A breadmaker inherits some serious dough

At 18, Apollonia Poilâne inherited Paris's most famous bakery. When she graduates from Harvard this spring, the economics major will put her stamp on the cult brand. Fortune's Tom Sancton reports.

By Tom Sancton, Fortune

(Fortune Magazine) -- On the night of Oct. 31, 2002, Lionel Poilâne, France's most famous breadmaker, took the controls of his Augusta eight-seat helicopter and headed off to Brittany. The 57-year-old was in the process of transforming a 70-year-old neighborhood bakery into an international brand. He intended to spend the All Saints' Day weekend with his wife, Irena, a Polish-American artist and designer, at their chateau on the Île des Rimains.

For reasons still unknown, the chopper crashed into the fog-enshrouded English Channel just 500 yards from the island. Investigators found Lionel's body still strapped in his seat under 30 feet of water. Irena's body was never found.

Don't know a Bâtard from a boule? Here's a briefing on bread shapes. --Eugenia Levenson
This slender loaf, about two feet long, is most commonly found tucked under Parisian arms.
A round loaf, which when large can also be called a miche. Poilâne's weighs over four pounds.
The "bastard" child of a long baguette and a round boule, this loaf is oval-shaped.
Èpi de blè
The Èpi is made by slicing an unbaked baguette to resemble the wheat sheaf after which it is named.
A skinnier baguette, this loaf takes its name from the French word for string.
Paln de mle
This square-shaped loaf - which translates as "bread of crumb" - is known in the U.S. as the Pullman loaf, or sandwich bread.

Their eldest daughter, Apollonia Poilâne, then 18, heard the news in the family's Paris apartment, where she was staying with her younger sister Athéna. Apollonia came to the family's main shop the morning after the disaster and announced that the world-renowned French bakery started by her grandfather would continue under her leadership.

Today, at 22, Apollonia is an economics student at Harvard College and presides over a baking empire with annual sales of more than $18 million, employing 150 people and producing up to 10,000 loaves of chewy, thick-crusted brown bread each day. She and a cadre of advisors have kept the company thriving, but they face a new set of growing pains as they move beyond French shores.

"Poilâne has become a great brand name, but it remains a niche market. Apollonia can continue to grow within this niche. But is it reproducible, expandable, franchisable on an industrial, international scale? That's possible, but if so, it would lose the authenticity that has been its strongest attraction," says Jacques-Henri Bourdois, managing director of the Association Syndicale des Moyennes Entreprises Patrimoniales (ASMEP), a lobbying group for medium-sized French companies.

Currently the company exports more than half a million loaves a year via FedEx to vendors and private customers in some 50 countries - including the celebrities Robert De Niro, Steven Spielberg and Lauren Bacall. Cafés, sandwich shops, and supermarkets - not to mention three-star French chefs like Alain Ducasse - serve more than 5,000 metric tons of Poilâne to their customers annually. All of which makes Poilâne (pronounced pwa-LEN) without a doubt the best-known bread in a country where bread is almost a sacred object.

Making the business rise

Apollonia Poilâne's colleagues like to say she grew up with "flour in her veins." As she sits in a back room of the original bakery, surrounded by paintings of Poilâne loaves that local artists gave her grandfather in exchange for their daily bread, she explains, "I have been motivated by a passion for my family's business since I was very small. I used to work on Wednesday and Saturday afternoons in the bakery, putting cookies in bags, working in the office or down by the oven as an apprentice baker," she says in flawless American-accented English.

Now in her final year at Harvard, she remains in close touch with the home office via telephone and e-mail, deciding on everything from pricing and packaging to personnel. She looks forward to "developing my bread retailer's network around the world." That could involve opening new shops, but Poilâne is intentionally vague about her precise plans. She does intend to keep it a family business.

"They could expand by developing an organic line, for example, or by opening out into the French provinces - places like Lyon, Nice, Lille," says Cornell University professor Steven Kaplan, an expert on the French baking industry and author of the recently published book Good Bread Is Back. "There are real prospects for expansion if Apollonia is gutsy."

It was Apollonia's grandfather Pierre Poilâne who first opened the family bakery in 1932 in Paris's Saint-Germain-des-Prés neighborhood. A native of Normandy, he brought with him the memory of that region's traditional sourdough loaves and persisted in making them at a time when the baguette, with its thin crust and cottony interior, was becoming increasingly popular.