Bread and better

Bakery chain Au Bon Pain has rolled out a completely new offer to refresh the business. Sue Holaday examines the thinking behind it

Leadership can sometimes mean acknowledging you don’t have all the answers. When bakery-café Au Bon Pain wanted to revamp its offer it brought in experts in such areas as ergonomics and branding. Each worked closely with management to come up with new ways to improve the operation, refreshing a concept that had become increasingly complex over 30 years.

The company started in 1978 when its founder, Louis Kane, was inspired by the smell of fresh-baked bread from a display of French ovens in the Faneuil Hall Marketplace on Boston, US. He decided to make fresh bread and croissants available to everyone in the city and opened the first Au Bon Pain. Over the years new menu platforms were added.

In the past two years, more than 300 stores – nearly 50% of the company’s cafés – have been remodelled along fast-casual lines, and the programme is being embraced by franchisees as well. President and CEO Sue Morelli says: “The goal is to reach 75% within a year. The cost of the refresh ranges from $100,000 for a new build-out, depending on a unit’s needs and lease.” She sees the programme as “providing a great guest experience and guests have responded favourably”.

In the beginning, the cafés served morning breakfast, coffee and pastries to customers in office buildings across metropolitan areas of the north-east US. The menu broadened over the years to offer fresh, local, healthy fare throughout the day. From the original croissants, breads and pastries, menus grew to offer a mix of soups, salads, and cold and hot made-to-order sandwiches.

Today, venues range from commercial to non-commercial with outlets in schools, colleges, hospitals, transportation centres, museums and more. “We focused on all spaces within the café – people, place and product,” says Morelli. “Today, the menu and design aspects of the programme continue to evolve as we learn more.”

The programme began with extensive market research and competitive analysis led by Michael Markowitz of Michael Markowitz + Associates, Inc of Santa Fe, New Mexico. The result – known as the ABP Concept Essence – led to more work with Interbrand Design Forum, which helped develop the new prototype for the business, and Juan Martinez FCSI of Profitality, an industrial engineering firm in Miami, who focused on the work stations and flow within the prototype.

Markowitz recalls: “Sue didn’t feel that she sufficiently understood the process, so she hired me. It was a brave and courageous leadership move.”

He began with a look at the brand’s DNA, which he describes as “the most meaningful way a brand answers the ‘what’s in it for me?’ customer question. In a competitive business like fast casual dining, you need to be in complete control of the way you answer that question.”

Viewing his role as one of creating “a roadmap for action and implementation,” he sought to give the management team a sharper focus on what they seek to do for the guest. “You’re always doing things the customer doesn’t know about that would make the brand more inviting,” he says, “from cracking fresh eggs to baking all day.”

Design, Markowitz believes, “is an enormous opportunity to express the brand. Sue had the whole team psyched up about developing a new prototype. A major emphasis was to make the guest experience easier, like using iPads for order taking. We wanted to make it simpler for the guest to use more facets of ABP in a short visit. It can be very quick in the morning for coffee, OJ and fresh pastry, but it’s many things to different people at different times of the day.”

Dayton, Ohio-based Tom Kowalski, vice president of design at Interbrand Design Forum, saw the biggest problem as the large number of menu platforms leading to confusion, so he did consumer dine-alongs to learn their views.

“We wanted to showcase the food, the quality and the ingredients. We designed the store to celebrate the custom areas – sandwiches and soups, and so the customers could circulate and digest each part individually.”

The biggest challenge, he says, was deciding “what to emphasise and how much drama to create around key offerings. We had to prioritise the elements.”

Interbrand’s attention to the experience was because, “there’s a lot of competition today. It’s a necessity, not a trend.”

Martinez worked with ABP around labour. “I’m a labour guru, my PhD is in ergonomics. We created menu guidelines around the offerings and documented every task to deliver service. The menu is the most versatile and expansive – it’s the largest task list we’ve ever done.”

The made-to-order sandwich component received a new workstation design to deliver products with speed. “Made-to-order is a significant trend that adds labour,” says Martinez. “We became ABP’s industrial engineering department, creating a small volume, ultra-high capacity station. They can do 400 transactions an hour with made-to-order hot sandwiches. You have to design with the future in mind. If you don’t innovate, you die, but if you do it incorrectly, you kill yourself.”

Speed was of the essence, so combination ovens from MerryChef were chosen. “That was a key catalyst in designing the hot and cold sandwich stations so they ran on the same highway,” adds Martinez. “Customer-operated ordering terminals shifted the labour from ABP to the guest. By the time they finish ordering, the food is ready.”

Easy flow workstations were another key factor. “We have pods of cashiers, no bottlenecks,” he says.

Martinez continues that most exciting was “working with engaged executives with decades of experience in so many areas. It was very collaborative and you end up with so many ideas.”

Launching the new hot sandwiches, Morelli recalls, ABP wanted technology that would ensure a truly hot sandwich when guests bite into the middle. We also sourced a box to package the sandwich in so the bread doesn’t get soggy yet the sandwich stays hot during transport.

“Our Concept Essence is to deliver healthy, delicious, high-quality foods,” she says. “We were at the forefront in removing trans fats over 10 years ago, and we continue to do a lot of work lowering salt. Our refresh includes the introduction of Create Your Own Salad, with 30-plus fresh ingredients. Our breakfast line is seeing great success with egg whites on skinny bagels with fresh avocado.”

Recently, a gluten-free bakery line and Greek yogurt were introduced, as well as vegan and low-salt soups. Rolling out now is a new hospitality training programme called The Smile to ensure “memorable hospitality” for the guest. It supplements a new in-store communications programme that talks to the guest about sustainable, fresh, delicious menu choices.

Morelli, who’s been with the company 25 years and is one of the industry’s top female executives, notes that “from day one, we’ve been progressive on all social issues including women in business – women are very prominent at ABP in both our field organisation and leadership ranks.

“More of the same” lies ahead for business, she adds, “because it is working for us. We’re accelerating unit growth with 10 to 15 new domestic cafés on the company side annually and more than 20 new cafés in India and Thailand, our two thriving international markets.”

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