When we talk of breads, few places can make them better than The French Baker and L’Artizan. And when we talk of bakers, it goes without saying that, locally, Johnlu Koa is one of the best.
Johnlu’s affair with bread began right after he graduated from UP Diliman. “I wanted a business that was related to food,” he said.
The inspiration to own a bakeshop, he recalled, came from “our neighbors who owned one and whose lives got better year after year with their business; and my parents who always dreamt of opening one, yet unfortunately, their other businesses barred them from doing so.”
With a leap of faith, Johnlu opened his first bakeshop, Honey Bread, in 1979. While he was capable of running the business, he had no idea how breads were made, leaving his product line and the baking up to his bakers.
“I realized that if I wanted my business to grow, I had to learn all that I could. I started getting my hands dirty, so to speak, in 1982. With no formal training, I taught myself how to bake, learning bits and pieces from my bakers. Then I slowly realized that there is more to this, there is a lot of science involved in the bread-making process,” he said.
Honey Bread began supplying SM with baked goods. This was to be the start of a long and mutually beneficial relationship.
While Johnlu was teaching at the UP College of Business in 1989, he saw the opportunity to open a new concept in the quick-service food category; thus was born The French Baker.
“It was at the same time that SM opened its high-end mall at SM City, and it was in search of newbies with aspirational qualities. Luckily, they found me,” said Johnlu. He remains grateful to SM for having honed his marketing skills and giving him the opportunity to expand his business.
The offerings he has come up with for The French Baker are those that appeal to the Asian palate, he said. “They are products that taste good and are of high demand. We even have hopia! When people ask why we have hopia at The French Baker—well, even the Parisian bakeshops have their specialty breads to cater to their diverse clientele. Which was what made me think that The French Baker must be a bakery of international favorites, so now we even have New York-style bagels and tortilla!”
L’Artizan, on the other hand, “is where you will find Euro-style breads that are best eaten alone or paired with your meals, cheeses and spreads,” he said of his more specialized store.
“L’Artizan came to be after many years of people politely telling me that The French Baker was not French enough and that the sight of pan de sal was not cool,” he recalled. “I was hoping to attract a different market altogether, and was seriously considering the idea of making of sour dough from live culture/wild yeast, to produce specialty breads that are crusty, chewy, soft and with big holes.”
Years later, with 45 French Baker branches all over Luzon, Visayas and Mindanao plus a couple of L’Artizans, Johnlu is still fueled by the same passion that first got him interested in the food business.
When I asked him the secret to his success, he quipped: “I am not greedy with pricing. I believe in giving added value, I am constantly striving for knowledge to improve, and, most importantly, it is my obstinate belief that I can be better than anybody else in this category!”
What’s next on his agenda? “Tea, tea salons, high tea, tea cakes, tea sandwiches,” he said. “All beautifully presented, delicious and at very affordable prices! Coming very soon, just you wait and see,” he said.
Here’s a recipe that makes use of Johnlu’s tortillas, which come in four excellent variants. This recipe is tasty and easy to make, and everyone just seems to enjoy them!
Grilled chicken wrapped in tortilla with garlic sauce
Combine ingredients and mix well.
Marinate chicken at least an hour or more.
Brush, grill, grate with olive oil.
Brush chicken with olive oil.
Grill chicken, over coal is best.
Slice into thin strips.
Warm tortilla in a pan or over direct flame.
Lay meat and add shredded lettuce, sliced tomatoes, avocado and onions, drizzle with sauce.
Serve with extra garlic sauce.
Combine in a bowl and mix well. Let sauce sit for at least 30 minutes for flavors to infuse before serving.
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