Perrier adds one more to Narberth's collection of French bakeries

At Art of Bread, Georges Perrier (left) talks with partner Joel Perez. "We are like a high-end bakery in Paris," says Perez, who runs the day-to-day operations at the site on Montgomery Avenue.
At Art of Bread, Georges Perrier (left) talks with partner Joel Perez. "We are like a high-end bakery in Paris," says Perez, who runs the day-to-day operations at the site on Montgomery Avenue. (SHARON GEKOSKI-KIMMEL / Staff Photographer)
Posted: July 14, 2011

Having one wonderful French bakery in a small town is enviable enough. But since June, when Georges Perrier opened Art of Bread, Narberth, a borough of about 4,200 residents, has been able to claim four.

Pre-Perrier, the three bakeries seemed to blissfully coexist. Longtime Inquirer food columnist Rick Nichols once even referred to Narberth as "The Land of 10,000 Croissants." There is Le Petit Mitron, which sells its pastries and coffee to the public; there is mostly wholesale Buy the Dozen; and there is Au Fournil, a wholesale-only operation helmed by Stephane Wojtowicz. His artfully crafted croissants are sold at an impressive number of area restaurants and coffee shops, such as La Colombe. (Interestingly enough, Wojtowicz is Perrier's former head baker.)

Now, the town sign might as well read "Narberth: The Land of 22,000 Croissants."

And the fallout chatter around town is hard to ignore: Did Perrier, with his oversize personality and reputation, throw off the butter bakery balance? Is there room for another French pastry-slinger in this tiny town?

In fact, the two retail operations might be more different than they appear. "A lot of people are talking about the competition," Isabelle Rurange said with a shrug. She and her baker-husband, Patrick, have owned Le Petit Mitron for nine years. The French couple have not been to Art of Bread, and, she says, they can only stay their course. Plus, she points out some of the obvious:

Georges makes a lot of bread, they make pastries. Georges sells lunch items such as sandwiches and quiche, they make pastries. Wholesale is an important part of Georges' business, and again, they make pastries. In fact, they bake only a few baguettes a day, and only because customers have asked them to do so.

Their real hallmark, aided by those swoon-worthy pastries, is that they created an anchoring element to the sweet downtown. A de facto city hall.

Toddlers in strollers clamor for their daily pain au chocolat, while their moms are thankful for the piping hot espressos. Neighbors grab a sidewalk table, newspaper in hand, tarts on the plate, and discuss books or movies. Polo shirt-clad commuters hop on the train, but not without grabbing a croissant first.

"It's a very central part of Narberth living," said resident Amy Holtman. "You see friends there, you meet people there, and you discuss the sins you are going to commit eating the sweets there."

"It doesn't change anything for us," said Isabelle Rurange. "We are all about quality. People can come here, or they can go there."

Art of Bread, which opened in June, is only a few leafy lanes away from Le Petit Mitron. But with its bustling Montgomery Avenue location, it feels miles away.

People pull into the parking lot and head inside to admire the perfect pastries, which are flush with colorful swirls, chocolate garnishes, and expertise. They grab a glossy high-top table and have a quiche. They order baguettes to go.

Perrier and business partner Joel Perez, who runs the day-to-day operations, are aware that they are a scone's throw from other French bakeries. Perrier says he has always wanted to open a bakery, and the fact that the building is on Montgomery Avenue drew him in. "The feeling was good. Everyone has to drive here to go to town," he says.

Perez says that customers are talking about the possible competition, but he doesn't see it. "Petit Mitron is only doing pastry, not bread. Petit Mitron is like a small bakery in Paris. We are like a high-end bakery in Paris."

As Perrier samples the day's goods, Main Liners pay their respects. "It's about time there is a quality place to get bread on the Main Line," gushes one customer.

The products are of Le Bec-Fin's expected high quality. Early rumblings point to service snafus that need to be worked out, but that hasn't muted the buzz over the opening.

Inside, Art of Bread is shiny and new, with faux bois floor tiles, high-top tables, a wall of windows, and mini macarons prepackaged for the perfect hostess gift.

Le Petit Mitron, with its mismatched bookshelves of teas, carousel of candies, and coffeeshop-like corner complete with couches that have a history, is the opposite of sleek. Which is exactly how Narberth residents want it. Here, you can see the top of Patrick Rurange's head as he pulls croissants out of the oven. The bubbly counter girls know your name (and maybe your coffee order), kids park their bikes outside and hand over coins for candy. The same kids that Isabelle Rurange has been tempting with pain au chocolat since they were 2.

"One is more pedestrian-friendly," says Narberth Mayor Tom Grady, speaking of Le Petit Mitron. "The other has people coming more from Montgomery Avenue. Maybe they don't want to have to go the heart of the town. They very might as well have two different types of people going there."

Holtman also recognizes the difference in tone.

"Le Petit Mitron is very classic, typical of what you would see in France. "Georges' is more modern and chic."

Only time will tell if this is a case of Big Name vs. the Little Guy. Mayor Grady believes the more choice, the better for everyone. "I believe both can do great. And who knows, maybe we'll see even more!"


Contact staff writer Ashley Primis at 215-854-2244, aprimis@phillynews.com, or @ashleyprimis on Twitter.

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