By Stefanie Wallace
A talented French patissier and a forward-thinking businesswoman are the
winning combination behind Julien’s, the pastry shop, café and bakery
that has brought a touch of authentic French fare to Nova Scotia’s South
A talented French patissier and a forward-thinking businesswoman are the winning combination behind Julien’s, the pastry shop, café and bakery that has brought a touch of authentic French fare to Nova Scotia’s South Shore area.
|Julien’s canelés and pastries have become hits amongst customers. Photos by Ashley Marlin.|
Laura Mulrooney met her husband Didier Julien in 1987. Julien, a Master Baker in artisan breads and pastries, came to Halifax from France on a six-month contract in 1984 and never left. The couple’s first restaurant in Bridewater, N.S., opened from 1989 to 1992. When someone mentioned in passing that Chester was more of a resort town, Mulrooney and Julien packed up and moved to Chester to open the first location of Julien’s Patisserie, Bakery & Café.
Expansion began in 1993 when Julien’s started selling at the Halifax Seaport Farmers’ Market, and shortly thereafter the Halifax location in the Hydrostone Market was opened. “We sort of grew from a mom-and-pop operation, and now we have 26 employees,” says Mulrooney. This past December, the Halifax location was sold, but besides the owner, nothing has changed: “It’s still called Julien’s and we still supply, but it’s a new take on things for us.”
Julien’s menu includes artisan breads and traditional French pastries, from a sourdough made using local beer to canelés, a pastry that originated in Bordeaux and has become a quick favourite among their customers. But Mulrooney says adaptation has been key to growing their business. “We didn’t make muffins or brownies when we started – they’re not French things! – but if you want muffins, we’re going to make you muffins, because we’d be stupid not to,” she says of her business strategy. Adding loaf bread to their menu may have come with some scrutiny from their competitors, but, “it’s still good bread, and if you want it to fit in the toaster, we’re going to make it fit in the toaster.”
The next venture in menu expansion is adding crepes and waffles, and marketing their line of sorbet and ice cream, which already has a royal following: Julien was asked to make sorbet for the Queen of England when she visited Canada two years ago.
The menu may have evolved over the years, but Julien’s methods haven’t. Mulrooney describes her husband as a perfectionist and a purist. “He’s passionate about what he does and it has to be right, or else why bother?” she says. Each of the few thousand croissants made per week are rolled by hand – “every single darn one of them!”
Mulrooney says. Real butter, eggs broken by hand and cream are staples; every loaf of bread is made by hand. “This is all to make money at the end of the day, and if you don’t pay attention you can lose sight of that,” Mulrooney says. “People are prepared to pay for quality . . . [they] want good things.”
|Didier Julien’s fresh baked beer sourdough is made with beer from Garrison Brewing Co. in Halifax. Photo by Catherine Schulz MacArthur.|
The 2007-2008 year brought challenges to Julien’s, just as it did the rest of the world. The purchase of a new, 5,000-square-foot building was expected to make life a little easier (compared to the 500-square-foot baking space used previously), but with a new space came new equipment and a septic issue that seemed to go on forever. “2007-2008 was a hard financial year for the entire world, so it was probably not the best time to do an expansion, but that’s OK,” Mulrooney says, noting that adaptation seems to be a motto of the business. “We’re so affected by commodity prices, fuel prices, labour shortages . . . it’s very much a global thing, even in our tiny little village.”
Julien’s has since expanded even more, now supplying to other bakeries, hotels, markets and 10 Sobeys locations in Nova Scotia. When Loblaws bought Ace, removing Ace products from Sobeys stores, Julien’s moved in. “We just added on a new store – we supply to 10 right now and it could be limitless,” Mulrooney says. Because their goods are so perishable, Mulrooney and Julien are trying to develop a strategy, with the help of consultants, to make this new business venture more profitable. However, their big new client is not without some careful hesitation and research. “We also have to be careful; we could put all our eggs in one basket and Joe’s Bakery could come along, and Sobeys could dump us.”
Expansion is positive, but it doesn’t come without hurdles. “When you’re mom and pop, there aren’t so many people looking down your neck. Now competitors may say, ‘Oh, they don’t have their labels right,’” Mulrooney says, noting that they’re facing more labour and fuel costs, along with reports and technicalities. “All of a sudden you’re not just baking anymore, or behind the counter doing cappuccinos,” she says. She notes that the business side of things has become more technical, forcing artisan bakers like Julien to familiarize themselves with the computer. “All this stuff is in his head,” Mulrooney says. “[Bakers] don’t care about doing spreadsheets unless it’s relevant to them,” she says, “but it certainly can help their own case if they can accept it.”
|Julien’s artisan breads can be found at bakeries, hotels and markets in Nova Scotia, and more recently, in 10 Sobeys locations across the province. Photo by Ashley Marlin.|
As the company continues growing, Mulrooney says, they have also been faced with the decision of what kind of, and how many, projects they want to take on. Franchising isn’t out of the question, she says, and discussions about the future are in the works. With gas prices rising, Mulrooney says, it’s hard to determine if delivering to a customer an hour away is economical anymore. “When you’re young, you’re jumping at every bit of business, but now we have to be more careful and determine if it’s worth our while,” she says. And succession is always a question. “There only ever was the two of us, and little by little, others are there, but we’re always watching them,” Mulrooney says. Julien and Mulrooney have three sons, and Mulrooney doesn’t expect any of them to become bakers and take over the business. “That’s why we have to start planning now.”
Julien’s future is bright. Mulrooney says she knows that continuing to maintain a strong relationship with their loyal customers will only contribute to success. Educating clientele about different products and keeping up with the trends and consumer demand is important. “Our store in Halifax has a lot of Muslim customers asking if there is alcohol in a recipe, and that’s something we wouldn’t even have considered before,” she says.
Julien’s has stayed away from gluten-free products – “We’re leaving the gluten-free thing mostly to the gluten-free people” – but Julien has developed spelt and kamut recipes.
“We’ve done a lot of education because this area was pretty rural when we came here in ’89,” Mulrooney says. “If customers know what to do with it and how to eat it and what it’s supposed to taste like . . . talk to them about it, they love it.” Mulrooney’s mother, Barbara, who sells at the Halifax farmer’s market on Saturdays, carries on this important tactic. “She’s got a huge relationship with all of those customers,” she says. “I can’t tell you how important that is. You can get a loaf of bread anywhere, but knowing who you are and how are things going . . . that’s huge [to customers].”
Her not-so-secretive piece of advice about success may be customer service, but, Mulrooney says, her husband’s ambition is the real driving factor behind their success. “Didier’s really tenacious and just hasn’t given up on anything,” she says. “I would have quit about 8,000 times . . . but he’s never wanted to quit, never ever, so it’s a good partnership.”