Fans of French baguettes and pastries in the United States are discovering a new place to spend their dough, courtesy of boulanger Eric Kayser.
The Frenchman, who launched his first "Maison Kayser" in Paris in 1996, plans a new cafe/restaurant near the Empire State Building later this spring, with two more in Washington coming later in the year, the chain's first US boulangeries outside of the Big Apple.
The shops are part of Kayser's international push that extends to Colombia as well as several corners of Africa (Angola, Congo and the Ivory Coast). Kayser's biggest international market is Japan, with 37 stores.
The shops, which display intricately crafted desserts and breads and serve soup and light meals, are positioned to take advantage of America's growing demand for better food.
"Consumers want fresh food, quality food, food made with unique and fresh ingredients," said Bonnie Riggs, a restaurant industry analyst at NPD Group. "They are willing to pay the price if you meet their expectations."
A study by consultancy A.T. Kearney said 63 percent of American consumers were ready to pay more for gourmet food. Sales of artisanal/specialty foods have risen by nine to 14 percent in major cities, Kearney said.
Kayser "capitalized on a void in the marketplace of providing well-crafted bakery products that fit into the modern lifestyle," said Bahige El-Rayes, an expert in retail and consumer businesses at Kearney.
Kayser, 52, said a key selling point at his shops is that each of the restaurants has its own bakery. Cafe managers are trained in Paris for about six months.
"The difference between us and (the competition) is, I think, that we're truly artisanal, so in each shop we have a baker in the back," Kayser told AFP. "So this allows us to train a lot of skilled chefs."
Born in Lure in the south of France to a family of bakers and trained at l'Institut National de la Boulangerie Patisserie, Kayser has sought to take the time-tested strengths of French baking abroad.
The basic idea is to reproduce the same core products - baguettes, viennoiseries, tartines, tarts - as in France, while charging more. For example, the baguette "Monge," which sells for 1.20 euros in Paris, retails for $3 in New York (2.70 euros).
The first Kayser boutique opened in New York in August 2012 near the French lycee in Manhattan. By the end of 2017, there will be 14 in New York.
The shops are designed in the style of a modern Parisian cafe/bistro, with references to the homeland, such as a giant map of the Paris Metro system.
With the exception of butter, which is imported from France, all ingredients come from the United States. The pastries and brioches are made without preservatives, while bread dough is made on the spot.
The 11 US boulangeries are among the most profitable in the Maison Kayser chain, which generated $300 million in global revenues in 2016.
The average bakery customer in the US spends $10 a visit, while the restaurant diner spends $20 to $25. That compares with 6 euros ($6.50) in France at the bakery and about 20 euros at the restaurant.
Kayser expects the gap to increase in the years ahead as it adds catering and, within the next five years, seeks to expand to the US West Coast.
Experts question whether Kayser's operations will change as it expands.
"Maintaining the intricate craftsmanship coupled with high density throughout will be a challenge," said El-Rayes, who said companies like Kayser have eventually shifted to kitchen commissaries as they grow.
"Maison Kayser will have to consider trade-offs in its artisanal quality, convenience and the search for growth as it continues its expansion in the US," he said.
Maison Kayser USA is led by chief executive Louis-Jean Egasse. The company's largest shareholder is a fund associated with Charles Heilbronn, a member of the Wertheimer family, which owns the Chanel brand.