Creamy desserts created by a French pastry chef in San Francisco have found a foodie following on the West Coast of the United States. The brand of organic puddings Petit Pot is hoping to expand across the rest of the country and compete with major American groups by 2018.
The company founded by Maxime Pouvreau was born of disappointment. Upon visiting a U.S. supermarket for the first time ten years ago, the Landes-born Frenchman was unable to find the pots de crème, chocolats viennois, cafés liégeois, flans, riz au lait, îles flottantes and other dairy desserts so popular in France. Americans are major consumers of yogurt (the national market is four times the size of that in France), but “milk-based desserts were nowhere to be found,” says the French pastry chef. “A handful of outdated brands such as Kozy Shack, Swiss Miss and Jell-O sell puddings, but there’s nothing to compare with what you find in France.”
This dessert crème is one of the products French expats in the U.S.A. miss the most. And it’s easy to see why. Available in countless formats and flavors — vanilla, pistachio, praline, espresso, speculoos, salted caramel, white chocolate, mint chocolate, pear chocolate, coconut chocolate, extra-dark chocolate, and more — the pot de crème is ubiquitous in French supermarkets. Brands such as Danette, La Laitière, Mamie Nova, Bonne Maman, and Mont Blanc top the sector’s sales rankings. In France alone, the “fresh dairy dessert” sector — which does not include yoghurt — represents annual sales of 1.43 billion euros, and big supermarkets each devote 102 feet of shelf-space to these products. The equivalent space in the United States makes up a measly few inches.
From the Le Meurice Hotel to Silicon Valley
In an effort to fill this gap, Maxime Pouvreau founded the Petit Pot company in 2013. He developed his idea for the pot de crème in the kitchens of Le Radius, the restaurant in San Francisco where he worked as a pastry chef at the time. He adapted the recipes he had learned at the Parisian palace hotel Le Meurice, adjusting the ingredients and method for a chocolate ganache using milk, cream, eggs, and cholate. He also refined a recipe for a lemon meringue pie by reducing the quantity of sugar. Alongside these experiments, he trained himself in management, accounting, and commercial law, and graduated from a community college in Berkley with a business diploma. “Being able to make desserts is one thing, but you also have to know how to sell them,” says the young entrepreneur.
Armed with his new desserts, Maxime Pouvreau began approaching supermarkets in San Francisco. A food cooperative in the Mission District agreed to stock Petit Pot products on their shelves, and the pastry chef quickly found himself supplying some 20 stores. He carried out the deliveries himself by car, and asked local business owners for help in printing his first barcodes. “I’d just left the restaurant industry. I had no idea how the supermarket sector worked!”
When discussing his professional experience, the 31-year-old pâtissier is quick to put his journey down to chance. “I started working at the age of 18. I have nothing in common with the French people who graduate from HEC [a prestigious Parisian business school] who build their careers in and around San Francisco,” he says. “But Silicon Valley enabled me to meet investors and clients. I was really lucky.” One such fortunate encounter was with one of the “local foragers” from the Whole Foods Market chain at a culinary event in San Francisco. The product scout offered an encouraging conclusion: “I love your desserts, but you’ve got to work on your packaging.”
100% Californian Ingredients
Petit Pot signed a distribution agreement with Whole Foods on November 2014, and made its first appearance in one of the chain’s stores in Berkeley. Six months later, the brand was present in every one of the company’s locations in Northern California — a total of 43 supermarkets. The “simple ingredients” and the glass jar — recyclable packaging combined with a healthy, eco-friendly product — quickly convinced consumers, according to one of the U.S. group’s spokeswomen.
The know-how is French, but the raw materials are “100% Californian,” says Maxime Pouvreau, who became a naturalized American citizen last July. The milk and the cream come from the Humboldt Creamery on the coast north of San Francisco, the eggs are sourced from Chico in the Central Valley, and the chocolate is from Guittard, a French chocolate company founded in 1868. In a laboratory south of San Francisco, five employees are tasked with producing the organic-certified desserts. New flavors have been introduced, including Madagascar vanilla (“the most popular ice cream flavor in the United States”), salted caramel (“a flavor often associated with France”), and coffee. And by way of satisfying American consumers looking for seasonal tastes, Petit Pot also sells a spiced pumpkin crème and a mint chocolate crème in time for the end-of-year celebrations. A riz au lait [rice pudding] line was also launched last March, and is already hot on the heels of the chocolate and vanilla crèmes, the company’s two best-selling products.
Eight Hundred Outlets
Petit Pot produces 15,000 jars every week, and is now available in four of the eleven Whole Food group’s sales regions in the United States (Northern California, Southern California, the Rocky Mountains region, and the South-West), as well as in stores owned by the Safeway group in California and Hawaii, and in some 15 Mom’s Organic Market stores in Washington D.C. In New York, small numbers of the pots de crème are available in around a dozen high-end delis and boutiques, including Le District, Brooklyn Fare and Health Nuts. In total, the brand’s products are stocked in almost 800 outlets in the United States.
“Our objective is to use the Whole Foods distribution network to expand our offering across the entire country by 2018,” says Maxime Pouvreau. “Having our products stocked at Whole Foods is excellent for the brand’s image, while also helping us convince other stores.” However, if Petit Pot wants to win over Fairway, Shop Rite, Stop & Shop, and Costco, it will have to cut its prices somewhat. Sold at 2.99 dollars apiece, the organic pots de crème are six times more expensive than other competing products, which generally go for around 50 cents.
Recognized French Know-How
“Petit Pot is still in its early days,” says Maxime Pouvreau, whose company currently posts earnings of one million dollars. By comparison, the pudding brand Kozy Shack, owned by the Land O’Lakes dairy group, generates more than 100 million dollars in turnover. The U.S. refrigerated dairy dessert market is restricted, and big industrial groups have a monopoly. “We are trying to move the sector upmarket by offering high-end, organic products,” he says.
Milk-based desserts are a “niche market” in the United States, but Petit Pot has the advantage of being both the segment’s first independent producer, and the first French dessert brand to establish itself permanently in the country. (French brand Rians only distributes its crème brûlées in Walmart and Costco stores for the festive season). This autumn, Maxime Pouvreau hopes to subcontract production to a factory north of San Francisco. The site is far bigger and better equipped, and will enable the brand to increase its distribution capacity tenfold.
Another advantage for the pots de crème and the riz au lait, which are labeled “Traditional French Desserts,” is that French recipes enjoy a positive image in the eyes of U.S. consumers. “The ‘French Touch’ does give us the upper hand,” says the businessman. “When it comes to dairy products and desserts, the French have a certain know-how that the Americans recognize and admire.”