When Le Pain Quotidien opened its doors at Fashion Island I met with organic bread maker and founder Alain Coumont while he was in California for a brief visit. We sat at one end of his signature communal table and talked about his simple beginnings as a young chef in Belgium, the differences between European and American philosophy of food and why he doesn't serve Diet Coke -- among other things.
Alain was clearly tired from his long flight. He seemed dead serious and initially wasn't up for silliness so early in the morning. We ordered our bowl of coffee; I pulled out my iPhone and we began to talk about how he turned his little Belgium bakery into a successful world-wide enterprise.
Me: Has brining your bakery to US been different than you expected?
Alain: I didn't want to become like those French bakeries that start off authentic but after awhile there are barely any French things left. They sell bagels and muffins only....and Coke. We are different. When we came to America we tried to say what we are. We would be selling our soul, little by little if we sold only those things.
Me: It doesn't seem like your philosophy has stopped you from growing and succeeding here. Do you think people are eager for that authenticity? They know they can go get a Diet Coke down the road, they come here for something different.
Alain: Selling Coke would bring in a million dollar in profit for us in the US -- says my business manager. But I say "no way." We used to sell it, but we can hardly offer organic bread and all of our philosophy and then sell Coke. We tested pulling it in some shops. Some people complain. American girls screaming "Where's my Diet Coke!" (He throws his arms in the air with the first bit of animation I see in him.) But in the end, we didn't lose any sells. We have conviction.
Me: No one loves a nice cold Diet Coke more than me, but I respect that you won't sell it at Le Pain. I will go somewhere else to get it and come here for something different.
Alain: Maybe you are somewhat of The Diet Coke junkie (... he says with a smirk.)
Me: What? Me? That's outrageous! (I pretend to be appalled at the very idea.)
Alain: No, I saw that you liked The Diet Coke on your web site. (...Then he begins a mercifully short lecture on the evils of what Diet Coke does to your insides. Then he smiles at me and when he smiles, his whole face changes. He is open and handsome. He knows I'm not going to give it up.)
Me: I know ... I know ... But there's one thing I like more than Diet Coke it's conviction so when I come here I have your fantastic iced tea. (Changing the subject.) Is that what you're hoping? That people in Orange County will come here and try something new? What would you suggest someone new to the bakery order, let's say in the morning?
Alain: A good slice of bread with a side of organic salmon. Coffee. In Europe it's more important to have good ingredients. The portion and size is not important, it (large portions) shouldn't mean quality.
Me: What would you hope guests would experience when they come to Le Pain that would be different from other restaurants or bakeries?
Alain: We have an all-day menu. You can come in at lunch time and just have an espresso. The waiter isn't going to kick you out or hurry you along...give you a mean look (then he gives me a mean look). It's built into our business model -- we are here for the people who come here in every way. It's not a theme. We are communal in every way. Authentic.
We end the interview talking about my new iPhone 4S. He liked the feature and urged me to ask her silly questions. When I shy away from it, he takes it and asks her. We all laugh at her pre-programed response.
Alain is an acclaimed author and chef in Europe and it's not long before patrons start to recognize him. He hugs them and smiles warmly; obviously happy to have them come over and say hello. He asks all of them to come and sit with him.
He believes in what he is doing. He is authentic. Le Pain Quoitien is built on Alain's sincere belief in simple, wholesome food and community and it's success will continue to be fueled by those principles.
Le Pain Quotidien is nestled between Marcy's and Forever 21 at Fashion Island.
Operating hours run along with Fashion Island's hours.
One menu is served all day with three or four daily specials.
Table service is available along with retail and take-out options.
Phone number is: 949-287-5597
For information on Le Pain Quotidien's baking classes, you can go to my post at OC Family.