It’s impossible to walk into a retail bakery department and not find brioche hamburger rolls or hot dog buns. The prevalence of brioche as a subcategory within bakery coincides with the U.K.-based St. Pierre Groupe’s recent entry into the U.S. market. St. Pierre recently named CPG veteran David Milner CEO to drive the company’s next stage of growth and he spoke with Progressive Grocer about building a brand, bakery category trends and whether Americans’ love affair with brioche will last.
Progressive Grocer: Talk about how you started with St. Pierre Groupe and where you were before?
David Milner: I’ve worked in the food industry for most of my career. When I first became involved with St. Pierre, I was running a chip business called SkinnyPop. But while I was there, I became chairman of St. Pierre, so I was helping them with their international expansion. They were pretty new into the U.S. at that point, but I’ve done a lot of work with FMCG businesses in building a U.K. business into the U.S. I joined as chairman for three years, helping with international expansion and development of the brand.
PG: What is your vision for the St. Pierre brand in the U.S.?
DM: I always try to work with companies that I truly believe in. So I chose St. Pierre because one of the things we have is a better product than anybody else, whether it’s a loaf or a burger bun or a hot dog roll, ours are fantastic. When you have a superior product, and you can truly believe in what you’re doing, then you work on the principle that, once people have tried what you got, they’ll recognize that it’s better and they’ll stay with it. So it’s quite a simple model.
PG: What kind of leader are you? What’s your leadership style?
DM: I try to share as much of what we’re trying to do with everybody, because I think most of the problems in business are communication issues. People either don’t understand or weren’t told, or heard one thing and thought it meant another. So I try to be as explicit as possible in sharing the big picture, and then let it be very clear what everyone’s role within that is, and then [we] all aim at the same thing. Try and keep it simple, and let people get on with their jobs.
PG: So, looking at six months to 12 months out, what are your key strategic objectives?
DM: There’s two, really. I think we’re in a very different business environment today than we’ve ever been in my career. I think the big challenge for all of us is: Can you get supply? And if you can get the product, can you get it to your customers? I mean, it’s always been a given in the past, and now, I think it will determine the difference between success and failure. So I think that’s No. 1. I think the second one is, I’m desperate to physically get myself to the U.S. More than half of my business is in the U.S., and it’s very important to physically be there, to meet our customers, our consumers, all the people that work on the support of the brand, distributors, our salesforce. We’ve all learned in the last year and a half how to do things remotely, but there’s no substitute for physically being in the same room.
PG: Can you elaborate on your supply chain challenges right now?
DM: Manufacturers have the enviable position of having a lot of demand for their products, because people are still eating out less than they were. Anyone who produces products that are sold through supermarkets to consumers, they’re experiencing new demand and constraints. So the customers you’re dealing with have many people they’re trying to service, and that’s the challenge. Second, raw materials appear to be going up in cost everywhere. And then you couple that with freight prices going up and the shortage of truck drivers. Storage is less available and, therefore, more expensive. There’s inflation right across the market. We’ve got all the demand we need. My challenge as CEO is going to be, probably for the first time ever, can I work with the supply chain to make sure we have the right products in the right place, at the right time, at the most reasonable cost?
PG: How is your U.S. team structured to serve your growing base of customers here?
DM: We have relationships with the key retailers in the U.S., and we do that through our own salesforce based there. We also have a very good distributor that is nationwide; they work in a number of categories, and they represent us with our business in brioche. So we talk to our customers directly through our salesforce and then through the distributor.
PG: What is your outlook for the bakery category?
DM: Young people tend not to like big brands anymore. It’s a generalized statement, but I think, broadly, it’s correct. There will always be big brands, but the young people and people who are very contemporary in their outlook, they like things now which are a bit different. They’re new, they’ve got an angle, they have a mission or a vision for the world, they have provenance, they have health, authenticity. I started my career working with big brands. I’m very happy that I now work with the authentic, cool, young, smaller brands that are emerging and playing, because I think that’s what the market wants at the moment.
PG: Gluten-free, low carb, keto and other food trends have challenged the traditional definitions of healthfulness. How is that affecting St. Pierre and the bakery category?
DM: If you were one of the big staple brands that’s been in bakery forever, producing standard white loaves, I think it’s a very big issue because there are people continually trying to reduce gluten in their diet, and they tend to be stepping away from standard bread. But we don’t do standard bread, we do brioche. We’ll enhance your burger experience by showing you, having a burger in a brioche bun, you never want to go back to your regular white roll. Ditto on hot dogs, ditto on French toast, breakfast. It’s always the case, there might be movements, in health terms, away from certain things. There’s always the time for treats. We’re in the business of indulgence and treats and special occasions.
PG: Why do you think brioche has caught on in the United States and how does St. Pierre stands out from other brioche or related competitors?
DM: People are always looking for something new, something a bit special. If they hadn’t had brioche before and then they stumble on our brand, we have a superior product. So, if you’ve had a burger meal with one of our brioche burger buns, it’s even more delicious. I think that’s why brioche works: It delivers a new sensory experience. And we have authenticity. We’re lucky that we’re actually French, made in Nantes, France. If you’re in the U.S., it’s wonderful that you can buy and enjoy authentic French brioche and eat it when you’re having a treat.
PG: How did you come up with a brioche bagel?
DM: Well, that went very well. I have to say, I wasn’t sure people would love it, but people loved it. But rather than innovating new products, my job for the next year is to make sure that we can get all the basic brioche loaves and burger buns and hot dog rolls that customers want. If we can grow the business another 40% or 50%, I'll be very happy. But that won’t be because we’ve launched a new format for a new type of brioche, it would be because we’ve just been able to get customers what they want in sufficient quantities.
PG: Talk about the innovation process at St. Pierre.
DM: We scout the world, we travel a lot. I was in Paris recently, and the French bakers were telling me that we should do English muffins. They were saying we should do a brioche English muffin. So we will look at that. But innovation requires the kind of energy to get up and physically go, visit the country, go in the shops, go in the restaurants. Oh, it’s a hard job that someone’s got to do [laughs]. But that’s the lovely thing about the food industry. It’s a sensory experience — it’s all about enjoyment.