Food & Beverage

Bonjour Amérique!: How this French 'kooky cookie' brand is taking the world by storm

By Caylee Steytler in London

Bonjour Amérique!: How this French 'kooky cookie' brand is taking the world by storm

Michel et Augustin is a kooky cookie company that was founded in France in 2014 with the mission of ‘making the world smile by concocting simple and delicious recipes’. After baking and selling 150 million cookies to the delight of their French customers, Michel et Augustin decided to go global, starting with the US.

Interviewee: Antoine Chauvel - Vice President of Sales, Michel et Augustin

It was a brave move, led by Antoine Chauvel, Vice President of Sales, who relocated to New York to lead the charge in November 2014. So far, he’s making a great success of beating the Americans at their own game: “We are selling exactly the same cookies with exactly the same recipes as we do in France. We are lucky enough that we have products that are slightly different from what’s in the market,” he says. “The majority of the food innovations in the US have been in different areas, like cereal bars and functional beverages; the cookie aisle was kind of forgotten. It’s a huge opportunity for us. We’ve brought innovation, style and fun to the cookie aisle.”

We are talking super cookies with melty middles, petites baguettes butter cookies, and puff palmiers, or pure butter pastry with bits of chocolate. 

No wonder the Americans have been won over. In its first 18 months, Michel et Augustin’s cookies are on sale at more than a thousand grocery stores, and they have signed a national deal with Starbucks.

“We are selling exactly the same cookies with exactly the same recipes as we do in France. We are lucky enough that we have products that are slightly different from what’s in the market,” he says. “The majority of the food innovations in the US have been in different areas, like cereal bars and functional beverages; the cookie aisle was kind of forgotten. It’s a huge opportunity for us. We’ve brought innovation, style and fun to the cookie aisle.”

But why head straight to the US without conquering markets closer to home first? “The market is unique here,” says Chauvel. “The costs of setting up a business abroad are kind of the same whether you go to New York or London, but doing it in such a big market as this is much more rewarding if it’s successful.”

That’s not to say it has been easy. Distribution, for a start, has been a steep learning curve. “We had some surprises in terms of the way distribution works here,” says Chauvel. “The independent stores are far more important here than they are in Europe, where you have the big supermarket chains. Here there are a lot more players.”

He adds, “In New York City you have a lot of independents. That’s a positive, because you can go and talk directly to the store and introduce your product, and the next day it’s on the shelves. But the downside is it’s a huge effort to talk to so many stores rather than dealing with one central buyer.”

Another challenge has been dealing with the raft of disparate regulations that pertain to food and beverages across the 50 states of America. And then there’s just the sheer scale of the market: “There are just so many local and regional players across the country,” says Chauvel. “So you have Publix in Florida, for example, which has 800 stores in Florida, but very little elsewhere.”

The only way to overcome such hurdles is to simply get out there, he says: “You can spend a lot of time doing market research and market studies, but in the end, visiting the stores, talking to people, and meeting the clients and distributors provides those opportunities. That is how you make it happen.”

Chauvel certainly knows the business better than most. He joined Michel et Augustin in 2006 as a Field Sales Representative, and was promoted to Key Account Manager three years later. In 2013, he became Export Manager, in charge of exporting cookies outside of France.

“We went to many countries and found local partners to distribute our products on our behalf,” he says. Sales were extended to 23 countries, across Europe, the Middle East and Asia. “It was really, really interesting, and we quickly saw the pros and cons of such a strategy. It was really successful in Benelux, and Switzerland, for example, but in Asia and the Middle East, less so.”

“We went to many countries and found local partners to distribute our products on our behalf,” he says. Sales were extended to 23 countries, across Europe, the Middle East and Asia. “It was really, really interesting, and we quickly saw the pros and cons of such a strategy. It was really successful in Benelux, and Switzerland, for example, but in Asia and the Middle East, less so.”

Overcoming the cultural hurdles of such different markets was difficult without Michel et Augustin staffers on the ground, he says.

“It was definitely a challenging role,” says Chauvel, “but at the same time, it helped us refine our international strategy, and switch from working with importers to the new strategy that we now have in the US, of having local subsidiaries, local offices, and running everything ourselves.”

He adds: “I hope we are proving that this is a successful model for the company going forward, and we will soon be starting in other markets. The UK is clearly the next big market for us.”

Part of his current role includes overseeing the logistics side of the business, both in the US, and from France to the US. But he says that part of the job is relatively straightforward. 

Instead, getting the right team in place has been the biggest test for him, and his proudest accomplishment, during his US adventure. “Because we are originally a French company, we need to have a mix of French people from our parent company on the ground here, and local people that know the market, the stores, and the way things work here. The way we have managed to build a team of people that fits with the company culture bodes very well for the success of the company in the future.”

Of course the other great success was the signing of the Starbucks deal and the national launch into the coffee chain, which happened in January this year. But Chauvel says the company tries to think of that as merely a detail in its US story.

“In France we have a lot of awareness as a brand and as an employer,” he says, “but here that’s not the case, so having such a huge account as Starbucks is a great start. Otherwise the brand is completely unknown, so we can’t use brand awareness in the ways we do in Europe. We just have to rely on ourselves and the way we sell our story if we are going to achieve our goals in the US market.”

Chauvel says he is personally relishing the challenge: “It’s really exciting,” he says, “because everything is new. I’m living in a new country with new clients and a new life. It’s really refreshing, and makes me feel young again. I just love the fact that I get to go back to being a real entrepreneur and start from zero.”

There’s a revolution in the cookie aisle, and Chauvel is happy to be leading it.

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About the author

Caylee Steytler specialises in recruiting exclusively across Procurement and Supply Chain. Working solely with clients and candidates within the FMCG sector.

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