Executive Chat featuring Le Duff America’s Phil Costner

Phil CPhil Costner, Le Duff Americaostner joined Le Duff America in 2007 as chief operating officer of La Madeleine Country French Café [another stellar placement by Wray Search], and since late 2011 his responsibilities at Le Duff America have grown to include president and chief operating officer at La Madeleine and Brioche Dorée North America as well as chief brand strategy officer for Le Duff America, parent of La Madeleine, Brioche Dorée, and their more recent acquisitions Bruegger’s and Timothy’s World Coffee.

Le Duff America is the North American division of French multi-concept restaurant leader Groupe Le Duff, which owns and franchises over 1095 restaurants and bakeries in Europe, North America, Africa, and Asia.

Is Le Duff America looking at acquiring or developing other brands for its portfolio?
Yes. One of the key strategies within LDA is that of growth. With its current holdings, LDA is now the second largest café-bakery company in the world. It is our intent to continue our growth through the combination of organic growth, the development of new concepts, and the potential acquisition of other brands.

La Madeleine recently announced that it would offer franchising opportunities for the concept. How are franchising efforts going?
That was three years in the making, and we anticipate that by June, we will have signed our first franchise group and will be close to signing the second. We have honed all aspects to make sure the brand is ready. We’ve simplified operations, strengthened the box economics, and redesigned the café layout and design, so it’s far less expensive to build. We’ve built a tremendous business. It’s a very strong package that we are very proud of.

What are you looking for franchisees for La Madeleine?
Multi-unit operators. There are a minimum number of La Madeleines you have to sign on to, at least three. The perfect franchisee for La Madeleine is someone who is currently a franchisee of a significant brand with the operational wherewithal to take on some of the complexities and nuances of La Madeleine. It’s breakfast, lunch, dinner, late night, snack, and a lot of scratch cooking and baking. We are not looking for out-of-the-box, first time franchisees. We are looking for experienced, well-bred franchisees to do the deal with us, and we are confident it will be a win-win.

Brioche Dorée has some 500 units worldwide and 30 in non-traditional locations in the US. What are the plans for Brioche Dorée in the US?
Brioche Dorée already has a really nice presence in airports, universities, and hospitals. We have partnerships with HMSHost and Sodexo. In Canada, we have a couple of independent partners and have street side locations. Our plan is to build a couple of street side locations in Dallas that will enable us to develop the brand in a traditional manner. What’s interesting is that 99% of brands started on the street and then went into airports. Brioche Dorée started in airports, hospitals, and universities. The plan is to do traditional sites to round out the brand. Very likely, we will franchise it as well.

Are you involved in the culinary development of Breugger’s?
I am an officer within parent company Le Duff America, and I head up a team of top culinarians across all brands. We call it the culinary conclave. The conclave takes on challenges on behalf of the brands. Some months ago, the Breugger’s brand needed to do a deep dive in terms of sandwiches to move the day-part forward. The team did some really nice work starting with the bread all the way to the meat of the sandwich, no pun intended. We developed 70 different products and through discussions whittled it down to six, now on the menu at Breugger’s. The conclave is there if there is a need within a particular brand. We can also look at things like commodity issues, and we can develop against that and hopefully sail the waters of commodity markets a little smoother along the way. I’m happy to use my culinary history. I have degree from the Culinary Institute of America and have spent much of my career as an executive chef. It’s fun to flex those muscles and get together with the conclave and talk about food, quality, flavor and doing something different.

What are the flavor profiles you are featuring this summer at La Madeleine?
A couple of really neat ones. We’ve got a salad with roasted pears and prosciutto. It’s a neat combination, as you get slightly smoky sweetness of roasted pears and saltiness of prosciutto with some nice greens and blue cheese crumbles. We always try to put a signature piece on our menu to make it very definitely La Madeleine, and this year the little accompaniment is a blue cheese and prosciutto palmier, a savory version of the elephant ear baked with herbs, prosciutto and a little blue cheese in it. It fits really well with the salad. It’s definitely French and La Madeleine, the kind of stuff that other brands can’t or won’t do. It’s a great reason to come and enjoy the salad. We are also bringing back a test favorite, a chilled roasted shrimp with a nice dijonnaise dressing. Roasting the shrimp heightens the flavor, and our guests love it every year.

I understand that your mother is a talented chef and that she and Julia Child were huge early influences on you. Who are some contemporary influences that inspire you?
There’s a chef in Chicago at a restaurant called Alinea, Grant Achatz. He’s phenomenal, one of the greatest culinary minds of the century, certainly in my lifetime. Every time I walk away from Alinea, I think man, how do you think of this stuff. His head is in a different place; super creative, innovative and always delicious. He’s the one who comes to mind who makes my jaw drop. He’s the guy I would love to meet some day or listen to him speak on a panel and learn how he got there.

What do you look for when you are recruiting people for your team?
What I look for are people who are really good at their core competency, whether they are marketers, chefs, trainers, operators, or whatever. People who take great pride in what they do and want to be recognized as best in their field. They also need a can-do attitude, to be people who can work through things and have an open-mindedness and creativity, and highly self motivated. If they are in a leadership position, it’s important that they can motivate a team and keep people focused in the toughest of times. It’s a tough industry, and you have to keep people focused and keep their chins up.

Want to have an executive chat with Rebecca Patt? Need to recruit top talent for your team? Contact Rebecca.patt@wraysearch.com

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