Taking over the family boulangerie business
In 2002, Apollonia Poilâne was thrown into her family business in the most devastating way imaginable, when her parents, who ran the family business founded in 1932 by her grandfather Pierre Poilâne, were killed in a helicopter crash.
Apollonia was just 18 and studying at Harvard when it happened. She took over the business, ran it and managed 170 staff from her dorm room. She says her parents would not have wanted it any other way: Poilâne was always a family business.
In the years since, the third-generation family head has innovated and established the brand in the high-end food sector, to ensure the continuing success of its sourdough bread. Poilâne is baked in Paris and London and sent out around the world, appearing in its distinctive packaging on shelves of high-end supermarkets globally.
And the international demand is based on the recognition factor of the core product: each 4lb loaf of sourdough bread, using a starter that can be traced back to the origins of the house in the 1930s, comes with a P baked into its surface.
Behind the efficient distribution and distinctive display stands, there is the marketing and messaging that Apollonia has created using both new and old media.
Apollonia trades on the romance of the past, taking the story of a beloved local boulangerie to the rest of the world. When she filmed a 17-part video series on how to bake bread for the MasterClass subscription website, the trailer alone received over 1,200,000 views on YouTube. Poilâne’s Instagram has over 115,000 followers, which may not be that impressive compared with many fashion houses, but these are pictures of… bread.
Apollonia is aware social media cannot be her only marketing route: “I do believe that a picture is worth a thousand words,” she says. “But I have a business that revolves around things that aren’t as visually sexy as they are delicious. And you can’t quite convey everything with a photograph.”
Young, photogenic and aware that she carries the brand in her family name, she has embarked on a carefully tailored campaign to make the brand punch beyond the food halls and onto the lifestyle sections of media – a key pillar in any strategy of creating a high-end good out of any niche product.
She has reinforced this authenticity by talking time and time again in interviews about growing up around bakers, and the bakehouse being her playground: but instead of speaking purely with food media, she has been interviewed by The New Yorker and the Financial Times, and style-focused magazines whose subjects are more likely to be fashion and music celebrities – because she knows their readers buy her products.
Apollonia knows her value. “I’ve never wanted to leave,” she says. “I mean, I didn’t really have a choice, but I love my business. It’s my turf, and I love it.”
She also says a family business has a unique dynamic that she would not be able to explore if she were beholden to investors or shareholders. “It makes me take a long-term view of things,” she explains. “That’s what makes my approach so special, and exciting. I think any business would benefit from that perspective.”
Like any next-generation family business leader, she has to balance the legacy of the past with the future. “We are a legacy brand, but that legacy is a constant dialogue between the past, present and future,” she explains. “It makes zero sense to stay stuck in the past, but that doesn’t mean turning to industrial production. Part of being contemporary is about communication. You need to convey to customers what your product is. And for us, that’s about how we bake the bread they buy.”
Poilâne predated the trend with sourdough by an incredible margin – its historic mix of sourdough starter, stone-ground wheat and sea salt from Guérande became an example for bakers in the 21st century, and set the ball rolling for imitators around the world.
There is no licensing or outsourcing; Poilâne bread is only made by Poilâne at its heritage sites. The brand could be licensed and produced globally outside France, in greater volumes, and at lower cost, but Poilâne trades on the heritage and romance of the maison.
“We could be bigger, but 5,000 loaves a day is enough,” says Apollonia. “I see the limit of production as being anything that impacts on our art and craftsmanship. Our brand isn’t about industrial production. That isn’t to say there’s no scope for expansion, but there is a beauty about our size, which is somewhere between boutique and big. Anything industrial inherently compromises quality in some respects. And it would be too hard to achieve the precise same production somewhere else. It wouldn’t be worthwhile, but more than that it is about protecting the brand.”
2002: Becomes CEO of Poilâne aged 18
2011: Opens a third Poilâne bakery in le Marais, Paris and a second Poilâne address in the UK
2017: Opens a fourth Poilâne bakery in the 19th arrondissement, Paris
2019: Publishes Poilâne: The Secrets of the World-Famous Bread Bakery
2020: Publishes Poilâne: Des Grains aux Pains
2020: Becomes the first French female CEO to become an instructor for MasterClass, teaching The Art of Bread Making