Fortune favors the bold. These are the first words uttered to me by Paul Baker, founder of St. Pierre Group, during his whirlwind business trip to the United States in November. Baker is a bundle of positive energy, clutching his Dangerously Good Ideas handbook (which he updates daily) and exhibiting an infectiously positive attitude – full of “Tigger vigor” (in his words).
“Our business model is different,” he begins our hour-long conversation. “We make our authentic products in France. From the get-go, we had to freeze the product. Little did we know what a benefit that would be.”
Back in 2014, even before the company’s rebrand from Carrs Foods to St. Pierre Group in 2019, Baker understood what level of effort would be required to be successful in the challenging new frontier of the U.S. market, where his company had only begun to dabble. Baker – a lead-by-example fanatic – hopped in a Dodge Challenger and drove across the States to visit with clients and offer them a taste of something new.
Yet, nothing could prepare anyone for the “tsunami of challenges” that would arrive two years ago when Covid-19 became a household word.
“We lost three-quarters of our stock in one week – because all of a sudden America was panic buying. What we realized is that we were able to service this unprecedented demand,” he recalls. “But none of us knew this was going to go on for two years.”
Seasonal fluctuations are normal to the business cycle. This was new --- and quite challenging.
“Consumption has changed. People want premium foods,” Baker says adamantly. “The only thing they can do now is have a really nice meal at home.”
As St. Pierre’s business continued to grow at an accelerating rate, after 12 months a new storm arrived in the form of logistics supply challenges.
“How do we make sure that customers have availability?” he said, noting that they immediately installed their Optimize, Simplify and Rationalize plan of action. For example, they looked to replace their chocolate chip brioche with sesame seed. All for the customer.
“Retailers were quick to say, just give us the best sellers,” Baker recalled. “We do enough research to know things are changing. We are optimizing. How can we make things more cost-effective? We will be rigorous in our analysis of every cost in the supply chain.”
Battleground for loyalty
There is a battleground for brand loyalty accelerating in the United States as consumers look to settle on those they can trust. The pandemic changed the dynamic. Trust in quality and safety have moved to the front of the line of consumer priorities.
“I’m a pragmatic optimist,” Baker says. “There is going to be a reset here. The world is already changing – look at hybrid working. Breakfast at home has become more important. Do they still want a lovely croissant? Yes, they do.
“Consumers and customers come to us because we are good at what we do. We have got to delight our customers. In return, our customers will tell us, we can rely on you.”
That is why St. Pierre is building a 11,000-pallet storage facility to ensure the supply chain can deliver as promised.
“I think surety of supply is going to become critically important,” Baker says. “That is the reality of this complex problem that we are heading into. We have got to do our utmost to get around this. The world has changed and is continuing to change at lightning speed. It may sound like an impossible task, but you just have to have the right people. We have 80 people now, and our passion and integrity are all in sync.”
Looking forward, Baker wants to “grow these little bits of joy” that St. Pierre brings to customers in every bite.
“My name is Baker. I am a baker, and I love the things we do,” he says with complete humility. “Everybody wants the good stuff. I think the world has appreciated our product, and there is a renaissance for good home-cooked food. All these things play in. We operate for the mainstream. During the pandemic, people understood that the quality of what we eat is so important, and that will stay.”
St Pierre Bakery imports its products into America, storing them frozen with distribution partners and offering retailers a thaw-and-sell proposition for fresh brioche in the perimeter. The brand has experienced phenomenal growth in the past year, with sales up 24 percent, thanks in part to its unique business model.
The category leader recently extended its range of brioche products by launching the first brioche bagel to be introduced to the US market. The business also announced the appointment of new chief executive officer, David Milner, in September along with an ambitious growth plan to drive distribution and extend St Pierre’s reach specifically in the US, where it is already worth more than $100 million.
National fill rate averages have been difficult to maintain for many suppliers this year, but new details from St. Pierre demonstrate an impressive 98 percent national fill rate average.
The brand has revealed the level of investment in its stock in country, allowing for a 12-week supply of its authentic French brioche products at any one time. This stockholding has seen the leading brioche brand assist retailers’ deli sectors in recent months.
“We pride ourselves on our authentic French recipes, our superior product delivering for the consumer and being a reliable partner supporting our grocery retailers,” Baker says. “Through our unique model, we work hard to ensure we deliver on time and in full.”
The US bakery sector has been grappling with supply chain and commodity cost challenges alongside the pandemic, navigating a range of hurdles. From ingredient shortages to workforce disruption, the situation has been described as “a perfect storm” by Lee Sanders, the American Bakers Association’s senior vice president, government relations and public affairs.
