Hungry Lawyer: Le Pain Quotidien’s Alain Coumont on humble beginnings, his plans for expansion, and ‘pedicured’ chicken feet

Last week, I had the opportunity to meet Chef Alain Coumont at the newly opened Hong Kong branch of global brand Le Pain Quotidien in Pacific Place. Since Coumont founded the Le Pain Quotidien (meaning “daily bread”) in 1990, the brand has brought its signature simple, organic and wholesome-style food to 18 countries with more than 235 individual shops.

The author (L) chatting with Coumont (R)

Curious to learn how Chef Coumont – who has become as much a businessman as anything else – placed Hong Kong in the global food scene, I picked his brain on the origins of LPQ, his plans for expansion in Hong Kong, and of course, local food. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity:

Tell me about the origin and philosophy behind Le Pain Quotidien.

I was working as a chef but wasn’t happy with the bread served before meals, so I decided to start making it myself as a hobby. I didn’t have space for the equipment so I rented 36 square metres next to the stock exchange in Belgium, bought a big table at a flea market, started baking two kinds of bread, and added coffee and sandwiches to help pay the rent. With the big communal table leaving nowhere for customers to hide and our two kilo sourdough loafs, the shop looked like the dining room of a monastery. Then the magic happened.

When you started, did you imagine that you would create a global brand?

No. There was no business plan. It was a hobby. I started with USD10,000 (HKD77,500) that I didn’t have, but it was an overnight success. 

How has the food evolved since you started that first shop?

It was very simple at first. We served no hot food. Now, it’s still simple but with the profile of real estate prices in cities like London and Hong Kong you need every single dollar you can catch, so the menu has expanded. Also, 26 years ago the term “organic” did not exist, but there has been an evolution.

A rather appropriate sign at the LPQ in Pacific Place.

When I was living in New York in 2000 to launch our company in the United States, I was buying organic groceries to eat at home but still “poisoning” our customers. I thought I should be thrown in jail! So, we started to go organic with bread and drinks and now the percentage of organic food depends on the country. In France, it’s easy to get organic food, but it’s more difficult in other countries like Russia. 

How did you decide to bring Le Pain Quotidien to Hong Kong?

We were first contacted by local restaurant group Dining Concepts who are always looking for new opportunities. So, we came to Hong Kong, we saw that the group are professional and know the business here. Having opened, we are very happy. We have been surprised with the sales level here. We knew we would make it but we did not expect sales to be so high, comparable to our best stores in New York.

What are your plans for the Hong Kong business?

There are plans for a third store in Central but I can’t say where because it’s still a secret. The idea is to have at least four or five shops in Hong Kong by the end of 2017. We are also thinking of expanding to other parts of the Asia Pacific region with Dining Concepts like Singapore or Malaysia, as well as China. We are expanding naturally as we make money, not because we must.

How have you adapted the menu and the concept for the Hong Kong market?

Not too much. We have some local dishes on the menu. Originally, we had congee on the breakfast menu. We update the menu seasonally so now we have a tofu scramble instead, but the basic structure of the menu is the same as in other markets.

Pastries such as this Belgian cream donut are available at LPQs worldwide. 

What are the unique challenges for your business in the Hong Kong market?

Like London and New York, rent is the key and you need a great location. High rent creates opportunity for expensive mistakes if you pick the wrong location. But, like London and New York, Hong Kong is also a diverse city which means our staff and our customers are diverse and include cosmopolitan travellers and business people. We could just as easily be in Dubai or New York except that Hong Kong is less hot than Dubai and warmer than New York.

What do you think of Hong Kong as a city?

I find it sad when a neighbourhood building is demolished to build a tower.

What do you think of the food culture and dining scene in Hong Kong?

I think it is very progressive and multicultural. Ideas travel the world very fast now. I love to go eat local food on the street when they don’t lock me up at Le Pain Quotidien.

Is there any local food in Hong Kong you particularly like, or anything you won’t try?

I’m not an expert on the different regional variations of Chinese food but I like spicy so I like Sichuan food. I eat everything, but when I ate brunch recently in Chinatown in New York there were three kinds of chicken feet. I was not naturally attracted to it, but I ate it. I just checked that they had a pedicure first.

About the Hungry Lawyer: Marc Rubinstein, born in Baltimore, USA, has been in Asia for nearly 20 years with 13 of those in Hong Kong. He has split his career between banks and law firms, and is currently the general counsel of an Asia-based real estate and alternative energy investor. Marc is a co-founder and co-chair of the Hong Kong Gay & Lesbian Attorneys Network, and previously chaired the Nomura Gay & Lesbian Network, Asia. In addition to being a hungry lawyer, he has run three marathons, eight half-marathons and completed the Hong Kong Oxfam Trailwalker.

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