Authentic French cuisine has long been an international favourite. Combining the best of Paris, agnès b. Le Pain Grillé offers something unique.
Already known for its clothing and accessories stores, cinema and art gallery, last year agnès b. branched into the food and beverage industry and now operates three restaurants in Hong Kong — the company's only three in the world. The first is in the style of a Parisian café circa 1900, complete with chipped paint, broken tiles and tables and chairs that could well be the real thing. The second is a shop within a shop, situated on the second floor of an agnès b. retail outlet between men's and women's fashion. It is divided into two: a relaxed café with a view of the street — ideal for people watching — and a windowless restaurant that has a decidedly 1970s underground feel. The third, also a shop within a shop, recreates a Parisian loft and the untreated, uneven wooden floor adds to the industrial, converted factory feel.
Interestingly, agnès b. does not advertise — yet all three Le Pain Grillé outlets service a steady stream of customers. Christophe Vrignaud, head of operations for food and beverage at agnès b. says the company attracts its customers through word of mouth.
Talk of the town
Le Pain Grillé's customers were initially people who shop at the company's other stores and Mr Vrignaud believes word spread from there. "We provide a place where you can come and eat simple, tasty and well-presented French dishes. It's a sweet reminder for those who've been to France and a voyage for those yet to go," he says.
Each restaurant has its own ambience, yet they are clearly all of agnès b. stock. Mr Vrignaud says the company aims to cater to a wide range of tastes on the menu. "French restaurants in Hong Kong usually offer foie gras (liver pate) and caviar but we have a little bit of everything. You can have foie gras, crab and lobster, but you can also get a croque monsieur (crunch mister) if you prefer. So everyone can find something they want," he says.
Catering to everyone, of course, stands in contrast to other branded restaurants that are the domain of high-end customers. Mr Vrignaud explains, "When high-end customers frequent a certain restaurant, it is because the food is good. They'll come here because we use the best ingredients and because they get a sense of déjà vu from a visit to Paris."
Le Pain Grillé sources many of its ingredients from France — including the ham and cheese in the croque monsieur — but also makes as much of its food as possible in Hong Kong. All of its pastries are baked fresh daily in a central location and delivered to the three restaurants, and Mr Vrignaud stresses that nothing sits overnight.
With such meticulous standards, agnès b. hires only the best people. Mr Vrignaud says this is a challenge in Hong Kong where food and beverage is not generally considered a career option. "In France we have hundreds of catering schools but here there is only one and most people working at restaurants are students looking for some extra money." However, all three agnès b. restaurants have had zero staff turnover in the last four months and Mr Vrignaud believes they now have an outstanding bunch of people.
"The most important thing in recruiting is that they love what they're doing. If it's waitstaff they have to love food and helping people; chefs, too, have to love food and cooking and creating. And everyone has to want to make customers happy — to put a smile on their face. If you are the kind of person who sees the job as just peeling a few carrots, then the food is going to be fine but nothing special. We want something different. Customers can see it and feel it."
Having opened three restaurants in quick succession, Le Pain Grillé has no plans to expand in the near future. Mr Vrignaud says the focus now is to work closely with the chefs and other staff to ensure that they are happy and that the restaurants run smoothly. "Now we have found the right people we want to give them a chance to express themselves. Our chefs are starting to develop their own signature dishes — French food seasoned for Chinese palettes — and each location is beginning to distinguish itself more from the others."
For people looking to work in the industry, Mr Vrignaud reiterates that they have to be passionate. "While it is fairly easy to get a job in a restaurant, the people we look for are career-oriented and really love what they're doing," he stresses.