Brandy Hanger, director of deli & bakery merchandising at The Kroger Company adds, “We have faced supply chain challenges across the board over the past year, but bakery, in particular, has proved challenging. St Pierre hasn’t missed a beat in meeting the growing demand for high quality products and supporting in-stock in our stores.
“We have not had to change or supplement our product offering with alternative, lower quality replacements and we know our stock will be replenished, as agreed, when we need it,” Baker says. “It’s just another element of what makes working with St. Pierre Bakery such a positive experience and one of the many reasons we continue to support the brand in our stores across America.”
Meal occasions have changed dramatically over the past 12 months, driving growth in the breakfast and brunch market. Of those surveyed in a recent poll, 45 percent believe that a date over breakfast for brunch would help keep the atmosphere casual, one in three (36 percent) actually prefer it to any other mealtime for a date, and 87 percent have opted for a breakfast or brunch date.
“This is great insight for key occasions,” Baker explains. “For retailers, they can revise their cross-merchandising in-store to drive sales. Valentine’s Day next year might be more about breakfast than a romantic evening meal – why not capitalize on sales and inspire a range of meal ideas that cater to changing consumer attitudes? The same is true for foodservice operators reviewing their menus. With so many now dating at breakfast or brunch, then there’s a missed opportunity in not elevating your menu to cater to these occasions.”
The increase in at-home cooking has driven the adoption of more exploratory flavour profiles which, in turn, has created new opportunities, with 85 percent of American adults admitting to having changed their eating habits in the past year.
One in three US adults have signed up to a subscription box in a bid to keep their menu exciting, while a further 24 percent have taken advantage of entrepreneurial restaurateurs pivoting business to produce meal kit boxes.
“Great food is a joy to be shared but this research might provide some insight for restaurants revising their menus for a return to business,” Baker says.
The past 12 months have transformed the landscape for many industries, but the impact of the pandemic on consumer attitudes towards food and drink has been profound. Research from St. Pierre finds that 55 percent of the population have enjoyed not having the pressure of being somewhere at a specific time, with 35 percent agreeing that lockdowns have made them “‘live slower.”
A third believe that their “general concept of time” has altered, as a result of the pandemic and as such, for 47 percent, timekeeping around mealtimes has shifted.
The shift in consumer behaviour around mealtimes means shoppers are looking, more than ever, for versatile products that can work for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. As such, sales of America’s number one brioche brand are up 48 percent year on year, with 43 percent of brioche consumers saying they opt for the enriched French dough because of its versatility.
Breakfast has been most transformed by slower living, with 28 per cent eating the first meal of the day later than pre-pandemic. The knock-on impact has pushed back lunch and evening meals (26 and 28 percent) and driven an adoption of brunch for 28 percent of Americans.
Brunch, as a meal occasion, was already on the up, but with consumers working from home and spending more on food shopping, its growth has continued at pace – as an opportunity to elevate the everyday menu.
“This insight is useful for food and drink businesses and restaurants in particular because it reaffirms what we already suspected – that food has played a greater part in our day-to-day in the past year, than it ever has before,” Baker says. “In fact, 63 percent of Americans are spending more each week on their food shop now than pre-pandemic. But what’s even more interesting is what people are spending that money on.”
As St Pierre Groupe moves into its next phase of development, newly appointed chief executive officer David Milner will accelerate the international growth, further nurturing relationships in the USA and exploring new opportunities to expand the geographic footprint of the business’ brands.
St Pierre Groupe boasts a retail value of a quarter of a billion dollars, after substantial growth of its branded propositions. Its flagship brand, St Pierre Bakery has doubled in value in the US over the last two years and is responsible for establishing brioche as a profitable sub-category with American retailers.
As non-executive chairman at St Pierre Groupe, Milner spent the past three years in a strategic role but will now implement growth plans internationally as CEO, alongside the senior leadership team.
The appointment is part of a long-term strategy to bolster the board of directors with unrivalled experience in US and UK markets. In 2019, the company was awarded the Queen’s Award for Enterprise in International Trade and can boast five years of double-digit growth.
“St Pierre Groupe is a phenomenal business, doing bakery differently,” Milner says. “Since joining the business in 2018, I’ve worked with the team to achieve incredible growth. Yet there is still huge potential – it is innovative, superior quality and branded. The workforce has increased threefold in 18 months and I’m excited to guide the team to even greater success.”