From door-to-door salesmen of their own cookies to gourmet bakery and dairy extraordinaires in France and abroad: such is the dizzying ride of Michel de Rovira and Augustin Paluel-Marmont, two young Frenchmen with a passion for food and a dream come true in their hands.
Their Michel et Augustin brand has quickly earned a cult following, owing to an approach that combines a fixation for tasty food with a feel-good attitude towards work – and life. «Our philosophy is simple», explains Michel. «If it’s not fun, why do it? We wanted to make the best cookies with natural ingredients only – and have lots of fun in the process».
They seem to have managed just that. Their marketing campaign is based on “stunts” which you’d think is just what Michel and Augustin did for kicks when they were in college. Their workplace is called La Bananeraie (the banana plantation) and true to its name, it hosts banana trees, both real and otherwise, on its premises. But this all came later.
«We began by making our biscuits in a bakery that we borrowed during off hours», recalls Michel. «The baker would leave the keys at the café next door; we’d work through the night and sell the cookies in the Montmartre area the next day. We just knocked on the door at cafés, video stores, pop-and-mom shops».
They soon had to look for ways to increase the output and rented an out-of-town facility during the weekends. «Bake during the weekend or overnight, be your own salesman during the day: not much of a personal life», smiles Michel. «But it helped to understand what really makes the difference in quality and taste».
Today, Michel et Augustin has expanded into dairy products and savoury snacks and is distributed in small, high-end supermarkets in the US, Japan and Russia. «We still strictly adhere to our cupboard cooking philosophy: a fundamental concept which is somewhat new to the food industry. It means rejecting any industrial ingredients, using only things that you may find in your own cupboard or buy in a retail shop. We want people to understand exactly what’s in our biscuits».
You can even put them to test, if you want: «People sometimes ask for our recipes on Facebook and sure enough, we are happy to oblige. Our offices are also open to visitors once a week».
In fact, an open dialogue with consumers is another prominent feature of the Michel et Augustin way of business. And the headcount is still low enough that a photo with every single employee of the company can be displayed on most of their product packages – with captions for names, for crying out loud.
«We wanted to make products that say ‘hello’ to you, that tell a story. We want to make sure people know that behind that package there are still two friends from high school sharing a passion. The two ‘troublions du goût’ (troublemakers of taste)», chuckles Michel.
Troublemakers they are indeed, albeit of the harmless variety: you may find them in their underpants in central Paris, sporting spotted cow stickers on their torso, looking like fugitives from an asylum but actually hosting an improvised tasting session in Place de la Madeleine, a few meters away from the temple for food lovers, Fauchon, or amidst a rather amused crowd of commuters in a train station at rush hour.
Or you may bump into their «giant cow», which they claim is «the world’s biggest» – and with a head that measures 13-metres wide and 6-metres tall, it may very well be. It took 6 months and 85 metres of fabric to make it, but when it towers on the steps of the Sacré Coeur or on the Île St. Louis it looks quite impressive.
All this makes for effective, viral, low-cost advertising, but there is more to their troublionnades than this, says Michel. «It is part of us. These things are funny, not expensive and don’t require great scientific knowledge: I don’t know why people don’t do it all the time. When we get our Finance and Logistics employees involved into assembling the giant cow in the main square of Toulouse, it’s great advertising but it’s also great for employees’ morale and fun. I want to do this more and more.»
But let’s not forget that, despite all the fun and games, that this adventure is really all about taste. And genuine ingredients do not mean mundane or banal flavours: their savoury biscuits include such combinations as pink pepper and thyme or sweet chilli and grilled onion. Their vanilla yogurt might come with rhubarb or green tea.
«Food is about pleasure», Michel affirms passionately. At Michel et Augustin, as long as the pleasure is there, so is the fun.