What began as a modest effort by Turkish-born Semin Ustun to bake "some good French bread" in Washington, D.C., is now Vie de France, a profitable international enterprise whose wholesale bakeries have spread from Maryland to Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands.
Ustun and three friends founded the company whose red-white-and-blue-wrapped breads and other products adorn the shelves of supermarkets nationally.
They took a lot of care and planning to create a product that was just right and just French. American flour was sent to Paris to be blended to match French flour. French technicians came to the United States to build stainless steel and brick ovens with, yes, bricks imported from France. French bakers -- many of whom were trained at Grands Moulins de Paris baking schools -- arrived from Paris and Marseilles.
Most importantly, the recipes are French, and no preservatives or artificaal ingredients are used. Compay officials hasten to add that Vie de France is a "fresh daily" company. All baking is done on the premises even if the shop is located in congested areas or busy shopping centers.
The company began baking bread in 1972 in a small Bethesda bakery. At that time, a typical month's production included 350 loaves marketed to local shops and restaurants. Within a short time, 15 trucks were delivering bread to about 1,500 area outlets.
In 1973, the company opened a wholesale bakery in Boston for its first expansion effort. The Boston branch soon met with considerable success, prompting the company to expand to Philadelphia, Atlanta and Denver.
With five successful wholesale bakeries and a rapidly growing company on his hands, Lloyd J. Faul, executive vice president for Vie de France, decided in 1976 to consolidate the company "to improve management and personnel." Shortly after the consolidation, Grands Moulins de Paris, the largest miller in Europe, offered Vie de France investment capital. "This investment, combined with past profits, enabled us to continue expanding, even more substantially than before," Faul said.
In 1978, the company opend retail bakeries with adjoining carryout service in Houston, Westport, Conn., and Philadelphia. A cafe offering limited food service also was opened in Houston, where sandwich sales -- initially forecast to reach 15 to 20 percent of total business -- soared to 40 percent.
Company statistics reveal that the Houston bakery began making a profit in nine weeks and the Westport bakery broke even in two weeks. Similar success occurred in Philadelphia where wholesale and retail bakeries and a cafe all broke even within a few weeks.
Snow-covered Chicago is the most recent site of Vie de France bakeries and cafes. The company has settled in a suburban shopping center and near a downtown Chicago monument in Water Tower Place.
Grands Moulins de Paris re-evaluated the company's progress last year and acquired control by purchasing 65 percent of its stock. "We saw the company was doing well, and we knew it could compete with other profitable bakeries," explained Jean Louis Vilgrain, director general of Grands Moulins.
"That investment made our dream possible," Faul remarked. "We could continue bringing our products to many locations." Plans are underway for the opening of nine more retail and limited-food-service operations in the United States.
Grands Moulins' investment also made possible the company's latest venture -- which brings it back to its headquarters -- a restaurant located in the heart of downtown Washington, at 1990 K St. NW. Known as Vie de France Cafe, it offers authentic French bread and pastries and gourmet products imported from France. It is open for breakfast (the Continental version of croissants and rolls and French coffee) as well as lunch and dinner from Monday through Saturday.
Company officials shrug off the competition from the area's many posh French restaurants. Vie de France prices are reasonable and many area restaurants serve Vie de France products.
Moreover, because the French Embassy enjoys Vie de France products and a former ambassador praised its bread as "the best ever tasted outside of France," the company needs no further assurances. If a native Frenchman chooses its baguettes and croissants, then surely Americans will, company officials reason.
Other countries soon will receive Vie de France products; the company plans to open wholesale bakeries in England, Sweden, Japan and, possibly, China.