A taste of France

  • 2004-06-01
  • By Elizabeth Celms, RIGA
Walking into Cadets de Gascogne French bakery and you can just smell the butter in the air. Any pastry lover will tell you - that's no margarine, but pure butter. This distinction, as trivial as it may seem, is exactly what puts Cadets de Gascogne above the rest and according to owner Bernard Larane, is the key to the small French bakery's success.

"In France, most bakeries use margarine because it's cheaper," said Larane, who moved to Riga from France 10 years ago. "Here in Latvia we don't use any chemical products because we want the taste of a natural product. Our croissants have a special taste - the taste of pure butter."

Larane believes that purity equals quality, and quality is what keeps people coming back to his café. So far, in the two and a half years the café has been open in Riga, his recipe for success has worked.

Ninety nine percent of the ingredients the bakery use are natural and from Latvia. The butter comes fresh from diaries in Tukums, the sugar comes from Liepaja and the flower comes from Dobele. And like the ingredients themselves, most of the customers are Latvian. This, in Larane's opinion, is a very impressive thing.

"Originally, I thought we'd have more foreigners than Latvians," the expat said. "I didn't know it would be so successful with locals. It's more prizing to see locals come in to buy because they have less money."

However, the café seems to be a favorite among expats living and working in the area as well. Nordea Bank Acquisition Manager Kurt Jensen, an expat from Denmark, has been a regular at Cadets de Gascogne for almost two years. Working just blocks away and coming at least every other day, Jensen says the café is a perfect place to spend a relaxing lunch hour, especially for expats.

"My favorite thing about the café is its magazines," Jensen says. "It's great for expats because they offer newspapers and magazines in different languages - English, French, Russian. You can stay here all day reading."

Larane agrees that the variety of foreign newspapers helps to bring in a steady and diverse crowd of expats. Since the café is located just behind the Old Town's Jacob's Barracks and close to all the embassies, foreign diplomats bring in about 25 percent of the business.

"There's no place comparable to this in Riga, at least not that I've come across and I've been to a lot of cafes," Jensen says while eyeing his croissant. "The croissants are second to none, and the French music and atmosphere - it fits my memory of Paris."

Not only is Cadets de Gascogne the only authentic French bakery in Riga, but the only one in all the Baltics. Although this uniqueness and authenticity does give it an edge, Larane is convinced that people don't come to the café because it's French, but rather for the quality.

"It's the quality that brings the customers," he says. "People don't care that its French - it could be Chinese as long as the recipes are good and the quality is the best. That's what makes the place popular."

In addition to the café, the bakery - which is located in the small town of Pinki - caters to corporate clients as well. The Cadets de Gascogne Latvian staff - trained by an esteemed French baker - produce and deliver pastries to airBaltic, four high-class hotels, and about three other cafes in Riga. Although corporate clients bring in stable business, most of the company's profit comes from the café itself.

"In turnover we earn about one third from corporate businesses and two thirds from the café," the owner said, who hopes to open another café in the Riga suburbs.

But it wasn't always easy. As is common for almost every entrepreneur opening a café or restaurant, Larane is just now breaking even, after more than two years of business. Two years ago the bakery doubled their prices, because using only fresh and natural ingredients, they were lost money charging only 20 sentimi for a croissant. Surprisingly, this had no negative effect on business. The customers continued to come and profit took a peak.

But while watching so many cafes and restaurants around him come and go like the weather, Larane is more than proud of his company's static success. Proud, but humble.

"To keep a successful business it's very involving and difficult," the French expat says. "One must be there every day of the year. So many restaurants and cafes close because they underestimate the difficulty and overestimate the market."

The owner is well aware of how difficult it is to stay on top in a market as unpredictable as the food and restaurant business. He's seen too much of his competition slide to take this matter lightly. But having stayed a float for almost three years, he's determined to keep it that way. There's no way he's letting his business sink.

"So far it's working for us, but we are always cautious," Larane says. "We do it slowly and surely. We move cautiously."


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