The secret of the tails of the Mistral oven

The secret of the tails of the Mistral oven

2023-04-29 18:00:14

BarcelonaThe queue of people repeats itself almost every afternoon on Carrer Astúries, right in the middle of Barcelona’s Gràcia district. A handful of people wait to enter one of Mistral’s shops, an artisan bakery that, due to word of mouth, every afternoon fills the street with people waiting to be served to take home a loaf of bread or an ensaimada, its star product for decades.

Mistral bakeries are one of the trendy bakeries in Barcelona at a time when bread bakeries are increasingly populating the streets of Catalan cities, but under the brands of large chains. Mistral, founded in 1879, continues to advance in a sea of ​​cloned bakeries. The company has been managed by the Bertran family since 1977 and has three stores in Barcelona, ​​the one in Gràcia and the two oldest, in the Sant Antoni district. These two, however, operate almost as one, since they are a few meters from each other and share a workshop.

“My great-grandmother had an oven in Badalona,” recalls Jaume Bertran, owner of the company, explaining its origins. Part of the wider family still has bakeries in Badalona, ​​but Bertran manages his three establishments in the Catalan capital with his entire immediate family, including his children. Mistral’s success is a shared success, at least from the outside. Just as a few years ago the streets were filled with companies buying gold, recent times are marked by the proliferation of bakeries, especially specialized chains owned in many cases by investment funds.

This boom in ovens comes precisely at a time when the consumption of bread is reduced, or at least that’s what official data points to. According to the household consumption expenditure statistics of Idescat – the statistical agency of the Generalitat –, in 2016 Catalans spent 732 million euros on bread and 702 million on other bakery products. In 2021 – the latest with available data – the figures had fallen by 7.6% and 2.8% respectively, to 676 million in the case of bread and 683 million for the rest of the products.

Despite the drop in bread consumption, queues are not exclusive to Mistral. Chain bakeries like Turris also gather people on the street many days, especially at weekends. Standing in line to buy bread is not uncommon nowadays and data points to many companies doing business there.

Among the chains, Dialypa, which operates ovens of the Macxipan brand, is the largest in Catalonia, with a turnover of 43 million euros and a workforce of almost 850 employees, followed by Consupan (which manages Granier ovens), with 118 employees and 32 million turnover, according to the report Mapping of the industrial bakery and pastry industry in Cataloniapublished this week by Prodeca, the Catalan Food Promoter of the Generalitat.

Ime Mil (parent of chains such as Bellapan and Dinopan), Turris, El Fornet and 365 are a step below in sales, between 15 and 20 million euros per year, although with very different templates. The 365 furnaces have a hundred workers in total, El Fornet has more than 450, Ime Mil, about 400, and Turris, 320, according to this same report.

Prodeca distinguishes between large chains and smaller ones, which usually do not reach 15 establishments and which have a local or regional scope. Between one type and the other, there are 36 companies in Catalonia, with a combined turnover of almost 252 million and employing 4,145 people. However, the concentration is high: the six largest companies mentioned represent 60% of the total turnover.

The threat of supermarkets

These franchise companies are a threat to lifetime bakeries, but there is another: supermarkets. The trend on a European scale in the large distribution sector is to increase the supply of pastries and bakeries, also in Spain. The main attraction of supermarket bread is the price, much lower than in a bakery, but of a very different quality, since these are industrially manufactured products and tend to have very high levels of sugars and additives because the product supports freezing processes. Some supermarkets, such as Mercadona, had chosen to make the bread themselves, but ended up outsourcing the production to specialized companies. In fact, a good part of bread production in Catalonia is industrial and comes from companies such as Europastry, based in Barberà del Vallès, which closed 2021 with 347,000 tons of products sold and an income of 845 million, as leader of the frozen mass market in the State, according to data from the consultancy Alimarket collected by Prodeca.

More than fifty years ago, bakeries needed a license and the authorities limited the number of bakeries in the city. With the expansion of new neighborhoods with the population growth of that time, to open an oven in areas of new construction such as Nou Barris it was necessary to close another one in another neighborhood because no more licenses were issued. That changed from the 1970s, when the opening of bakeries was liberalized: “People started making chains,” says Bertran.

The typical bakery license only allows you to sell bread. This is how Mistral and most small bakeries operate. However, there is a second, broader license, which is the degustation oven license, which, in addition to selling bread, allows food to be served, but in a limited way. It cannot sell alcohol, nor offer full meals, nor menus like a restaurant would, but can only offer sandwiches, pastas and uncooked food. It is the so-called model bakery coffee (bakery coffee, in English), which the big chains have adopted, but which costs more to adopt by the small companies in the sector, since it requires not only knowing how to manage a bread business, but also a cafe. Apart from this, there are bakeries that choose directly to open with catering licenses, which would allow them to operate as a bar, even though they look like bakeries.

“They have a friendlier image than a bar,” where “a lot of people don’t like to go in,” explains Bertran. “They have replaced the old Catalan farms,” ​​he adds. Competing with these types of businesses is difficult for smaller, traditional businesses. “If you want to be just an oven, you have to do it really well,” says Bertran.

So, how does a family SME coexist with the competition of much more powerful and ubiquitous companies on the streets? The reality, according to Bertran, is that, despite the difficulties, it is not impossible. “They never manage to make you 100% competitive,” explains the owner of Mistral.

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“We always wanted to be small”, he emphasizes. The size of the business, with few stores, does not allow for large-scale movement, but it does give a level of control over the activity and, above all, over the product offered to customers and the way in which it is delivered to them. offers “There are six of us in the family and in this way, we manage three stores, but if we do more we won’t make it,” he says. “Having a lot of staff brings a lot of problems,” he adds of the large number of staff the chains need.

One of the secrets, then, is treating the customer with “respect and empathy” and knowing what he wants. “In doing things right there is the sale,” says Bertran. This is much easier for a small shop, where there is not much staff turnover and where the customers are from the neighborhood and know each other.

The other aspect is the product. Artisanal bakeries have it much easier to adapt to new trends, especially at a time when consumers are opting for whole grains and natural, healthy and organic products. Mistral itself is one of the few bakeries authorized to make bread with kamut wheat, an ancient Egyptian variety. Similarly, the farmer’s breads he makes have the label of the Protected Geographical Indication (PGI) of Catalan farmer’s bread and he produces breads with an ecological certificate.

“The little ones have more waists and we move forward in the chains,” comments Bertran. “Manufacturing costs us, which is more expensive,” he adds, but in return companies like his enjoy more room for maneuver in “commercialization” and “specialization.”

“Our ensaimadas are a plus, because many people don’t make them anymore – he comments -. People don’t have the patience to hold out for more than 25 years; achieving it, in the end, pays off.”

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