La Leçon Ladurée

I just returned from a trip to Paris. The weather was gorgeous, the hotel was fantastic, and I ate extremely well. There, I did all the requisite fox-like things like pop into Kitsuné and walk down Rue du Renard. However, I ought to have paid more attention to the french proverb that states: “A wise fox will never rob his neighbour’s hen roost” and intuited that this is because the foxes are too busy staking out patisseries and robbing the patrons.

In Paris, it is hard to walk three blocks without running across the pale green awning of a Ladurée. This patisserie is known for its decadent sweets, particularly the double-decker macaron (reportedly they sell 15,000 of them every day.) While Ladurée has a charming history reaching back to 1862, its current owner, Le Groupe Holder, seems to view the franchise as a serious business venture. They have embarked on an aggressive international expansion plan, which is why it seems that Ladurée locations are more plentiful than Benetton stores circa 1986.

They have done a beautiful job with the brand. The pricy sweets can be seen in films and on TV. While in Paris, I saw a number of stores selling Ladurée stationery. Their branding is consistent: they provide little indulgences for their (mostly female) customer base, leveraging their history to manufacture a sense of old world charm (most of the restaurants have been built post-1997 but you’d swear you were dining in 19th century France.) So while I had heard people wax poetic about the Pierre Hermé macarons, I felt a visit to Paris would not be complete without ducking under the celedon Ladurée awning.

So, imagine my shock when, after having a lovely meal of stuffed prawns and a truly divine Saint-Honoré cake on the second floor in the back dining room of the Ladurée on the Champs-Élysées, I was robbed. Yes, in the ten minutes that my handbag was in plain view and open while I was waiting for the somewhat disengaged waiter to return with the credit card processing machine, a thief managed to make her way through two sets of glass doors, past the hostess and the bartender, up the curving marble staircase, past the main dining room, push past a girl from a neighbouring table who was returning from the washroom, and thrust her thieving paw into my handbag, taking my euros and my ID. Zut alors!

What the “unfortunate incident” (don’t you love that expression) revealed, in addition to obvious things like I should never carry cash and I should travel with private security at all times, was how quickly a company’s brand can be undermined if its employees are not adequately trained.

I expected the waiter and the manager to offer some assistance and comfort after such an unsettling event. After all, the entire Ladurée experience is about creating an ambiance of delight. Instead the staff acted as though nothing had happened, refusing my repeated requests to call the police. They told me the police would not be bothered with such a matter and that they never came, giving me the impression that perhaps this type of thing had happened before. The primary concern of the manager seemed to be processing the bill for my meal.

Even the most carefully constructed efforts can be stymied when the brand’s ambassadors — in this case, Ladurée front-line employees — do not reflect the brand. There were so many things the restaurant could have done. They might have asked me to come into the back where they could more discreetly call the police, they might have escorted me to the police station, they might have asked the other patrons what they saw. They might have stuffed me full of macarons! The robbery was not their fault, but given that it happened on their premises, they might have offered a bit of help or empathy. My fellow diners who had witnessed the event showed far more concern. When I finally found a police station to report the incident, they were surprised the restaurant had not called the police. Moi aussi!

I don’t know how much money Ladurée has spent trying to cultivate the image of charm and luxury: of being a little haven where people can enjoy a treat and give themselves a bit of a reprieve from the workaday world. Up until the robbery, they were doing an adequate job, but their clear lack of policies or procedures to help their employees know how to prevent a theft (security at the door, waiters being attuned to people lurking around) or mitigate the impact (calling the police, displaying concern) left an impression that, for me, no amount of advertising or PR can overcome.

When times are tight (a number of shops I’d sought out had gone out of business and the city seemed quiet for peak tourist season) companies often trim back on what they see as unnecessary expenses, and staff training often falls by the wayside. A slow period, however, is the perfect time to invest in one’s employees. People are less busy and therefore have the time to learn new skills. Well trained people are more adept at winning business in a lean economic environment. And when the economy recovers, a productive and efficient staff are more likely to take advantage of new opportunities. Well trained people — especially in the restaurant business where the client-facing waiters define the customer experience — are key to maintaining one’s brand.

I have no idea how Ladurée runs its business. I’m sure that my experience was an anomaly, both in terms of the event and the staff’s reaction. What this whole event showed is how quickly one’s best strategic efforts can be undermined if operational issues like risk assessment and performance management are ignored. Lots of people who get into the restaurant business are drawn to the sizzle — the branding, the decor, the menus, the plans to expand — but they must make sure to remember that they are actually in the business of steak.

{ 2 comments }

David Zinger July 21, 2011 at 11:14 pm

Well said about the mistake and looking after “the steak”. To keep the bad pun going employees must feel a stake in the business.

Ann Douglas July 22, 2011 at 1:02 pm

What an unpleasant experience for you. And definitely poorly handled by the establishment.

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