How To Be Successful

Yes I know it’s a boring picture but there’s a reason behind it. Let me explain.

When I first moved to Brussels, I joined a five a side football team. All over forty, all pretty unfit. All wanting to relive past glories.

We met on Thursday evenings and after an hour or so of football, ‘rehydrated’ ourselves in a nearby café. The first time I joined them for a drink, I was asked where I bought my Sunday pistolets (bread rolls). Imagine that happening after football in England. You’d get some pretty strange looks.

But in Belgium, it was clearly a major topic of conversation. My initial answer, that I just bought them pretty much anywhere, was greeted by looks of astonishment. It led on to an evening of recommendations and counter proposals. But ending in a general consensus that the one on the corner at the local square was way up there.

The following Sunday I decided to give the bakery a try. Imagine arriving at 7.30 on a Sunday morning and finding a queue of forty people outside the store, patiently waiting for their morning rolls.

I nearly turned away but decided to hang on to see what the fuss was all about. About ten minutes later, I actually got in the shop. It was like walking in to the souk in Marakesh.

Flour dust and icing sugar hung in the air, ten or so servers bustled around filling bags with orders being shouted by an equal number of clients in at least three languages, teenage assistants rushed in and out with yard-wide metal trays filled with all manner of sweet rolls, and on three sides of the room, glass cabinets displayed extraordinarily elaborate gateaux.

The pistolets were of course wonderful. But not nearly as seductive as the Pains au Chocolat. Plump little puff pastry hammocks, dusted with icing sugar, and filled with two thick batons of hard black chocolate. They were always eaten in reverential silence.

Now I am getting to the point of that photograph. In the chaos that was the bakery, behind all the frantic to-ing and fro-ing, I eventually came to notice a short, square, silent man in a maroon tunic. The owner. He just stood there every Sunday watching and occasionally gesturing to his staff. The genius behind my wonderful Pains au Chocolat.

He sold the shop last year. The new owners stopped baking and bought-in the breads and rolls. The queues shrank week by week. And the other day I snapped the shuttered shop – a silent memorial to bankruptcy.

The moral? Well one, over-deliver on quality and people will track you down. And not only find you but tell their friends as well. Two, be driven by an owner who watches, listens and learns. Don’t delegate, don’t cut costs, don’t ignore your customers, and don’t listen to the accountants or HR.

I’m rather glad the bakery’s gone. It renews my faith in the common sense of consumers and it’s making a difference to my waistline.