Photograph by Paul del Rosario
Food & Drink Features

Still baking at 30: How Johnlu Koa sold French breads to a generation raised on pandesal

Back in the 1980s, when hardly anyone was buying baguettes and croissants, one Filipino-Chinese marketing professor struck it big with The French Baker. Thirty years later, this homegrown brand continues to thrive amidst the competition.
Nana Ozaeta | Sep 03 2019

In the late 1980s when mall culture was young and the economy was still picking up the pieces after the EDSA Revolution, one young professor from the University of the Philippines opened The French Baker, selling fresh-from-the-oven baguettes, croissants, and other European breads and pastries to a young population reared on pandesal. After 30 years and 60-plus stores, Johnlu Koa is just as passionate about bread-making and his growing portfolio of food brands (Lartizan, Chatime, and Mazendo) as ever.

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While The French Baker has always sat squarely within the middle market, with outlets spread across the Philippines from Baguio to Davao, Koa is adamant about providing a premium experience to his customers, no matter the income level. That’s why the choice of Sta. Lucia East Grand Mall in Cainta, Rizal was an especially apt location for ANCX’s sit-down interview with the man.

The French Baker’s newly refurbished outlet at Sta. Lucia East Grand Mall.

This branch shows off The French Baker’s “new look,” a sign that, after 30 years in business, and despite the onslaught of competitors, especially from overseas, the brand has managed to keep up with the times. While the store has retained its familiar bright, cheerful look, and always bustling vibe, we couldn’t help but notice the many new touches introduced to upgrade the customer experience. Think neutral tones, plush banquettes and upholstered seating, with brick walls decorated with framed pictures of scenes from some of Koa’s favorite European destinations, some of them taken by Koa himself.

A Parisian café feel in a mall setting.

The store now has a separate espresso counter featuring exclusive Piacetto coffee, plus a display case up front inviting customers to pick their own breads and pastries. The baking area remains out in the open where customers can see all day long, bakers prepping, rolling, shaping dough for baking, with Koa getting in on the action as well.

The espresso counter offering a menu of hot and iced espresso drinks.

Thirty years ago, Koa opened his first The French Baker store in the still new SM City (now SM City North EDSA), melding his baking background (his family already owned a baking business) and his academic know-how. He sat down for an animated discussion about how he took the leap with an as-yet untested concept and where he sees it going in the future.

 

How did you start The French Baker?

I was bound for post-graduate studies. I got a grant from British Council, any school in the U.K. for one year. That was in 1987. Then somewhere along the way, I got a call from SM saying that they’re going to open SM North EDSA, a mall like Ayala, naks. Ako naman student of marketing, sabi ko, oh my God, differentiated mall, that would be fun because you don’t have to drive so far to experience what is Ayala, Makati. Then it made me think, they said you try to come and see what you can do. So I said, hopia at saka siopao hindi pang mall, hindi kikitain yun. I realized it will not be good enough.

The first outlet in SM City

 

What made you think the market was ready for European breads?

Reverse brain drain. Professionals were coming back to serve under Cory… I started with just one thought, a new market is emerging. Markets that brought home with them needs, wants as a result of their exile during the Marcos years. How do you serve them well? How could you serve them better? … I was the first to serve preservative-free bread. I was the first to introduce whole-grain, whole-wheat breads. I was the first to introduce breads with very low sugar because in the 1980s, everything had to be sweet and sweeter… I did what nobody else could do, face uncertainty with low level of experience, low level of knowledge, with only one belief: that I was young, I was willing to suffer, and that I had marketing education from the best business school in the country. And that I could do what I taught. All the long years of teaching would have been meaningless if I could not apply what I learned.

Young entrepeneur Johnlu Koa has always been hands on with baking.

 

Did people initially accept you as someone who could bake the French way?

