[dropcap size=small]S[/dropcap]ingapore’s bakery landscape took off in a big way when famous brands like PAUL and Maison Kayser arrived here barely three years ago. Today, PAUL has several branches in high traffic areas, including one at Changi Terminal 3 and an upcoming outlet in Paragon in September this year. More are in the works, ready to be launched in 2016.

Like PAUL, Maison Kayser, a boulangerie by well-known chef Eric Kayser, rolls out fine baked goods. “Singapore is a showcase and trendsetting city in Asia with a lot of traffic from surrounding countries. Furthermore, large French and Japanese communities are already familiar with our brand which is established in France and Japan,” says a Maison Kayer spokesperson.

Come September, New York’s popular Clinton Street Baking Company (CSB) will start flipping its famous pancakes at a shophouse along Purvis Street. According to Belle Sirisant, owner of CSB Singapore, this city was chosen as the location for their third overseas outpost as “Singapore is much like New York – vibrant, worldly, and with a dynamic dining scene”. She comments: “We felt that CSB would fit into the dining culture here as Singaporeans are well-travelled and might be familiar with the CSB brand. We also saw that there was a gap for excellent quality all-day breakfasts in the city that we would be able to fill.”

Asanoya, located at Wilby Central on Queen Street, boasts a spacious bakery and cafe. A spectrum of Japanese-style baked goods and savoury dishes are offered here.

In terms of the difference between the Singapore concept and the original CSB in New York, Sirisant shares: “CSB in New York serves baked goods, handmade in small batches, as well as what many regard as the best brunch in New York City. In Singapore, the food will be the same – American comfort classics – but because we have the liberty of creating a brand new dining room, the space will be much larger, modern and polished, with a cosmopolitan New York vibe.” When it opens, Clinton Street Baking’s patrons can expect quality American classics such as flaky, tender biscuits, pancakes (twice voted Best In The City by New York Magazine), waffles and fried chicken, alongside all-day breakfasts. There will be American-style cakes, pies, and muffins offered at the bakery counter to boot.

Laurent Perez, general manager of PAUL Singapore, echoes Sirisant’s sentiments about the sophisticated Singaporean consumer’s palate. “Singaporeans have an appreciation for authentic, quality French baked goods and cuisine. The expatriate market here adds to the demand as well.” He adds: “I think more foreign pastry and bakery brands will continue to make their way to Asia, using Singapore and Hong Kong as stepping stones and test beds. These are the more challenging markets (with wide offerings of foreign brands as well as well-heeled consumers who know what they want), so if a brand builds well here, it will be easier to enter other markets.”

Famous French bakery PAUL, which opened at Ngee Ann City three years ago, is planning to launch more outlets in Singapore. (Photos from paul-singapore.com)

Of French Refinement and Japanese Precision

The end of May saw the highly anticipated arrival of Parisian institution Angelina. When the tea room launched at Capitol Piazza adjacent to the newly renovated Capitol Theatre, throngs of fans lined up for a sip of its potent hot chocolate and a bite of its signature Mont Blanc dessert. Aditya Talwar, a franchise partner, says that this location is ideal for the first Singapore and South-east Asia outlet of Angelina, a brand steeped in Parisian history. Despite the tea room’s popularity, Talwar says that they are keen to keep Angelina at Capitol a destination. “At this stage we have no current plans to open more outlets yet.”

Confectioner La Cure Gourmande, founded in Balaruc-les-Bains in southern France by Christian Berlan and Edouard Hennebert, is using Singapore as its launch pad. In May, it unveiled its first Asian flagship boutique at Ngee Ann City, and will soon expand to other parts of Asia. Hennerbert says: “For many years, we had been looking to set our footprint here in South-east Asia – since we started the business in 1989.  From our perspective, Singapore has been the obvious choice of destination to open our first outlet in Asia. We want our customers to visit us and feel a sense of nostalgia with every bite of our traditional confections, as they bring home a piece of France.”

Angelina, located at Capitol Piazza next to the historic Capitol Theatre, offers a range of delicate French pastries and cakes.

