A breadmaker inherits some serious dough (cont.)

By Tom Sancton, Fortune

Pierre's two sons, Max, born in 1941, and Lionel, four years younger, were weaned on his passion for quality bread and traditional methods. "After the war people looked with disdain on our product - its darker color reminded them of 'soldiers' bread,' the ersatz they had to eat under the Occupation," says Max Poilâne, who later started a bakery under his own name after a falling-out with his brother.

When Pierre Poilâne suffered an incapacitating stroke in 1971, Lionel gained control of the business. He opened a second Paris bakery in 1974. In 1982, faced with rapidly rising demand, he built a factory on the outskirts of Paris - the Poilâne folks insist on calling it a "manufactory" to stress their artisanal methods - that turns out between 7,000 and 9,000 loaves a day. In 2000, Lionel set up a Poilâne bakery in London, building the city's first wood-burning oven since the Great Fire of 1666.

A slender man with a penchant for eccentric clothes, he articulated the notion that bread was a cultural icon. Still stinging from his "imprisonment" in the basement oven room during his apprenticeship, Lionel adored hobnobbing with stars and artists.

Filling his shoes

At the time of his death, Apollonia was already being groomed to succeed her larger-than-life father. "It was understood. It just happened earlier than expected," says Geneviève Brière, Lionel's former executive assistant, who has continued in that role under Apollonia.

Apollonia is backed up by five senior managers, all longtime company veterans. Director-general Jean Lapoujade, 46, is the one who runs the operation on a day-to-day basis. An 18-year veteran of the firm, Lapoujade greets me at the circular, spotlessly white "manufactory" in the Paris suburb of Bièvres.

The site is the embodiment of Lionel Poilâne's pet concept of "retro-innovation" - the selective use of modern techniques in the service of traditional baking. But the real innovation here is more in the logistical organization than in mechanization: The only machines at the Bièvres plant are the automatic kneading bins. The rest of the work is done by hand by 60 Poilâne-trained bakers, who work around the clock in three shifts. "What we're really doing here," says Lapoujade, "is using artisanal methods to produce bread on a quasi-industrial scale."

Starting at 4 A.M. every day, trucks rumble up to the loading dock, then fan out to deliver warm Poilâne loaves to vendors in the Greater Paris region. In the afternoon other trucks will take boxed loaves to Charles de Gaulle airport; from there FedEx planes deliver them overseas within 24 to 48 hours. Cost per FedExed loaf in the U.S.: about $47, compared with $10 in Paris.

Following Lionel Poilâne's accident, Lapoujade shouldered the burden of the transition. "I won't hide the fact that I've had more work since Lionel died," he says with a wry smile. "Apollonia had the intelligence to put her confidence in the people who had worked with her father, and we had the intelligence to accept her as our boss. We discuss things. She listens. In the end, she decides."

Perhaps the biggest question mark over Poilâne's future is this: Will it remain a family-owned, single-product company in the absence of its celebrity patriarch? Geneviève Brière has no doubts that the company will continue, but in a different fashion.

"Apollonia has certain qualities of her father, and will develop her own personality. But she will develop differently," says Brière. "It's terrible to put on her the obligation to be a carbon copy of what her father did. There will never be another Lionel Poilâne ."

Eugenia Levenson contributed to this article.


Big money and high art mix in Miami Beach Top of page