This article originally appeared in HongKongEcho 87 - F&B: Ripe with experience
“Making bread isn’t rocket science,” says chef Grégoire Michaud. We sat down for coffee and croissants with him and business partner Gaëlle Gognau, co-founders of Bread Elements, who told us why diving into the wholesale world of baking is not as easy as it looks.
The smell of freshly baked bread hits you like a charm. Rows of pains au chocolat, croissants, sourdough loaves, baguettes – among a plethora of others – sit ready to be distributed across the city. There could be worse places to spend an afternoon. Swiss-born pastry chef, Grégoire Michaud, is guiding us through the different floors of his bakery in Chai Wan, conversing freely in Cantonese with the staff. “When I arrived [in Hong Kong] 20 years ago, I had no choice but to learn how to communicate with the kitchen staff in Cantonese,” he recalls in a broad smile.
With 25 years’ experience as a pastry chef in five-star establishments, such as the Four Seasons in Hong Kong, Grégoire joined forces with his former colleague, Mark Yeung, along with bread enthusiasts Gaëlle Gognau and Frederic Koerckel, to create Bread Elements in 2013. Operating purely wholesale – for now – the group saw a gap in the B2B market for high quality artisanal made-in-Hong-Kong breads and pastries.
After all, a fine dining experience shouldn’t be tainted by poor bread, and yet it’s something the founders – like others in Hong Kong – often encountered. “I knew from being a chef in the industry that there were very few options on the B2B side and we wanted to be the first to really challenge that and offer something with quality and character, which is also made in Hong Kong,” says Grégoire.
Co-founder Gaëlle was equally frustrated that bread lagged behind the explosion of other improved offerings in the F&B sector. “In the past decade we’ve seen so much more qualitative products available here, from cheese and wine to cold cuts, but there was still no good bread. Of course, there are people who are importing industrial products or mass producing, but creating high quality artisanal bread in Hong Kong is quite unique,” she says.
Despite the expertise of the two main chefs – who have some 50 years of experience baking in Hong Kong between them – tapping into the lucrative but demanding B2B sector came with plenty of challenges.
Like most startups, the first months of operation stretched resources to breaking point. Ovens became too small. Storage space ran out. Flour supply fluctuated. Co-founder Mark even spent a 48-hour period in the bakery, having to sleep there just to keep up with the extreme demand, while another partner continued their day job and processed the invoicing at night. It’s not quite the romantic idea you might have of throwing in an office job for a life of smelling freshly baked bread each morning.
Simply getting the products to clients across Hong Kong has posed its own problems. “We totally underestimated and overlooked the logistics aspect when we started the business, which is essentially our storefront,” says Grégoire.
It sounds straightforward. A truck arrives at 4am, collects the bread and starts distributing to hotels and restaurants. But if the delivery gets caught in one of the city’s main arterial highways at the wrong time – like the notorious tunnel to Aberdeen – clients will be without bread for the lunchtime rush. Likewise, Hong Kong’s climate can wreak havoc with delicate frozen croissants – for example – that can easily defrost while being moved from the cold truck to the kitchen.
The experience has been humbling, explains Grégoire. “I’ve come from a more corporate environment where you’re a cog within a larger organisation, you simply say what you need and you get it. All of a sudden you have to go back to square one.”
A question of scale
Now, as the business grows, micro-management of daily tasks turns to issues of scalability and putting the right systems in place across all aspects of the business from human resources to sales and production. “We also have to keep in mind that scaling up shouldn’t mean forgetting the core of what we do, which is making artisanal bread,” says Gaëlle.
Words like ‘artisan’ and ‘authentic’ are readily thrown around in the F&B industry. But the duo insist that scaling up can be done while staying true to the original product. “It comes down to decisions we make in production. For example, an industrial baker will use a tunnel oven which is 30 metres long and bakes non-stop throughout the day. But the bread is not baked on stone and the intensity of heat is different. Ultimately you don’t have the same product. Our idea is to duplicate our current setup, simply multiplying the ovens. It means a greater cost for us, but we believe the product will speak for itself,” says Grégoire.
That’s not to mention the raw ingredients, namely water, high quality imported flour, sourdough and a pinch of salt. The flour favoured by industrial producers contains unnaturally high levels of gluten, a point which translates to a less digestible, and less healthy final product. The dedication to tradition goes further than this, explains Grégoire, who you get the sense could talk about flour at a molecular level all afternoon. “It’s also about showing that it’s possible to be a company of a certain size – particularly a wholesale one – that is sustainable and which produces quality without going completely industrial and chemical.”
This will be tested when the team opens their first retail offering, a café in Wan Chai in late December 2017. “People are saying we’re crazy to open a shop because of the F&B market mood at the moment. But we firmly believe that consumers in Hong Kong appreciate a product with soul, character and quality,” says Gaëlle. Grégoire himself will be baking on site behind glass panels, which again takes up valuable space. But it’s worth it, he explains. “It’s part of the transparency and experience we want to offer people who come to buy our breads. It’s our way of shaking hands with the public.”
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