Japanese brands are hopping on the wagon too. Elegant French-inspired Japanese patisserie Henri Charpentier, most famous for their crepe suzette and financiers, as well as 82-year-old Asanoya bakery group, founded in Karuizawa, Japan, swooped into our sweets scene at the end of last year. Haruki Katagiri, manager of Henri Charpentier Singapore (at Dempsey Road) says: “We have been around in Japan for 47 years [the brand was founded in Ashiya, a suburb in Kobe], and Singapore, being a tourist destination hub in South-east Asia and a food paradise, was the most likely place for us to open our first flagship store.”

The folks behind Asanoya were approached by Tan Chong International, a prominent motor distribution and property company in Singapore, to launch the former’s first outpost outside of Japan. Tan Chong’s owners – who wanted to expand their portfolio of Japanese brands – are big Asanoya fans. After some convincing, the bakery’s Japanese owners agreed to open up in Singapore. And judging by the snaking queues of local and Japanese families patiently waiting at the Queen Street bakery and cafe for their freshly baked tea breads, rustic fruit rye, and curry buns, the owners of Tan Chong are not alone in their love for the brand.

Uniqueness & Authenticity

These brands appeal to food-obsessed locals thanks to their unique specialities, some of which are imported. For instance, due to Angelina’s franchise guidelines, some of the items are produced in Singapore and others in Paris, such as the opera cake, Mont Blanc, and eclairs. “Our hot chocolate is also imported directly from Paris as it is a closely guarded, century-old proprietary recipe,” says Talwar, adding that as the tea room grows, they will be producing more items locally.

La Cure Gourmande doesn’t have any production facilities here, so they import all their items (jam- and chocolate-filled biscuits, madeleines, and navettes) from France. “What you see in our store is traditionally made in France, but with an added touch of our childhood,” says Hennebert. Besides keeping to their traditional confectioneries, the founders will consider creating new flavours for the Asian market. Hennebert reveals that in the coming months, they may introduce pineapple biscuits filled with pineapple jam, and lychee-, mango- and pineapple-flavoured choupettes, to add to the 170 products currently on the shelves of La Cure Gourmande Singapore.

Clinton Street Baking, which will open at Purvis Street, is most famous for its blueberry pancakes and waffles. (Photos from clintonstreetbaking.com)

Facing Competition

With so many players in the market offering high quality goods, competition is bound to be stiff. How do both foreign and local brands get ahead of the game? Says Talwar: “By maintaining the same standards as Angelina in Paris, we hope to deliver the same experience as one would receive at our Rue de Rivoli flagship store. Other than our classic pastries which are available all year round, we also introduce seasonal pastries created by our pastry chefs in France.” To broaden its menu offerings, Angelina also turns out a wide range of classic savoury items such as traditional crusted onion soup, and duck foie gras terrine.

Pang Kok Keong, chef-owner of local patisserie and tea room Antoinette, points out that for such a small market as Singapore, there has definitely been a significant increase in the level of competition. “But,” he says, “these known foreign brands will create more awareness for the enjoyment of pastry, and I hope this will increase the overall demand for pastries here.”

“The entry of foreign brands into the local market allows diners to be increasingly exposed to a wider range of pastries.”

Chef Pang Kok Keong, Antoinette

Ben Goh, pastry chef of InterContinental Singapore agrees with Pang. “With the entry of foreign brands into the local market, it allows us as chefs, as well as diners, to be increasingly exposed to a wider range of pastry creations. This growth in the industry will not only develop a progressively educated pool of guests with higher expectations, but at the same time drive chefs to continually push our limits with our offerings to maintain our competitive edge.” The optimistic chef adds that he doesn’t see these foreign brands as competition, but as a positive driving force that will elevate the overall standard of this culinary aspect in Singapore.

Keeping on their toes, boulangeries like PAUL will allow no room for compromise, according to Perez, and will “continue to offer superior quality products at pocket-friendly prices”. Meanwhile, Maison Kayser sees competition as a source of synergy. “The more French bakeries there are, the more locals will get to know about French breads and be curious about our products,” says the brand’s spokesperson.