The first problem I encountered was an outright rejection by the SEC saying that the words “French Baker” are, in their words, parang niloloko mo. Because I am not French, there’s a deception… Ako naman Mr. Don’t Give Up. That time nag drive ako ng Corolla, nagdala ako ng baguette ko sa FDA (Food and Drug Administration). I said, attorney kayo na po maghusga. Do you think I would be deceiving if you allow me to make these types of bread that you can only find in Westin Philippine Plaza? He comes up to me, he says, “Hijo, you have a point. I will endorse you and good luck.”… Nung nakita niya yung product, there is no deception whatsoever.

A full range of French breads, including baguettes and sourdough loaves.

 

Competition in your category has always been fierce. How have you managed to thrive?

To have survived 30 years is testament to my ability to look at market threats and opportunities, assess them well, and come up with a business model to address those needs and/or those threats. I’ve done this in the mall, big time. When the big brands came in, I came up with my own brand. What was my brand? Lartizan.

Lartizan at Serendra, Bonifacio Global City.

 

What is the idea behind Lartizan, as different from The French Baker?

I used sourdough as the platform to declare the bread of Lartizan… I had to re-orient my thinking. What’s the difference between my two brands? The French Baker is all about quick, fast, modern in a setting where people wanted hot, fresh, and good enough. Then I realized there is a market for Makati that felt that, that’s not good enough. Kumbaga sa wine, may wine na wine, at wine na may vintage.

Lartizan offers Oléron oysters flown in fresh from France every week, also available as Oysters Rockefeller.

So when I heard that Paul and Eric Kayser (both French bread brands) were coming in, I realized that the market wanted more… The brand image is in many ways affected by your cult following. Ang kulto ko ay hindi mga Louis Vuitton, Hermes, Gucci, Chanel. Then we opened Lartizan.

Not just a bread shop, Lartizan offers a full menu of French classics, from foie gras to filet mignon.

 

What is the main difference about today’s market compared to 30 years ago?

I still believe the core product must be excellent. I still believe in the 4 P’s of marketing (product, price, place, promotion). I still believe that people look for value for money on a daily basis. I still believe that people may change, but the change is only because they don’t have time. In the old days of the 80s, when we had time to drive, Makati to Cubao was actually under ten minutes. That was 30 years ago. But today, if people have the choice, they would still want to go to the wet market. They would still want to pick up their fresh bread. They would still want to see the baker on a daily basis to pick up their pandesal. But we don’t have that luxury of time, we all suffer from time famine.

On training his bakers, Koa shares, “They understand the science of cooking, the science of baking, and I said, ‘Anytime you go abroad and you have nothing to do, just say you’re a baker and use your certificate.’”

 

What innovations have you introduced as a response to these changes?

Research has consistently shown us that people are empowered: they want convenience, they want quick, and they want easy. That’s why we did e-menu. This is to empower the educated. I don’t want to use the word masa, but the educated consumer who is forever searching for the better, better, better. To now say that, hey I’m empowered because when I ask the question: How does an asado roll look like? Oh it looks like this pala. How does the coffee look like? Oh, they don’t serve it pala in cup, they serve it in porcelain. And there’s a little history about the coffee. And then how do I pay? I’ll go there, I don’t have to talk to the guy, I just wave my phone, and they can pick up the payment.

The French Baker is gradually introducing a mobile payment system to its branches—customers access the e-menu on their mobile phones, scan the QR code on their table, type in their order, and servers bring it to their table.
After 30 years, Koa is finally ready to open The French Baker to franchising, including expansion overseas.

Looking back on 30 years, what are you most proud about?

I bring to the market all my collection of 30 years of moving around Europe, America, and the world. I know the market like I know myself. We’re forever looking for the better value, the better product, and the better location. So much so that we enslave ourselves. Talk about it, think about it, experiment about it, do mistakes about it, in order to create a product, and of course distinctly. When they come in, they should feel good that this is not, definitely not an import. But it’s a homegrown product that can fight any import, anywhere in the world!

 

Visit www.thefrenchbaker.com and www.lartizan.com

Photographs by Paul del Rosario

Lartizan photographs by Chris Clemente