ST. JEAN DE MONTS, FRANCE — To experience a tasty morsel of joie de vivre, casually stroll inside the La Mie Caline store in St. Jean de Monts, a windswept seaside resort village nestled along the Atlantic coast in west-central France.
Locals and tourists visiting the popular Vendée region receive a friendly greeting from bakers behind the display cases teeming with French bread, classic croissants, elegant desserts and other delicate sweet goods. La Mie Caline also offers an abounding array of freshly made sandwiches, hot pizza, prepared foods and even healthy salads that are touted as “Mie Chic” on the company’s web site.
To get to the engine that drives this nationwide chain, however, take a 5-minute drive away from the nearby beaches to the industrial section of town. That’s also where a sprawling 200,000-square-foot central bakery turns out millions of these morsels of joy each year for 238 La Mie Caline outlets throughout the country.
To be more precise, the plant’s 12 production lines crank out 20 million baguettes, 16 million cookies, 12 million pain au chocolat, 8 million croissants and 1 million paninis annually, noted Stéphane Babarit, director of R.&D. and industrial process.
And those are only the top sellers. Overall, Mr. Babarit added that the versatile wholesale operation produces 160 stock-keeping units, which are delivered frozen to each La Mie Caline franchisee two to three days a week. Par-baked bread, croissants and cookie dough are then baked off in La Mie Caline’s stores while some donuts and desserts are finished on-premise and sold to more than 40 million customers annually.
In addition to its repertoire of baked foods that remain culturally true to the nation’s culinary cuisine, Mr. Babarit pointed out that the bakery also has expanded into organic and non-G.M.O.-certified offerings as its portfolio diversifies to meet the latest in consumer trends. All items, he said, contain no preservatives or artificial flavors. It seems the movement toward local, natural and clean label apparently knows no borders.
“What makes us different is the concept of having fresh, quality products all the time,” Mr. Babarit explained. “We use only 100% French wheat. We never use margarine, only butter. Local farmers provide our milk. Our baguettes receive a traditional resting time to make sure they’re made the proper way.”
Deeply grounded in grains
Describing the storied history of this constantly evolving business is genuinely complex. Even the chain’s name is subject to a play on words. Literally, La Mie translates to “the crumb” in English while Caline means “comfort” or “cuddle.” Even Wikipedia interpreted the name differently as “the cuddle Mie” while some locals affiliated with the bakery suggested it more figuratively means “my friend Caline” to them.
Comfort and friendship are some of the attributes that aptly describe the company’s culture, Mr. Babarit said.
“You get a very warm welcome every time you go into one of our stores,” he said. “We want to be like your neighborhood bakery.”
To discover the company’s origins, venture back to 1850 when the Barreteau family started up a flour mill among the rustic marshes in the Vendée region. Then, jump ahead to 1957 when the next generation anchored the family’s current presence in St. Jean de Mont by opening another neighborhood bakehouse. In 1977, the third generation took over their parents’ small business. That’s when the concept for La Mie Caline was born.
Overwhelmed by the onslaught of summertime visitors to their little bakery, Andre Barreteau along with his wife Michelle and sister Catherine created the prototype of takeaway shops offering gourmet grab-and-go snacks and wholesome meals. They toyed with supplying emerging supermarket in-store bakeries but thought building a bakery and takeaway business of their own would be the most successful prospect, and it was.
By the mid-1990s, La Mie Caline began to flourish. Mr. Barreteau then built a 40,000-square-foot central bakery in 1996 to supply the chain with baked foods. As the number of La Mie Caline franchisees doubled from 100 in 2001 to 203 in 2012 and flourished geographically, the facility expanded three times. The most recent expansion was in 2010 when the company switched to providing the stores with par-baked bread instead of frozen dough. Today, both the wholesale production facility and the La Mie Caline chain operate under the Monts Fournil SAS, founded by Mr. Barreteau, who, with family members, is still actively involved in the business.
Since its last expansion, the company has steadily invested in new equipment and operational efficiencies to add capacity, develop new products and enhance quality and food safety. During Baking & Snack’s tour of the bakery in February, Mr. Babarit pointed out the latest installation of a new Rademaker croissant line will bolster capacity to 16,000 pieces an hour from 9,000 on the existing system.
Likewise, the bakery is installing a new Rademaker sheeting line with a Mecatherm proofer for yet-to-be-announced baked foods later this year.
Expansion on the horizon
All products are stored in the facility’s 4,000-pallet freezer prior to shipping via refrigerated trucks to distribution centers through LMC-Mousset, a partnership between La Mie Caline and a respected French transportation company. Mr. Babarit noted that a major project will computerize and further streamline warehouse operations in the near future.
The long term, he added, involves potential international expansion — first to adjacent French-speaking regions in parts of southern Belgium or southwestern Switzerland — and possibly partnering with another company to expand to other countries throughout Europe as well.
Asked if the company would consider building a second industrial bakery to streamline distribution, Mr. Babarit observed that the current facility could supply 400 stores before it runs out of capacity.
“Our owners want to stay local and support the community,” he proudly noted.
Besides, it’s only a short drive to miles of pristine sandy beaches where everyone can buy a quick snack from the nearby La Mie Caline and enjoy the sunset and other little pleasures in life.