Lionel Poilâne sells the most famous bread in Paris. In fact, he sells 15,000 loaves of bread each day — 2.5% of all bread sold in Paris, by weight. But he doesn’t think of himself as a mere baker. Most bakers simply mix dough, shape loaves, and shove them into the oven. And while for many years he did all of those things every day, that still doesn’t make him a baker.
Ever since Poilâne, 55, took over the family bakery from his father roughly 30 years ago, his life’s work has been to elevate the level of his own craft. In doing so, he has adopted an approach to his art and his business that is equal parts ancient and modern, historically grounded and technologically sophisticated, locally based and globally aware, product-oriented and philosophically informed. Poilâne somehow manages to bring all of those elements together in a simple, delicious loaf of bread.
The bread itself is decidedly old school: Thick, chewy, and rich with a dark, fire-tinged flavor, Poilâne’s bread traces its heritage back to the original French bread. But his business is remarkably modern. Today, Poilâne has a new shop in London and two older ones in Paris. And on the outskirts of the City of Light, he has his own global baking facility, where 40 bakers work at 16th-century ovens in teams of 2. Each day, Poilâne-branded bread travels by company-owned trucks to more than 2,500 shops and restaurants throughout Paris, and by FedEx delivery to Poilâne aficionados in roughly 20 countries around the world.
Poilâne’s secret isn’t hidden in a recipe. After all, there are only four ingredients in his basic loaf: flour, water, salt, and the starter (which provides the yeast). Poilâne’s secret is in his philosophy and creativity. Armed with a deep knowledge of how bread has changed over time, Poilâne has developed an approach that he calls “retro-innovation,” and it has made him successful in a city where people take bread very, very seriously. “Retro-innovation takes the best of the old and the best of the new,” Poilâne explains. “You can only do it if you free your mind, if you don’t belong to anything.”
Old Bread, New Bread
When Poilâne first became an apprentice to his father at 14, the family business was still quite small. There was just one Poilâne bakery in Paris, and it was only in the previous few years that Lionel’s father had started experimenting with the large, dark, old-fashioned loaves that are a Poilâne trademark today. Intrigued, Lionel threw himself into the project — even though nearby bakeries had long abandoned the older styles of bread. “There are many ways to solve a problem,” he says. “In baking, people are always looking for the new bread. But it exists already. Using old ways is a glorious way to make new things. The man with the best future is the one with the longest memory.”
In the early 1980s, Poilâne decided to tap into the memories of the oldest bakers in the country to see if they could give him advice on how to reproduce the older styles of bread. With the help of two students, he contacted more than 10,000 bakers over a two-year period. “I conducted an ethnography of my own business,” he says.
Most of the bakers had only fading memories to offer, but some were thrilled that he was trying to revive older bread-making traditions and offered to bake him sample loaves. By the time he was finished with his study, Poilâne had tried more than 75 different types of bread that he’d never tasted before. He eventually wrote up his findings in a book — a study that is still used today in baking schools throughout France. He also amassed a library full of books on bread, which today contains more than 2,000 volumes.
Armed with all of this information, Poilâne perfected his father’s technique. Then he waited, hoping eventually to persuade others to try it out. “Regional, dark French bread had almost disappeared because it was once the bread of the poor people,” Poilâne explains. “After World War II, the chic bread was white. It became the rich bread. It was new, and it represented freedom, even though it wasn’t really French.” According to Poilâne, the white bread that became most popular — the baguette — actually originated in Austria.
Today, the baguette remains popular; it is impossible to walk more than a block or two in Paris without crossing paths with someone who is toting one. But with a texture somewhere between cotton and marshmallows, and with a taste that barely registers wheat, the vast majority of Parisian baguettes work best as a staging ground for sandwiches or as a tool to sop up soup. Poilâne refuses to make them.
This deep understanding of history gives Poilâne and his bakers the background — and the inspiration — that they need to make old-fashioned bread each day. The bakers’ work doesn’t look particularly complicated or difficult, but small subtleties can make a huge difference. “You can make thousands of products with only three ingredients,” Poilâne says. “The water and flour can, of course, be very different. Then there are the conditions: the geography and the climate. There’s yeast, fermentation, time, oven, and shape. Manipulation is important too.”
Poilâne is a stickler for many of those details, but he’s surprisingly lax about others. The flour is a combination of wheat mixes from four different mills, and the sea salt absolutely must come from Brittany. The water, however, comes from the tap at the three storefront shops and from a well at the larger bakery. The bakers shape the loaves loosely by hand, paying no mind to the odd bumps and imperfections that emerge. The wood-fired clay-and-brick ovens, however, must be perfect — and Poilâne has spent years designing the specifications. “They take one month to build, one month to dry, and one month to heat to 240 degrees Celsius,” he explains. “If you try to warm them up more quickly, the clay cracks: Pop!”
