“MICHEL ET AUGUSTIN”: THE STORY, AS TOLD BY MICHEL DE ROVIRA
When your taste buds feel the melty praline and toasted almond inside the crispy cookie mixing with the little chunks of chocolate and nut, you know you’ve found the one. That one cookie from Michel et Augustin which deserves a whole week of sugar-free diet! Michel de Rovira, together with his secondary school mate Augustin Paluel-Marmont, has created their own savory cookies (beside other amazing pastry products) and pleased dessert lovers in 20 countries since 2004. Michel, one of the “two kooky cookies”, took some time off his banana farm to tell us about his fascinating adventure with artisan pastry.
Once upon a time, there were two normal guys doing normal jobs…
Michel, currently 41 years old, founded Michel et Augustin with his secondary school mate, Augustin in 2004. By now, the duo has known each other for nearly 30 years. Back in the early 2000s, they were stills 2 normal guys doing office (might-be-boring) jobs: Michel was a banker and then a strategic consultant in New York, while Augustin worked for a tour company in Paris.
What happened when two French guys got bored? They quit their day job, wandered around Paris, tasted as many baguettes and cookies as possible and wrote a book about it! Their reviews on 1263 bakeries were then published as “Le Guides des Boulangeries de Paris”(The Paris Bakeries Guides) in 2003. That first project together played a significant role in the birth of Michel et Augustin. Michel did not only enjoy Augustin’s company in daily babble but also lifelong projects. The quirky duo took the name “two kooky cookies” and taught themselves how to make the best cookie ever!
“To make it simple, our idea was to be the French Ben and Jerry’s. Augustin loved their story, their ice-creams and their factory in the US. We wanted to build a similar brand in Europe, where Ben and Jerry’s was not really famous and understood. A brand that is all about taste and natural ingredients. A brand that tells a story: To be an entrepreneur in France is possible, to be passionate about food is possible, and to see life in a positive and lively light is possible.”
It has been 13 years since the two bestfriends started their entrepreneurial journey. “We are lucky enough that the company has well developed from a few employees to about a hundred. We have banana farms (it’s how they call their offices) in Paris, Lyon and New York. Our product is available in Europe, the UAE, North America and Asia.”
No one expected more cookies on the market…
Flashback to 2005, the bakery and pastry market in France was almost saturated (the duo counted 1263 bakeries, just in Paris). “We faced enormous competition, no one expected more cookies than what they had already had in the market. Our mission was to be really different, be quicker, be faster.” They greeted the market with cookies in snack or to-go format and cheeky communications strategy: two funny, smiling French guys, distinguished by the amount of hairs remaining on the forehead (Michel is the less lucky one). “We wanted to attract customers who are willing quit consuming products from big company and switch to real, tasty products from people they know.”
Does that make their international success a hindrance? Now that their products are widely distributed, aren’t they the big guy now? “Yes, it’s true that we are no longer your friendly neighbors who make cookies. Apparently, we are based in Paris and sell in different countries”, Michel affirmed with a grin. “The thing is that we remain faithful to our promise with customers. We use the best natural ingredients. We never stop working on our recipe. No matter how big we grow, what’s always true is that we make the best tasting cookies.”
In France only, Michel et Augustin’s products are available in more than 3100 outlets. What they offer are not only cookies but also yogurt, dessert and fruit juice (all of which taste awesome, too). “Two kooky cookies” face the dilemma of quality and quantity. “There is artisan production and industrial production. When we talk about artisan products, it’s all about great ingredients with amazing taste but inconsistent quality. Industrial products, on the other hand, it’s the same every day, every month, every year or even every century yet the quality of ingredients is sacrificed. We want to have the best of both world.”
Their solution? “We source great ingredients like in artisan production, and never compromise with low quality product for cheaper and easier manufacturing process. It always has to be the best butter and eggs from free-range chickens. We are proud to say that we follow the most refined recipes, no matter how long or complicated they can be. After that, the precision of industrial production is added to ensure the same quality across batches. Honestly, it’s a pain in the neck in this industrial world, yet it’s vital for us to make the best tasting cookies.”
Given their strict quality standards, 90% of Michel et Augustin’s production takes place in France. The remaining 10% of production scatters between Spain, Portugal and the Netherlands. “We can’t manage to make products of same quality just in France. Making cookies does not sound that hi-tech but it is! Some technologies we use in production are simply not available in France.”
