It’s hip to be square
Boulart’s artisanal ciabatta set the Montreal bread maker on its path to success
By Mark Cardwell
As visions go, Michel Saillant’s dream for a new company with a unique food product was a whopper.
It was 2004 and Saillant, a Montreal entrepreneur with limited experience in the bakery business, began a quest to raise $15 million and build a 50,000-sq.-ft. factory to mass produce baguette and ciabatta, a then-novel, square-ended Italian variety of baguette. “I had a very simple but detailed plan,” says Saillant, founder of Boulart, a Montreal-based craft bread maker and a North American ciabatta pioneer. “There was a clear gap in the bakery industry between small craftsmen with high quality and low velocity, and industrials with high velocity and low quality. I wanted to fill that gap with a product I knew was perfect for the North American market.”
For three years Saillant pounded the pavement in search of investors who shared his vision. They proved, however, to be few and far between. “Everyone tried to downsize the project, which they considered too big and too risky,” recalls Saillant, a native Montrealer who had started several small businesses and worked in a number of different industries since he was teenager.
Those experiences included opening and running a juice bar in Malibu, Calif. in the 1970s, restoring vintage cars, building houses and selling skiwear and menswear. Saillant broke into the bakery industry in 2000 when he was hired as first a consultant then executive vice-president of Au Pain Doré, a long-established Montreal bakery chain. Saillant says he developed a passion for the industry but left the company after three years to pursue his dream project. “Sure there were moments when I doubted myself,” he says. “Every morning I took a hard look at myself in the mirror. I had a family to support and everything, the pressure was huge. But I refused to give in or give up.”
Saillant says that he remained convinced of the massive commercial potential of ciabatta, which was created by Italian baker Francesco Favaron in 1982, but which was not yet popular in North America. “Americans are raised on soft sliced bread,” says Saillant. “People like baguette but it’s too hard and crusty. Ciabatta is a mix of both.”
Saillant’s financial angel finally appeared unexpectedly in the form of normally risk-adverse Desjardins Group, North America’s largest collection of credit unions. Desjardins offered to provide Saillant with nearly $7 million in venture-capital funding. “They told me they were looking for an innovative project and they picked mine,” Saillant recalls. “When we signed the deal it was like I’d won an Oscar. I was in a stupor for days.”
Saillant dove into building his new company, which he had dubbed Baguette Co. during the project phase. He changed the venture’s name to Boulart, a hybrid of boulangerie and artisanal. Saillant first leased, and later bought, a nearly new, 55,000-sq.-ft. factory in the Montreal borough of Lachine. “It was immaculate (and) it fit the blueprint I was looking for, with high ceilings and lots of space,” says Saillant. Once he had an address to deliver to, he started ordering and installing high-tech bakery equipment in early 2007.
According to Saillant, the main challenge he faced in producing craft-quality, European-style bread in industrial volumes was consistency. “It’s a tricky combination,” he says. “But it was crucial to my plan to be distinct in the marketplace.” He notably worked with a mill to ensure a consistent supply of high-quality unbleached and untreated flour. The entrepreneur also set up a first-rate, eight-hour production process that includes everything from the mixing and fermentation of ingredients to flash-freezing and packing fully baked bread. “Making bread is like making great wine,” says Saillant. “You need the right raw materials, but also the time to age.”
Within a few months, a big industrial oven was feeding two makeup lines that could be set up to make either baguette, a thin loaf of French bread famous for its long length and crisp crust, or ciabatta, which is made from laminated dough that is cut rather than moulded before being baked, giving it a lighter, airier bite than a baguette. According to Saillant, the quality of his products, which are shipped frozen and can be thawed and sold as oven-fresh bread by customers on an as-needed basis for up to 10 months, won over top retailers from the get go.
“Our growth was huge and has grown steadily from day one,” says Saillant. “Ciabatta really caught on in Canada and the U.S. We exceeded the numbers in my original business plan. I doubt that happens very often.”
In addition to Costco and Sobeys/IGA in Canada, Boulart counts Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods among its long list of clients in the U.S. “I targeted those companies in my business plan because for me there were visionary (and) they still are leaders in their industries,” says Saillant. “I’m a rifle, not a shotgun. And I’m patient. I keep knocking on their door because I now can bring them value with my product.”
By 2008, demand was so strong for Boulart’s products that Saillant added a second production line. A third was added a few years ago after Saillant acquired a neighbouring building and integrated it seamlessly into what is now a 125,000-sq.-ft. production facility. Today, approximately 80 employees work on three daily shifts at Boulart, churning out roughly 2,500 baguettes an hour.
Saillant says that about 60 per cent of that production goes to retail sales, roughly 60 per cent in Canada and 40 per cent in the U.S. Approximately 90 per cent of retail product is private label, with 10 per cent sold under the Boulart name. The other 40 per cent of production goes to the foodservice industry, mostly to major restaurants in Canada.
In addition to commercial success – Saillant says the company does roughly $50 million a year in sales – Boulart has also earned North American-wide industry recognition. In April, for example, the company dominated the 2017 National Restaurant Association’s FABI Awards, winning a show-leading three awards for three new and innovative products. They include individually wrapped, oven-friendly Ciabatta Bites, a low-calorie Original Flat Sandwich Bun, and an Olive Oil and Fine Herb Focaccia that a company press release says “helps reduce kitchen waste and manage inventory as it comes baked and frozen allowing for easy thawing or reheating as needed.”
Saillant says innovation is the key to staying on top in such a highly competitive business. “Everybody is making ciabatta now and people are copying what we do,” he says. “But we’re still the one to beat.”
Going forward, Boulart will continue to focus on innovation and quality. “Our culture here is upbeat and the environment is very cool,” says Saillant, whose daughter Charlotte works part time in Boulart’s Marketing and Customer Service departments. “We’re more than just a bakery. We like to work with customers so they can understand us, and us them. We’re all about relationships.”