Feature

French get taste for sliced bread

Burger buns are important to Jacquet Brossard

While sales of plant bread are falling in the UK, in France they are up as consumers seek better shelf-life over baguettes, as Rick Pendrous discovers

Key points

French plant bakery Jacquet Brossard can trace its heritage back to 1885 and lays claims to some important developments over the years since. Not least of these is that its founder Philibert Jacquet was the first person, apparently, to invent toasted bread.

Daniel Chéron, chief executive of the company’s owner, the 2bn turnover farmer-owned grain and seeds co-operative Limagrain, which celebrated its 50 anniversary this year, also expects his group to be around for many years to come. This contrasts with his predictions for Swiss rival, global agrochemicals and seeds company Syngenta, which is currently the subject of a $45bn “unsolicited” takeover approach from US group Monsanto.

Chéron puts Syngenta’s problems down to its obsession with its share price. “We will exist 20 years from now if we don’t make too many mistakes. You don’t know if Syngenta will exist tomorrow,” he told Food Manufacture magazine in June.

Limagrain’s success, claims Chéron, is the result of its global expansion strategy. This is based on its genetic breeding expertise combined with its close links its farmer members in the Auvergne region of France. But it is helped by owning Jacquet Brossard, which keeps the group in touch with bakery trends, he adds.

Sandwich loaves not baguettes (Return to top)

While most people associate France with fresh baguettes purchased daily from local boulangeries, Jacquet began baking plant bread in 1959 when it opened its Pains Jacquet bakery in Bezon on the outskirts of Paris. This followed the arrival of the sandwich loaf concept from the UK in 1954. Limagrain purchased Jacquet in 1995.

In sharp contrast with the UK, where sales of plant bread have been hit by a combination of falling consumer demand and overcapacity, in France Jacquet Brossard's sales are growing by 2% a year and have been for the past five years, says the company’s communications manager Marie-Laure d'Hoop.

According to the Xerfi consultancy in a report published in The Economist last June, the market in packaged bread in France is now worth over 500M a year. The report described the opening of France’s biggest plant bakery, at Chateauroux and owned by Italian food group Barilla, that month. The bakery makes products almost entirely for the French market and last year sales of Harrys, its sliced-bread brand, reached 125,000t up by 25% on 2007.

It’s not that the French are falling out of love with the tasty baguette, it’s more that the convenience and longevity of sliced bread is proving more irresistible to time-pressed working French Mums. According to The Economist, over 2bn sandwiches were sold in France in 2014, and just over a third are now made from sliced bread, not baguettes.

Jacquet Brossard was formed in 2011 through the merger of bakery company Jacquet and pastry firm Brossard. It is France’s second largest plant bakery and claims a 17% market share of fresh industry baked bread. It operates six bakeries across France, as well as two in Belgium and one in Brazil, which was opened in 2012. Jacquet Brossard, which employs around 1,400 people, had sales of 303M in 2014, up 4% on the previous year.

As well as the sandwich loaves, burger and hot dog buns it bakes, it also makes a variety of partly-baked breads: including French baguettes, petits pains, croissants, pita bread and paninis. It also makes Christmas cocktail toast and crispy crêpes flakes for the food industry.

Saint-Beauzire bakery (Return to top)

Jacquet Brossard’s bakery at Saint-Beauzire, near Limagrain’s research centre in Chappes in the Auvergne, is the largest of its bread bakeries and is responsible for more than half of its output. It has seen considerable capital investment of 66M since it was built in 2000, including in 2009 an extension and installation of an extra sandwich line and an extra burger bun line.

The factory now occupies 4,500m2 and employs 290 people on a three-shift system, six days a week, supplying 60% branded products and 40% own-label to the major supermarkets in France and elsewhere. In total, Jacquet Brossard sells its products in over 50 countries through different retail channel, supermarkets, as well as to other food sectors.

The Saint-Beauzire factory operates four highly automated production lines; two making sandwich loaves and two for burger buns. While there are plans to automate the palletising of burger buns, this is currently a manual job.

Ingredients for the bakery have been reduced from 18 to 11 in recent years, mainly by removing additives and the use of palm oil, says the company. As with the UK, consumer pressure to reduce the amount of salt in bread has led to a 34% reduction in certain recipes over the past three to four years, says a company spokesman.

Flour for the bakery comes from Limagrain’s integrated wheat supply chain, with varieties specifically developed to meet the needs of plant bread and other baked products.

There are around 2,000 farmers in the Limagrain Group’s co-operative, who grow primarily wheat on a total of around 20,000 hectares (ha) in the Auvergne region and around 10,000ha of maize. A small amount of sunflower and rape crops are also grown by members. The typical farm size is less than 100ha in size.

Limagrain’s rationale for its acquisition of bakery businesses was to add value to the co-operative’s product offering through an integrated supply chain model. It has the additional benefit of providing direct feedback to its co-op members about what flour properties, such as protein levels, are required from the wheat they grow. Chéron describes this as Limagrain’s “precision farming strategy”, which involves better management of wheat in the field to meet and adapt the quality of grain to the needs of bakery products.

Integrated supply chain (Return to top)

“The strategy we have developed over the 50 years [since Limagrain was formed] is to give our farmers some added value price,” says Chéron. “Due to the fact that in Limagrain we can produce high protein content wheat, the choice was to build a bakery integrated chain In this case we decided to integrate the end consumer activity with Jacquet and then with Brossard.”

However, this approach does mean that Limagrain’s farmer members sometimes have to sacrifice levels of yield in order to achieve the quality required by Jacquet Brossard. But it is a sacrifice most seem willing to make, given the premiums paid. “I’m not after yield; I’m after quality,” says Christophe Gautier, who has been a Limagrain co-op member since 1993 and grows 31ha of wheat and seed wheat and 26ha of maize on the farm he runs with his brother in the Saint-Beauzire area.

Most wheat for breadmaking is milled at the nearby subsidiary Limagrain Céréales Ingrédients’ (LCI’s) mill in Bouzel. However, LCI also operates mills at nearby Gerzat and Ennezat for wheat and other grains.

This focus on an integrated wheat chain allows the group to control everything from its wheat seed breeding programme to the quality of baked goods made. “It allows us to address the customers’ needs,” says Bruno Carette, vice president of Limagrain’s field seeds division. “If Jacquet Brossard was not in our chain we would make big mistakes with breeding,” adds François Viallet, LCI’s deputy chief executive.

Conflict (Return to top)

As Limagrains global business grows, Chéron sees no conflict between the demands of customers in global markets and his own co-operative members. He believes the integrated supply chain Limagrain has adopted benefits both farmers around the globe, through its expertise in advanced seed breed techniques, and to its own farmers through the access it gives them to adding value.

“We manage this balance much better today than we did 20 or 30 years ago because with the size of the group we have much more stability,” says Chéron. “It is important for Limagrain to be international because it is the way to consolidate our strategy and genetic knowhow.

“With this international development we are much more capable of responding to the requirements of our farmers,” he adds. And in its bakery activities, Chéron adds that Jacquet Brossard is gaining market share in France while expanding into other countries, such as its new operation in Brazil set up in 2012.

“My feeling is that this strategy is very well adapted to respond to the requirements of our farmers. The fact that we have strong roots in Auvergne and we are farmers means we have a long-term vision and want to develop all across the world.”

But, despite this confidence in the future, Chéron has called for tighter international controls on market speculation in commodities such as wheat and maize, given the current volatility in grain markets. “My feeling is that, little by little, politicians are understanding that agriculture is very important and if we don’t have stability in agriculture we are facing big difficulties in the long run,” says Chéron.

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