And a global success…
Like many other French businesses, Michel et Augustin chose Belgium as their first international stop. “Part of the country shares our language. Plus, Brussel is even closer to Paris than Lyon or Marseille.”, Michel explained. “Our product is now available in 20 countries: China, Thailand, Singapore, Hong Kong, the UAE, Spain, Italy, Belgium, Switzerland, the UK, Germany,… I’m missing a few. We’ve also been in the US for 3 years and we’re taking our first steps in Canada. It’s been such a ride!”
We asked Michel about his most memorable market experience. Delightfully, he replied: “The US market is an amazing story for us. We started making efforts way back in 2009. The whole operation was down in 2010. It didn’t work out because we chose the wrong wholesalers, who didn’t fit our culture and working methods. 5 years later, an unexpected opportunity with Starbucks came up! We had been trying to work with Starbucks for ages. Around 2004 – 2005, when Starbucks just came to Paris with very few units, we contacted them and stayed in touch. After 10 years, our persistence paid off. We got a request for samples from Starbucks headquarter in the US. Instead of just sending the cookies, our two representatives flied all the way from Paris to meet Howard Schultz (CEO of Starbucks) in Seattle. We worked like crazy to make the deal work out. It was a unforgettable year with Starbucks!”
After Starbucks, Michel et Augustin continued to expand their business in the US. “The Starbucks experience gives us amazing references. It really is a significant step! We have the leverage to place our product in flights and big retailers like Whole Food.”
“Some startups become global very quickly. However, in the food industry, we have to go step by step because food cultures vary across nations. It takes great time and effort for each country.”, Michel summed up his global journey. “So for international development, make sure it works for one country before moving on to another. Take steps.”
Michel et Augustin adapts to culture variation by adjusting product packaging and applying selective product offerings for each market. For example, in the US, where dark chocolate is preferred, retailers are supplied with products featuring dark chocolate. Michel et Augustin’s “Petits carrés” (Little Square) is also appealing to US consumers who have a tooth for snack. However, “at some point, we’d like to develop specific recipes for each country”, Michel added.
A boost to international growth with DANONE
In June 2016, DANONE officially acquired 40% of Michel et Augustin. “We don’t consider ourselves as part of DANONE Group. DANONE is our new shareholder, who is like a big brother to us. We used to be part of the Pinault family, and now we are family with DANONE. This is an opportunity for us to be more ambitious. It takes a lot of time to develop a brand in the food industry. With the help of DANONE and their extended sales network around the world, we’ll be able to boost the global sales of Michel et Augustin products.”, Michel emphasized.
“We want to go global as a French know-how pastry brand. The reputation of French pastry chefs (both Michel and Augustin are certified chefs, Michel in pastry and Augustin in bakery) will give us leverage in big cities around the world, where we believe there are demands for Michel et Augustin products.”
DANONE won’t take over the sales distribution of Michel et Augustin. “Our focus is the brand, the recipe and our development in France but we will also be very involved in DANONE sales network. We can’t let DANONE do it themselves, because it’s us who truly understand Michel et Augustin’s core value.”
“We position as a more premium and luxury brand on international markets. Our products are priced at around 2 – 3 euros in France, making them little pleasures that anybody can afford. In Asia, for instance, we target elites who are willing to spend more on high quality French products. That’s why we only work with nice retailers who has premium stores at premium location in Hong Kong (City’Super) and China (Ole’ Supermarket).”
“My advice to other entrepreneurs, if I’m allowed to do that”
Michel et Augustin enjoyed a revenue of over 40 million euros in 2016 (+35%). Their focus in the years to come will be on international development, with the help of DANONE. Despite all his accomplishments at Michel et Augustin, Michel remains a humble and enthusiastic cookie-guy: “My advice to other entrepreneurs, if I’m allowed to do that, is: Don’t find reasons to postpone your business. The idea is never perfect enough, so are the team and your business plan. To be an entrepreneur is to have an idea, and then work hard to develop it into a business. Stop procrastinating and do it now!”
“Also, keep in mind that entrepreneurship is a long journey. It might take you years, or even decades for your business to be visible. That’s why you need to pick an industry that you are passionate about and to work with people that you really like. Because it’s gonna be your whole life, make sure the passion is big enough for you to have enjoyable moments.”
An Interview by Linh To