Parisians test-drive a new bakery

At 8 a.m. on a busy suburban street, cars are lining up, awaiting their turn at the drive-in bakery to buy warm breads. Moms pick out a crusty loaf for lunch, kids beg for pain au chocolat, and businessmen take their croissants in a bag to go.

It's hardly surprising that consumers have embraced the idea of buying bakery-fresh bread from the comfort of their cars. What is surprising, however, is that the bakery - Boulangerie Drive-In Joly - is located just outside Paris. Here, the once- and often twice-a-day stroll to the neighborhood boulangerie to buy bread just minutes from the oven is a cherished tradition. The French are so passionate about their breads that it's not unusual for a family to buy its baguettes from one shop, its sourdough or pain de mie from another, its tarte tatin from yet a third.

Yet in a former gas station in Le Port-Marly, a suburb west of Paris, the Joly family (father Alain, daughter Jocelyne, and son Mickael) is finding that at least some French are happy to buy their baked goods without unbuckling their seat belts. Boulangerie Drive-In Joly, which opened in July, now serves an average of 250 customers a day. The family says theirs is the country's first drive-in boulangerie. (The large bakery chain Fromenterie once had some drive-up kiosks, but the idea never took off, and the kiosks have disappeared.)

In addition to traditional boulangerie fare (breads, croissants, brioche, etc.) and pâtisserie such as tarts and cakes, the Jolys offer a small menu of sandwiches and drinks from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. The after-work wave of business - when the last baguettes and petits gâteaux fly out the door - begins at 6 p.m. or so. The bakery closes at 8 p.m. and reopens at 7 a.m.

Customers drive right into the building and, from the comfort of their Renaults and Peugeots, can view the bakers behind glass, pulling warm pain de campagne from the large wood-fired oven. They can also see the entire product line on display. (The main kitchen, however, is upstairs.)

An employee comes to the car, takes the order and fills it, takes the money and returns to the car with change. Drivers then exit the building, which is well ventilated. Store clerk Mariam Konace says the bakery has been especially popular with mothers with kids, motorcyclists, and the disabled. "The French aren't used to this concept," she allows. "But once they come here, they come back. It's fast. And they don't have to get wet or cold."

Supermarkets now sell packaged breads, and many large grocery chains have their own in-store bakeries. Yet the French make a distinction between breads baked the traditional way and those that come from "industrial" bakeries. To call itself a boulangerie, a shop must sell only breads made from dough crafted on the premises. Stores that use prepared doughs - or bake in large production kitchens - must call themselves dépôts de pain (bread keepers).

In food circles worldwide, there's been a lot of talk lately about a crisis in French cuisine. France is abandoning too many of its culinary traditions, critics say, and therefore has lost its status as the world's gastronomic leader. People blame the government, culinary globalization, the demise of the small family-owned farm, the rise of the two-career family, and the spread of fast-food chains. (The sales tax on takeout is 5.5 percent, while in sit-down restaurants, even humble bistros, customers pay a whopping 19.6 percent.)

Yet, while the French mourn the erosion of their great gastronomic history, they're also embracing the convenience of "McDo," dinners that come from the grocers' freezer case. So while some see a drive-in boulangerie as yet another example of culinary decline, others view it as a harmless - and even clever - idea.

"It could be very interesting to grab your croissant, eat it quickly, and go on to your next meeting," says André Daguin, the former chef/owner of the Michelin two-star Hôtel de France in Auch, who now heads the 80,000-member restaurant and hotel owners' union. "But I can't see this working in small villages. There, people still stop working and go for their two-hour lunch with family or friends."

The Jolys know this, of course. They opened their first bakery in 1973 and now have seven shops and a wholesale division. They're waiting to see if the drive-in takes off before moving ahead with expansion. If it doesn't, it may be that the French prefer the time-honored way to the time-saving way after all.

One reason may be the boulangerie's social role. "When buying bread, people like to point, to touch, to smell, to discuss," says Hermann Van Beeck, the pastry chef/owner of Le Petit Duc bakery in St. Rémy de Provence. "A big part of the pleasure of going to the boulangerie each day is that in just a few minutes, you come away knowing everything that's happening in town. In France, fresh news comes with fresh bread."

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