Quality Control

To maintain the cafes’ high food standards, many of their chefs are sent to their original kitchens to learn the ropes. For instance, Angelina Singapore’s key management and head chef all underwent extensive training in Paris. Similarly, the chefs of Clinton Street Baking spent time training in the New York kitchen to “make everything according to our principal’s recipes”, shares Sririsant.

Maison Kayser believes in transmission of know-how, too. Local chefs are sent to France for training and French chefs come to Singapore to train local staff. Executive baker chef Chiho Nozaki trained for a year in France and then worked as a baker for many years in Japan before she flew in to Singapore to launch the outlet here. Executive pastry chef Jean-Denis is a young French chef who was recently sent from our Parisian shop to Singapore to manage the pastry range,” says the bakery’s spokesperson. “Furthermore, most of the equipment and quality raw materials are sourced from our official supplier in France according to our requirements.”

La Cure Gourmande’s products are 100 per cent handmade in France using the finest quality ingredients, such as lemons, figs, nuts and chocolate.

Quek shares: “When opening Asanoya, one challenge we faced was finding the right chefs to maintain the traditional flavours. To do this, Kenny Wong, chief baker of Asanoya Singapore, relocated to Singapore from Japan to ensure that the standards are met. Kenny worked at Asanoya Japan for many years and understands Asanoya’s style of breadmaking and its traditional flavours.” As the brand is passionate about keeping baking traditions and flavours alive, bakers at the Singapore outlets have also been trained in the art of breadmaking at the Karuizawa Kyudo outlet in Karuizawa, Nagano, about an hour from Tokyo.

With the kitchen team equipped with the right know-how, next up is to ensure the consistency of its offerings. PAUL’s outlets maintain a limited range of products, prepared in successive batches throughout the day to ensure freshness. “The same attention to quality and authenticity is carried through to the pastries and savoury dishes,” shares Perez.

The Japanese are known for their obsession with perfection. How then does Henri Charpentier ensure that their delicate pastries are flawlessly executed in our humid climate? Haruki says: “Our pastries are brought in from Japan where they are made from the finest selection of ingredients. Our fresh cakes are made here under the strict supervision of our head pastry chef Kenji Yokota who’s based in Singapore. Hence, the standard of our cakes are maintained at the highest level possible.”

Maison Kayser uses ingredients sourced from their official supplier in France.

To achieve success in Singapore, Asanoya invested over a million dollars on specially imported baking equipment and ovens from Japan, to ensure that the quality of bread sold here is the same as what is sold in Japan. Asanoya also imports special ingredients, including Nagano Mori apples and Hokkaido red beans, from Japan to preserve the flavour of their products.

All of La Cure Gourmande’s products are 100 per cent handmade in its cookie lab in France. Hennebert says, “We continuously improve our recipes till they are perfected. In an effort to preserve the finest quality, all confections are handcrafted in a short duration and immediately shipped to Singapore. Our loose cookies in our cookie island have a shelf life of seven days as soon as they extracted from the sealed trays. Also, it is our policy to not keep cookies after the seven-day mark.  We restock the batch in our cookie island daily. Other confections that are wrapped individually have longer expiration dates.” Furthermore, to ensure consistency, Hennebert and Berlan are involved in every step of the process from start to end – from assessing the quality of craftsmanship to choosing premium ingredients.

Remaining Relevant

The profusion of bakeries and patisseries means that local players are not resting on their laurels. The innovative Pang points out: “I feel it is important for local patisseries to create their own identities and original flavours. They need to have their own signatures, something they will be known for, instead of what’s trendy. How many rainbow cakes or red velvet cakes can you have out there anyway?”

Goh believes that reinvention is important for local patisseries to remain relevant. “Equipped with better knowledge and understanding of what appeals to local tastes, local patisseries have an edge over foreign brands in this area and should work on maintaining constant appeal to guests that have grown to appreciate local touches.” The chef continues: “While accurately conveying and interpreting new ideas succinctly, it is important not to lose touch with our roots.”