. But France's independent bakeries are struggling to survive amid rising energy costs and competition from larger chains.
PARIS — The neighborhood baker is now a pillar of France’s culture. This is what UNESCO made clear by registering the baguette on its Intangible Cultural Heritage Lists, which was warmly welcomed by the French president Emmanuel Macron.
Six billion baguettes are made in France every year. But one question remains: will there still be independent bakeries in three to four decades?
The French National Confederation of Bakery and Pastry (CNBPF), which represents 35,000 artisan bakeries, is trying to stand out amid a boom in bakery and pastry chains.
"Laboratories" for baking
Underlying the CNBPF’s fight is the wider battle for the future of independent commerce. In 1970, there were around 50,000 independent bakeries. Now, 33,000 are still in operation, but that means that every year, 400 bakeries disappear in France according to the CNBPF.
To make croissants, pie shells and macarons, the larger chains rely on “laboratories” that transform many tons of wheat and butter.
“These are not factories. We automate without denaturing the product, without adding ingredients to the original recipe,” says Jean-François Feuillette, who runs bakery chain La Maison Feuillette.
Eric Kayser's Bakery in Paris, a famous bakery with several outlets around the country.
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No one wants to be a baker anymore
UNESCO’s recognition arrives just in time for independent and artisan bakeries. In 2020, the CNBPF launched a baker certification, but it requires an audit that only a handful of bakers can afford. And on top of that, energy bills keep rising.
The chains manage to overcome these difficulties because of bulk purchases on bigger volumes, says Nicolas Bécam, from Angers, who has just raised funds to deploy his network of Maison Bécam bakeries. Another thing that works in the chains' favor: their shops attract entrepreneurs who will be able to learn the job within the company and then open their own franchise.
“I get thousands of requests every year. I choose my partners on a personal basis, not on their baker’s resumes,” admits Jean-François Feuillette.
On the other hand, independents must already be a certified baker to open a store. Xavier Bordet, vice-president of a trade union in Arlanc, in central France, hopes that the UNESCO label will also strengthen his profession’s appeals to the younger generation, the competition goes beyond chain bakeries. “The job is not as attractive as it used to be,” he says.
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