Saturday, March 24, 2012

A slot machine for baguettes? Only in France!


The company's flyer as given to me at the show
When I was a child growing up in Paris, my grandparents moved from their native Southwestern France to Normandy to be closer to us. We used to go visit them every weekend and sometimes for small vacations as well. They grew all their own fruit and vegetables, raised poultry and rabbits, got milk and eggs from the farm next door, foraged in the nearby woods and meadows for wild greens and mushrooms and generally-speaking lived pretty much off the grid. One thing they didn't make though was bread.
They had grown up in households where breadbaking was a bimonthly chore and they probably felt that it was a huge improvement to be able to buy bread instead of making it themselves. An itinerant bread-delivery van circled the villages, it beeped outside the kitchen door, my grandma got out with her change purse, exchanged a few words with the driver (who might have been the baker doing his rounds but I never thought to ask, so I can't vouch for that) and went back inside with her bread. On the days the van driver was off, my grandpa got onto his Solex (motorized bike) and, into his early eighties, rode 2.5 miles to the nearest bakery. He came home with long fat yellow loaves fastened to the back of his Solex and since he wore a béret at all times (even indoors, except at night when he replaced it with a night cap), he must have looked like the poster Frenchman of bygone years we all have seen at some time or other.
I don't know if many bereted grandfathers still roam the roads of France on Solexes but while bread is still delivered door to door in some communities, I suspect that with the multiplication of grandes surfaces (large supermarkets selling everything under the sun) on the outskirts of most little cities, many families get their bread another way.
However there may still be a need for an alternative: elderly people with no means of getting around may live in remote villages with no bakeries and no bread deliveries; workers on different schedules may not want industrial bread and yet can't make it to the bakery before it closes for the day; gridlock and parking issues in busy downtowns may make it a hassle to actually get to the bakery; costs of doing the rounds may be too high for itinerant bakers, etc.
Whatever the reason, I saw at Europain an automatic baguette dispenser that stopped me dead in my tracks. Here is how it works: the artisan baker loads the machine with a batch of baguettes (62 is the maximum number) and the machine keeps them at room temperature. There is an optional alarm-system which alerts the baker when the distributor is empty and needs to be re-loaded. There is also a lockdown mechanism which prevents the sale of day-old baguettes. Sold at the same price as at the bakery, the baguettes are as good (or as mediocre) as the baker makes them.
The company, aptly called maBaguette, has sold and installed fifteen of these distributors in Western France since it started in July 2011 and it is looking to expand. Its main hurdle is to convince bakers that the machines shouldn't be installed right outside their bakeries where they can keep an eye on them but in remote places where bread isn't easy to come by. It emphasizes the fact that they are very low-maintenance and should be seen, not as stop-gap devices, but as additional points of sale which can be put inside shopping malls, offices, gas stations, railroad stations, even hospitals, and make it possible for the baker to reach a new customer base.
Whether or not the company will succeed is anybody's guess. Personally I know that I'd rather get my bread from a bakery where it is most likely fresher and where I can ask for "bien cuit" (nicely browned) but in a pinch, hey, why not? The baguettes thus distributed are probably better than their supermarket equivalents. As for the machines, they do make it easier for bakers to perform what some of them consider as their professional duty, i.e. facilitating acccess to artisan bread in their communities.

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