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Le Big Mac: Mother-daughter duo rapidly grows treat business

In building an $11 million pastry business, Rosalie Guillem and Audrey Guillem-Saba say oui oui to chasing the American dream.

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Rosalie Guillem hasn’t officially been an American citizen too long — seven years — but the savvy businesswoman has been here long enough to pick up several stateside entrepreneurial staples.

Dreaming big, for one. Like with Le Macaron, the French patisserie business Guillem co-founded with her daughter, Audrey Guillem-Saba, in Sarasota in 2009. As it hits the decade mark, the company’s footprint includes a few corporate owned stores; some 50 franchise locations, from Florida to California and New Hampshire to Arizona; and another 30 in development. The company, mostly behind its flagship delicacy, an airy but decadent macaron that’s different from an American macaroon — a biscuit-like treat usually with coconut and sugar — did $11 million in sales in 2018. (Le Macaron’s macarons are made with nongluten ingredients and have about 80 calories a piece.) More stature? The company made the Inc. 5,000 list of the nation’s fastest growing companies in 2016 and posted 259% growth over three years.

Although that’s nice, Guillem has an appetite for more, including awarding another 20 franchise locations by the end of 2020 to surpass 100 total stores. “We want to be the McDonald’s of macarons,” she says, at least in brand consciousness for prominence and consistency, if not for fast or unhealthy food. “We want to be the brand of macarons in the U.S. everyone thinks of.”

Another American entrepreneurial trait Guillem has, which Guillem-Saba shares, is a never-quit, true-grit ethos. The mother-daughter duo launched the business in the height of the recession with a location on swanky St. Armands Circle. Rent was high. Customers were scarce. “People looked at us like we were crazy,” Guillem-Saba says. “We didn’t know if Americans would even know what a macaron is.”

“Everyone was closing down stores when we decided to open one," Guillem adds. "It was not easy.”

Through perseverance and a marketing strategy that went straight to American’s stomachs — lots of free samples — Le Macaron grew by word of mouth. “People started coming from Orlando, Tampa, Miami — it was kind of crazy,” Guillem says.

One more American business tactic the duo has picked up on is a counterintuitive mindset, to go against conventional wisdom. The company, for example, doesn’t let franchisees bake their own pastries and treats and prefers to do it all in-house in Sarasota to maintain control. It’s costlier up-front, including a heavy shipping expense and a 20-person payroll, but Guillem-Saba says, “This way, the pastry chef can watch and see everything that goes out the door.” (That head pastry chef is also part of the family: Guillem-Saba’s husband, Didier Saba.)

Finally, Rosalie Guillem, 62, embraces an American work ethic and says, “You are never too old to start something.” And besides, she isn’t “the type of person who will retire. For me, this isn’t working. It’s like being happy all day long.”

Comfort food

To meet the firm’s ambitious growth goals, Guillem and her team will have lots of busy days, too. Much different than when Guillem and her husband, Bernard Guillem, came to Orlando from France for vacation in the mid-2000s. They loved the relaxed Florida lifestyle and culture, and soon some children and grandchildren made the move, too.

The family’s shared passion for French macarons also brought them together. In France, macarons are enjoyed slowly, over conversation and coffee, Bernard Guillem says. “We knew we needed to survive [the recession], and we asked ourselves, ‘What can we do that people will buy?” says Guillem, who helps Rosalie with operations. “We decided it had to be simple and had to be comforting.”

The company experimented on the product list and price points to try to monitor market demand. With the macaron, Guillem realized she and her team had a wide opening to be bold with flavors, given an American macaroon is so different. The 20 different kinds of macarons Le Macaron offers today include Sicilian pistachio, mango, basil white chocolate and bubblegum.

Today the Le Macaron stores also offer gelato, eclairs, napoleons, pies, cakes, croissants and fine chocolates — all made with French ingredients, in addition to coffee and tea. The company also has a catering unit for parties, weddings and other events.

All the products are made in a facility on Bee Ridge Road, about three miles south of downtown Sarasota. That’s where Guillem-Saba and Didier Saba operate a Willy Wonka-esque macaron and pastry facility that supplies the franchisees with the goodies. The employees there are broken down into teams based on products, all under Didier Saba’s supervision.

It’s a high-volume facility — the macaron team makes some 75,000 macarons a week — with a small retail operation in the front. Guillem-Saba says her biggest challenge, no surprise in hospitality, is to find and keep top employees. She says the company offers solid benefits, and “we try to be competitive regarding pay rates.”

Guillem-Saba also says the facility is big enough to handle the additional volume more franchisees will require and that she might add a second shift to handle the work. 

The details essential in making the macarons carry all the way through to packaging. The company’s mission is to design a picture-perfect brand image, with shiny boxes and bags and treats so good they can be photographed and, of course, shared on social media. (Le Macaron’s Instagram page had 2,407 followers through Aug. 1, and Facebook had 5,279 likes.)

Face time

Embracing the risk-side of being an entrepreneur, the family added franchising to the mix in 2012, partially in response to customers asking if they ever would do that. The pitch to franchisees was similar to how Guillem and Guillem-Saba launched the original business: Design a colorful store, fill it with vibrant treats, and staff it with customer-service first, happy people who will chat with customers, not just ring them out. Also give away lots of free macaron samples to build demand.  

Another integral factor to the success for franchisees, Guillem has learned, is good business 101: “Everyone says it, but it’s true: Location, location, location is really key,” she says. “You need to be in a nice spot in a nice neighborhood.”

Guillem initially went to franchise expos to generate interest. She later hired a franchise consultant, who helped find more franchisees. The investment range for a single Le Macaron location, according to company franchise documents, is $131,500-$361,500, with a net worth of at least $250,000 and liquid capital of $75,000.

A less expensive entry is a mobile kiosk, which can go to malls, street fairs sporting events and more. With entry costs starting at $85,000, the company introduced the mobile kiosk option late last year, “designed to go where your customers are,” franchise documents state.

Some of the first franchisees, who remain with the business, are, like the Guillem family, immigrants. There’s a few from France and Canada and one from South Korea, among other countries. Guillem takes particular pride in setting up immigrants with a Le Macaron franchise — new business owners who, using a U.S. work visa, have the chance to chase the same American Dream she did. “I wish I had help like this when I was setting up our first location,” she says.

‘People looked at us like we were crazy. We didn’t know if Americans would even know what a macaron is.’ Audrey Guillem-Saba, Le Macaron

A key lesson Guillem has learned in franchising, akin to other parts of the business, is to exert as much control as possible. One standout example, Guillem says: “I’ve learned I need to be much more picky in how I choose my franchisees.”

That includes signing up franchisees who chased profits over purpose and others who weren’t customer service-oriented. To help with finding the right people, franchisees and managers, Guillem designed the training curriculum herself, using real-life examples, and oversees the classes. When new franchisees first open a store, Guillem will hold daily FaceTime video calls every morning to go over the day’s plan. “The quality of management is key, and that comes from training — but it has to be real training with real customers,” Guillem says. “We can’t just be blah blah blah.”


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