The Boulangers of Winnipeg
December 3, 2007
By Myron Love
With the help of a provincial immigration program, a French couple settles into the business of baking in Winnipeg.
On a bitterly cold mid-February day in Winnipeg, business is slow at Le Croissant. The effect of the weather on business is one of several differences that Jerome and Fabienne Boulanger (yes, a rather à propos name for bakers), the new owners of the French bakery in the city’s largely French St. Boniface district, have noticed since the recent immigrants from France acquired the 10-year-old bakery at the beginning of August.
“In Paris, we knew what to expect from day to day and week to week,” says Fabienne. “Here, it depends on the weather. If it is snowy out or very cold, then not many customers come in.”
Still, despite the learning curve in Canada, Jerome and Fabienne Boulanger are happy with their decision almost a year ago to immigrate to the country.
Jerome is originally from Alsace in the northeast of France while Fabienne is from Brittany in the northwest. The two met in Paris, where they had lived and worked for 10 years. Jerome was a pastry chef in a restaurant and also worked in a bakery. Fabienne worked in a hotel and in a chocolaterie. For Jerome in particular, coming to Canada – with its wide open spaces – was the realization of a long held dream.
The couple is one of five young families (Jerome and Fabienne have a one-year-old child) who were recruited from Alsace under Manitoba’s Provincial Nominee Program.
The Provincial Nominee Program was initiated about 10 years ago at the behest of Winnipeg’s garment manufacturers, who were desperately in need of foreign workers at the time. (Within the last few years, most of the industry’s production has shifted to the Orient.) The problem was that immigration numbers were determined in Ottawa and based mainly on the needs of major centres such as Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver. That focus generally left provinces like Manitoba short-changed when it came to immigrants. Under the Provincial Nominee program, Manitoba is allowed to bypass Ottawa and directly recruit (up to a certain number) the kind of immigrants the province needs. The Boulangers responded to an ad in an Alsatian newspaper seeking more French-speaking immigrant entrepreneurs. The ad was placed by the Economic Development Council for Manitoba Bilingial Municipalities (CDEM). CDEM helps the new entrepreneurs get settled and adjust to cultural differences.
“We came for visits twice before we decided to move here,” Fabienne says. “The officials here helped with our paperwork to speed up the process.”
The Boulangers started operating Le Croissant on August 3 and noticed a difference in Canadian versus French buying habits almost immediately. In France, customers visit their local boulangerie every day to pick up a fresh baguettes. In Manitioba, Jerome says his customers visit the bakery one to two times a week, buy a lot of bread and freeze it.
“In France, we had customers who would come in every morning to buy their chocolate croissant for breakfast,” he says. “Here, they don’t come in as often.”
Because of the differences in purchasing habits, the Boulangers, who make their products fresh daily, find it difficult to gauge exactly how much (or how little) to make.
“There have been days when we are sold out and other days when we have quite a bit left over,” says Fabienne. “We are trying to encourage customers to phone in their orders ahead of time.”
Another challenge the couple has encountered in operating a French bakery in Winnipeg is sourcing ingredients – the bakery ends up importing most of its supplies from Quebec.
“We’ve had to adapt some of our recipes,” says Jerome.
Exactly what recipes does Le Croissant whip up? Naturally, there’s the traditional French baguette. Other breads include walnut, bacon, pumpkin, flax and butter bread. The bakery also carries a large array of pâtés tourtières, cheese, and pastries. Le Croissant continues to sell a line of jams leftover from the bakery’s previous owner, although once those are sold out, Jerome will make his own jams.
Besides making bread to sell on-site, Le Croissant also sells bread and a few other products to local restaurants and grocery stores. And the bakery features a 20-seat restaurant that caters to the lunch crowd. The restaurant menu features soups, salads, quiches, tourtières, and other traditional French fare.
“We haven’t really publicized the restaurant,” Fabienne says. “Business has been growing by word of mouth. The biggest problem we have is finding bilingual staff.”
But despite the challenges of adapting to a new home and a new business (and despite a cold winter), the Boulangers are content to call Winnipeg home.
“People have been warm and friendly and very helpful,” Fabienne says. “We have appreciated the support.”
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