He won rice-eating Filipinos over with his European breads. Entrepreneur Johnlu Koa’s French Baker is turning 25—currently with 52 outlets, two upscale boulangerie-bistros called Lartizan, and two other brands that serve different markets.
His latest and 52nd restaurant, French Baker Salon de Thé at SM Megamall’s Fashion Hall, is a bridge between the mass market appeal of French Baker and the artisanal quality of Lartizan.
It was created to complement the high street brands at the mall. Salon de Thé’s interior is an elegant French terrace combined with an earthy Mediterranean kitchen. The place offers a variety of bistro fare and chic pastries, as well as quality teas, iced teas brewed from fresh leaves and gourmet coffee.
Koa said, “We want to show that your favorite French Baker continues to evolve. Those who believed in me 25 years ago have also evolved with time. They are now fathers and grandfathers.”
As he bit into a mini pain filled with spinach and feta cheese, Koa reminisced how French Baker was born.
In his youth he would accompany his mother, Cristina, to the market, where he learned to select quality produce and learn to smell fresh meat and fish. In the process, he would catch vendors cheating their customers.
For 15 years Koa helped run his mother’s restaurant, Yummy House, at the New Frontier Arcade in Cubao. But when the franchise owners of an American fast-food brand became interested in the restaurant’s location, the landlord booted out Yummy House on the grounds that it was producing the same old comfort foods such as mami, barbecue, pancit palabok and kare-kare and thus could not expand its market.
“They said we had nothing more to show,” Koa recalled. “After I took my MBA, I realized I didn’t go to UP for nothing. I thought about the brand story, differentiation and USP (unique selling proposition). It taught me a lesson that you must always have something new to offer.”
He said the experience goaded him to open French Baker, the first Parisian-style bakery-café in the country in 1999. His dictum is that in doing something, one should take the road less traveled, not the easier path.
As a baker, he set trends— from selling wholesale he went into retail. For 10 years he ran a successful bread line, Honeybread, which was sold at supermarkets.
In the late 1990s, on the invitation of his former classmate, Herbert Sy who handled SM supermarkets, Koa started leasing space at SM City North Edsa Annex. It was the first food outlet that didn’t have any glass enclosure so that the breads would lure the customers.
He also brought in state-of-the-art baking technology, introduced espresso, gelatos, French-style breads, Italian foccacias and ciabattas, New York bagels and German pretzels. Those specialty breads, which used to be available only in hotels, could be had by the masses at lower prices.
“Nobody wanted to learn the French way of baking which entails 16 hours of fermentation,” Koa said.
He said that even after 25 years, people keep coming back to his stores.
“What differentiates us is the quality of our butter and the amount of care we put in mixing the dough,” Koa explained.
Moreover, the market was given an alternative to rice-and-viand combos with the introduction of French Baker’s hot sandwiches, lasagna and pizza, and soup served in a bread bowl.
On the prodding of a customer who asked if the unsold breads could be given for 50-percent off, Koa started the trend of selling breads at a discounted price toward closing hours.
Without denting the wallet
Koa said he decided to level up French Baker to Salon de Thé (tea salon) to provide diners a cozy date place without denting the wallet.
The bestseller is the quiche with the side salad priced at P195. It is soft, tender custard with a smooth, creamy texture and fillings of broccoli, spinach, chicken, mushroom and cheeses.
The chicken basket, good for two at P450, is marinated overnight in brine and seasoned with herbs de Provence.
One can also share a creamy pasta with truffle oil or shrimps and tomatoes for P325.
The golden spareribs, juicy and filling at P350, are braised and smothered in a smoky sauce.
While the regular French Baker pizza is a generous mix of cheeses, meats and toppings on a thick, puffy and chewy crust, the Salon de Thé version is regally thin and crisp with a lively tomato paste.
The taco salad pizza, meanwhile, is smothered with standard ingredients of ground beef, cabbage, cheese, beans and jalapeño peppers.
Koa boasted the authenticity of the macarons, which is derived from the method of French pastry chef Pierre Hermé. His commissary has adopted macaronage, the delicate French method of folding in dry ingredients into the egg white.
The lemon lavender has a crisp meringue crust with grooves and a rich meringue center. The flavor of lavender petals bursts in the tongue.
Then there are the raspberry and orange ganache variants. The matcha or green tea cake with matching macarons is a fusion of Eastern and Western flavors.
Koa has learned over a hundred bread and pastry recipes from baking schools and suppliers. His bread business has expanded in different markets.
He has established Quick Bread, which supplies various establishments and Globake, which offers wholesale breads. Soon he will be selling ready-to-cook meals.
He sees the future in Globake. “My vision is to feed urban dwellers,” Koa said. “Luxury will no longer be the way we know it. The next generation will define wealth by having their own condo unit and gadgets. But they have to eat; they can’t survive on pizza alone.”
Koa is again taking the road less traveled, planning for nutritious convenience foods for the market that has no time to shop.
“It’s not going to cost you more than going to a fast-food joint,” he assured.
PHOTOS BY NELSON MATAWARAN