As the business has grown, Poilâne has begrudgingly added croissants, tarts, a brioche, and a few other breads to his repertoire. While all are high-quality products, the old-fashioned, oversized, wood-fired country loaf still far outsells all of the other products combined. “If you start to make too many things, that’s extension,” he says. “My motto is, Do things with intention, not with extension.”
Loaves and Fedexes
When it comes to bread, Poilâne is set in his ways. When it comes to distribution, however, he has a more innovative operation than any other baker on Earth — which is to say, he is one of the few bakers on Earth to take his bread global.
Poilâne’s desire to ship his bread stemmed initially from his lack of interest in owning more stores. Last June, Poilâne finally opened a bakery in London — but there probably won’t be too many more such openings soon. “I can get on the train and be in London in three hours,” he says, explaining why he decided to open there. “But I’m not eager to have a business card that says ‘Paris, London, New York’ on it. We thought about opening in Japan, but we couldn’t have a wood fire there. It’s important in business to be able to say no when you feel like saying yes would mean losing your soul.”
Instead of building little bakeries all over the globe, Poilâne built one big one on the outskirts of Paris. When it first opened 18 years ago, it was designed to fill orders from other shops and restaurants in Paris. “We wanted to take an ancient product and reproduce it on an industrial, multiplied level,” explains Ibu Poilâne, 52, Lionel’s wife, an artist and designer who helped him design the building.
To the Poilânes, the round structure is anything but a factory — and one visit makes the difference clear. Instead of building a production line, the Poilânes simply put 24 identical ovens — duplicates of the 100-ton ones in the basement of the storefront bakeries — in a circle. In the middle is an atrium with enormous piles of wood to heat the ovens. Workers use a ceiling-mounted remote-controlled crane to pick it up and deposit it in chutes that lead to the ovens.
Poilâne’s global bread business developed as a natural response to customer demand: Stores and individuals started calling from abroad to ask Poilâne to ship them bread, so he started to take advantage of the large FedEx hub at nearby Roissy-Charles-de-Gaulle airport. FedEx allows Poilâne’s bread to leave the bakery in the early morning and be on dinner tables in the United States the next night. All it takes is a quick warm-up in the oven to make the bread taste as good as it does in Paris. And the size of the basic Poilâne loaf — about 4 pounds — helps the bread travel well and last longer. Global bread sales are growing: Last year, exports were up 30%. Poilâne has also long sold his loaves over the Internet.
Poilâne’s bread has won him famous fans over the years: Frank Sinatra and Lauren Bacall used to enjoy a loaf from time to time, and Robert De Niro is a customer. The most devoted patron, however, is a gentleman in New York who wants to remain anonymous. In 1997, he agreed to pay Poilâne $100,000, asking that his children and grandchildren receive a loaf a week for the rest of their lives. “Can you imagine?” Poilâne says, with obvious pride. “In 50 years, he’ll be dead, but his grandchildren will be feeding our bread to their children and explaining how they are eating the bread of their great-grandfather!”
As the business has gone global, Poilâne has become an ambassador of sorts. This suits him fine, since 10 or 12 years stoking the subterranean ovens was plenty for him. “When I first started as an apprentice, I was a very bitter boy stuck down in the basement with the bread,” he says. “I thought I was outside of the world.” Now people from all over the world seek him out. He keeps his office in a lofty space on the top floor of the building that houses the original bakery and store, so he can come down and meet customers when they visit. “The pleasure of life is in meeting people, and the shop is open to the street, so it’s a great social space,” he says.
Baker or builder? Ambassador or philosopher? Even Poilâne’s friend Salvador Dali couldn’t figure it out. “He thought I was an artist who happened to work on bread,” Poilâne says. “In fact, I was just a baker who was interested in artistic projects. But that confusion led to a good relationship. In some ways, every businessman needs to learn how to be an artist. It’s crucial when you’re leading a project.”
One of Poilâne’s favorite projects is the cage that he and Dali made together out of bread dough. “The bird could eat its way out of the cage,” Poilâne explains. “That was very real to me. As an apprentice, I too felt like a bird in a cage made out of bread. I just fed on my limits.”
Ron Lieber (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a Fast Company senior writer. Contact Lionel Poilâne by email (email@example.com), or visit his bakery on the Web (www.poilane.fr).