Au Bon Pain Corporation: Going Beyond the Ordinary

Au Bon Pain (ABP) has set the standard for fast-casual restaurants by focusing on high quality, fresh and flavorful foods and nontraditional urban markets. Since its founding in 1978, the Boston-based company has revolutionized and catalyzed the growth of the bakery and café market segment by focusing on quality, flavor and healthfulness in every sandwich, soup and pastry recipe. The company takes pride in going “Beyond the expected” and balancing a gourmet dining experience with the convenience and quality consistency of a fast food operation. With over 300 locations across the United States, South Korea, Taiwan, Thailand, India and the United Arab Emirates, ABP cafes have become the cornerstone of many urban markets and a mecca for travelers, students and foodies alike.

In 1978, Louis Kane noticed an unusually long queue outside a Pavalier oven showcase in Boston’s historic Faneuil Hall. As it turned out, guests weren’t standing in line to take a peek at French bakery ovens so much as they were waiting to sample a piece of the aromatic French breads and pastries being baked as a demonstration. Realizing the demand for freshly baked breads, Kane took the jump and bought the rights to Pavallier’s Au Bon Pain showroom and did away with the oven sales operations entirely. By 1980, Kane had two locations staffed with skilled French bakers and a thriving wholesale operation, but too much overhead to completely cover its costs.

In turn, Kane brought on Ronald M Shaik, a fellow Harvard MBA graduate to overcome the operation’s greatest internal hurdle. Shaik collaborated with ABP’s bakers, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the American Institute of Baking to develop a way to form and freeze bread dough so bread could be baked at a later time without losing its aroma and crispy crust. The development was critical and enabled the company to more efficiently control stock, produce a uniform product and eliminate the need for a trained French baker at every location. By 1983, bread production was completely centralized to its Boston headquarters.

Quality, Health and Flavor

Throughout its history, the ABP team has stayed true to its principles, only targeting locations in densely populated urban markets and challenging quality standards n the quick service restaurant concept. Today, ABP continually updates and adapts its concept to keep up with an increasingly sophisticated consumer. “Quality, flavor and healthfulness are the heartbeat of our brand, but we recently redesigned our restaurant prototype to deliver an upbeat and high energy experience for the guest,” explains Sue Morelli, President and CEO.

ABP’s target markets remain in the nontraditional real estate sector form transportation hubs and hospitals to museums and metropolitan business districts and when the economy turned south in 2008, the ABP saw a chance to dig in and revitalize its concept. In June 2011, ABP launched a new design prototype at one of its New York City locations. “Convenience means different things to different customers and the new design provides a variety of options so that guests can

The new stores provide the customer with both custom order and premade options with the addition of a salad bar to let customers shop based on their own time constraints. ABP’s signature yellow hue is carried throughout for greater consumer recognition, but the new design includes orange and green accents in the color scheme. In addition, the new stores will offer free samples to customers and a select number of locations will test the integration of iPads in the ordering process.

Simultaneously, ABP refreshed its menu of soup and sandwich choices, with new additions and new takes on classics. In the past two years, ABP introduced a number of new soups including a 12 Veggie soup and Tuscan white bean soup that have become menu stapes in their own right. A line of cupcakes was added to its regular selection following a tentative launch in 2010 and widespread popularity.

A Fresh Take

In 2012, ABP will roll out an entirely new sandwich menu across its locations. Romaine lettuce will be switched out with mesclun and arugula and new sauces and flavors will make an appearance. In particular, avocado will finally make a permanent appearance on the menu in a new grilled chicken and avocado sandwich. Customers will also have the option of adding avocado to any breakfast or lunch sandwich as well as to any salad. But before the team could incorporate the delicious taste and healthy monounsaturated fats of avocados, ABP had to collaborate with its partner suppliers to ensure the ripeness of its avocados.

Avocados are a fickle fruit and though the fruit lives up to ABP‘s ideal combination of flavor and health, incorporating avocado onto the permanent menu was simply not logistically possible until recently. If harvested when ripe, avocados can turn mushy and grey in just a few days and unripe avocados can be bitter and unappetizingly crunchy. Fortunately, ABP’s supply partners adopted technology to slow the avocado’s ripening and to better manage its supply chain, ABP has adopted new technology for food cost management.

Tools for Today and Tomorrow

“This is an extremely powerful tool because it gives the store managers the ability to track a store’s product mix, the cost fluctuations of ingredients and understand how to plan for more efficient operations and a better bottom line,” expands Morelli. The new enterprise management solution was developed by fellow Boston-based company Crunchtime! Information Systems and is set to be implemented across ABP’s 120 corporate cafes. Ultimately, ABP’s corporate team will also be able to use the information gathered to find additional efficiencies and minimize passing on rising food costs to the consumer.

With an invigorated menu and café concept, AB is set to find significant growth opportunities in the near future. “We’re never really done developing the concept. Even after 24 years at ABP, I still wake up energized because I know that ABP’s best days are yet to come,” admits Morelli.

Though the company has international franchises, domestic franchising is still limited to a select number of locations in the Southeast. ABP’s corporate locations are still concentrated within the Northeast and into the Midwest, but demand is growing for healthy, quality dining options and ABP is poised to fill in the blank spaces. The time for national representation is fast approaching because of ABP’s ability to adapt for changing consumer tastes and busy lifestyles. Not even the sky is the limit for ABP. With 34 years of experience, a solid financial foundation and an unwavering entrepreneurial spirit, Au Bon Pain could surely find a way for French bread to keep its crispy crust in space. (Tony: I know. I’m so cheesy. I just couldn’t help it!)