The opening of eleven Kayser stores in New York in five years confirms Americans’ interest in quality bread. For the chain of high-end French bakeries, which has to deliver the same bread as it does in Paris using different American ingredients, the stakes are high.
It’s four o’clock in the morning in New York. A smell of warm bread wafts through Greenwich Street… At number 355 of this road in the TriBeCa district, a baker standing alone over a furnace, is making Maison Kayser’s breads. Meanwhile, ten others are baking away at Kayser’s ten other addresses in New York. “Each retail outlet has its own oven and team. The bread is always fresh and baked on site,” says Yann Ledoux, Maison Kayser’s Executive Chef in the U.S. since the opening of the first bakery on the Upper East Side in August 2012.
Today, Alsace-born Eric Kayser employs some fifty bakers in New York. “A position occupied by two people in Paris requires four employees in New York. First, because there are fewer closing days, and more importantly, because bakers in the United States are less experienced. Some are not sufficiently qualified to manage the bread’s production chain on their own.” Each team is made up of a French chef or sous-chef. “The objective is to train Americans, Filipinos, and Mexicans. Yet each store is supervised by a French head baker,” adds Yann Ledoux, a former baker himself.
With the scheduled opening of thirteen bakeries in New York by the end of the year — including the first location outside of Manhattan, which opened in the Brooklyn Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn in January 2016 —, the group has an ambitious agenda. “The locations being considered are Connecticut, Chicago, Boston and Florida,” notes Eric Kayser.
Imported French butter
Successfully baking a crusty baguette and flaky croissants has turned out to be more of a challenge in New York than it is in Paris. First obstacle: the differing properties of American flour. In the United States, flour has more proteins than in France. “We assume that there are two reasons for this: to begin with, the high quality of American soil, and the use of GMOs. As a result, we are forced to leave the dough to rest for approximately half an hour to relax the gluten and bind it with starch. The dough also requires more hydration.”
Based on the traditional method, Eric Kayser uses a sourdough that develops a lactic fermentation and gives the bread its slightly milky and nutty flavor. The bread is also kneaded, shaped and baked on site. Another obstacle is the butter’s inconsistency. “Americans make good butter, but its quality varies with the seasons. In the winter, American butter is softer, which is a problem for Danish pastries, as softer butter cracks puff pastry.” That difference in consistency has turned out to be costly for Maison Kayser. The six hundred kilos of butter used each week in New York are entirely imported from France, as no local butter producer has been found to offer consistent quality.
“We work the raw materials. Everything is adjusted down to the millimeter during fermentation. We must constantly adapt to external conditions,” attests Eric Kayser. New York’s cold and dry winters as well as its hot and humid summers don’t make the baker’s job easy. “The baguette loses ten grams in the summer, because we have to dry the product longer on account of the humidity,” notes Yann Ledoux. “These are small changes in recipes and production that are crucial to maintaining an excellent quality.”
By adapting to the ingredients and the environment, Maison Kayser is able to produce a bread of identical quality in New York and in Paris — a crucial requirement of the increasingly fastidious American clientele. “They won’t hesitate to return the bread if they are disappointed by the product.” To satisfy its customers, Maison Kayser recently decided to have their U.S. stores ask the French bakers’ customary question: “well baked or not too baked?” “We ask our customers and explain the baking differences.”
The price of bread
Given the bread’s similar quality in the United States and France, what explains the difference in price: €1.10 for a baguette in Paris, versus $2.95 in New York? That’s down to rental prices, which are “two to three times more expensive in New York than in Paris,” Eric Kayser points out. The workforce, much larger in New York given that it’s less trained and less experienced, also adds to costs. As does the price of flour, which costs 80 dollars per hundredweight in the United States, versus 40 to 60 euros in France.
Another, somewhat more surprising explanation: the price of bread in New York is based on image considerations. “We cannot sell a baguette at two dollars. People would think that the quality of the product is inferior to their supermarket baguette at three dollars. We have aligned ourselves with the prices of our competitors,” explains Yann Ledoux.
Unlike at its French stores, Maison Kayser in New York would make less profit without the sale of coffee. “New Yorkers’ coffee consumption has considerably increased our number of customers. We noticed that we couldn’t just sell bread and Danish pastries in New York,” explains Eric Kayser. That makes it all the more necessary to provide a room with tables and chairs for sitting and tasting on site, with transparent window panes through which to watch the baking process in the bread ovens. “Americans love to eat at a table in the morning. They also come for brunch on the weekend.”
While specialty breads — breads with aromatic spices, whole meal breads, stuffed rolls or fig and hazelnut breads — sell better in the United States, the traditional baguette is less of a success in New York. Between 300 and 600 baguettes are sold daily in each New York store, the equivalent of a small Parisian bakery. We are still far from the 2,500 baguettes sold daily in the busiest Kaysers in Paris. “A lot of Parisians buy a baguette in the morning, and another one in the evening, after work. It’s a habit that we’re not yet seeing among New Yorkers,” notes Eric Kayser. “It’s up to us to change their routine!”
Article published in the September 2015 issue of France-Amérique.