In France, one's daily routine includes a trip to the boulangerie for freshly baked croissants. And in major cities throughout the United States, Vie de France, a nine-year-old wholesale and retail bakery, is working hard to establish a similar tradition among Americans, either at the firm's retail stores or in 2,500 supermarket and liquor outlets.
From corporate headquarters across Leesburg Pike at Tysons Corner, the firm's president, Lloyd J. Faul, a retired Army brigadier general, directs a national operation that plans to continue its steady expansion.
"We have eight wholesale bakeries and will open a ninth in Houston in September," points out the Lafayette, La., native. In addition to its wholesale facility, which is down the road from the Tysons Corner headquarters, Vie de France's other wholesale operations are in Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, Denver, Los Angeles, Philadelphia and Englewood, N.J. (serving New York).
There are also 12 retail cafe/bakeries in cities from coast to coast, including one at 1990 K St. NW. Another is to open soon in Dallas, and five others are under construction. Two years ago, the firm introduced its mini-bakery concept, which has proliferated to 245 outlets nationwide, with aggregate sales running at an annual rate of $3.6 million.
For the fiscal year ended in June, company sales were $17.5 million. Projections for fiscal year 1982 are $26.6 million. By comparison, in fiscal 1976, sales equaled a tad under $7 million. Currently, wholesale operations account for approximately 55 percent of total sales.
Since its inception in May 1972, Vie de France has, through its expansion and diversity, undergone basic changes. One primary concept has been the mini-bakery idea, with its concomitant, fundamental operational adjustment. Each mini-bakery, usually two or three times a month, buys an already-made, frozen croissant-shaped piece of dough from its regional wholesale supplier.
The frozen dough subsequently is baked on the premises of the mini-bakery. Consequently, certain costs are minimized or avoided completely. For example, each outlet doesn't need a master French baker, which represents a major departure from earlier Vie de France practices.
"The operation is much more economical," concludes Faul. "In addition to saving the cost of the baker, we avoid $50,000 in capital investment: There is no need for a French oven and each facility needs 400 feet less space."
Faul insists that quality has not been compromised. "We follow the same special procedure that puts the product in the freezer right after the ingredients have been mixed together. All we're doing is preserving the product in the freezer rather than in the bag. The most important aspect remains the same: We still have the skill to do it right in our wholesale bakery."
If there is some doubt about quality, there is none concerning customer acceptance. With the 245 outlets selling at a rate exceeding $2.5 million a year, representing average sales of 20,000 croissants a week at many urban shops, Vie de France is convinced that its frozen-dough, mini-bakery idea has caught on.
Nationwide, only one mini-bakery, a gourmet store in Reading, Pa., has a license to bake Vie de France bread as well as croissants. All the rest prepare only croissants. The main reason is that the dough for the bread must be prepared at the bakery itself, rather than being received frozen. Therefore, the bread recipe itself must be bought, and it is expensive. Also, to bake bread, one must use a relatively expensive, European-made oven. Currently, 80 percent are made in France, 20 percent in Sweden. For making croissants, American-made ovens suffice.
There's also a great disparity in total costs: For croissants only, an initial investment of $3,000 is required; if bread also is included, the requirement jumps to $15,000. By comparison, the average start-up costs for wholesale bakeries and retail cafe/bakeries are $500,000 and $350,000, respectively.
Besides adding other such facilities across the country, Vie de France soon will embark on a new venture. Beginning in January, it plans to open its first franchise operation which will carry the Vie de france name. Then, at a rate of one a month, the firm will add five businesses. And, later, the company intends to operate fast-food croissant parlors, not unlike many which have been spawned in New York. While timing and locations are well-guarded secrets, the fast-food outlets will be called something else.
In December, Vie de France will open another retail baker/restaurant in Washington, which will be located at the Capital Gallery near the National Air and Space Museum.
Two of three criteria must be satisfied, or Vie de France will not enter a specific location. These are: a reasonably high density of shopping traffic; a steady lunchtime, if not dinner, crowd; and a large number of residential buildings within easy walking or driving distance. Tysons Corner, Paul says, would be a perfect location, and when suitable space at the right price opens up, Vie de France will grab it.
Supplying bread regularly to restaurants like Le Bagatelle, Dominique and Chez Francois, Vie de France has made an appreciable dent in Washington's finest French culinary hang-outs. But, with a recommended retail price of 91 cents for a package of two butter croissants, or a single long loaf of bread -- the classic baguette -- the product is not for everybody. Packages of two almond or chocolate crosissants are supposed to sell for $1.06. But at New York shopping institutions like Bloomingdale's, Macy's and Zabar's, that price would be a steal.
Those 245 mini-bakeries, with company sales running into millions, are spread around the country. On second thought, maybe they are for everybody.