By Glen Martin | Jan 03, 2021
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What is it about the French? They blithely ingest triple crème cheeses, foie gras, decadent desserts and copious quantities of wine, and they remain whippet-thin. Pouvereau is no exception to this phenomenon. Lean and fit, he unapologetically indulges in the rich foods that all Frenchmen and women claim as their birthright.
But there's no secret to eating well and remaining trim, says Pouvreau, a pastry chef by training. Eat what you want, he advises, just don't go overboard. It's more about the portion than the ingredients.
Pouvreau grew up in southwestern France, where he learned to make pastries from his mother. After a rigorous culinary apprenticeship, he moved to California's Bay Area to work in high-end restaurants. One night in 2014, he had a hankering for a dessert that's a staple in France: pot de crème, a rich, creamy, pudding-like custard. So he went to his local supermarket -- and came away appalled.
"I mean, all I found was Jell-O, things like that," says Pouvreau. "I thought, 'This is not right,' and I decided to see if I could do something about it."
As a professional pastry chef, Pouvreau had amassed a large compendium of recipes. He began cooking up batches of pot de crème afterhours in a restaurant kitchen, trying different variations until he arrived at a satisfactory iteration.
"After that, I began going around to local grocery stores to sell it, and it just took off," Pouvreau said. "I quit my job six months later, moved into a commercial kitchen, and started making pot de crème full-time."
Today, Pouvreu's company, Petit Pot, occupies a 20,000-square-foot production facility. The desserts he and his 30 employees produce are sold at 6,000 grocery stores across the United States, and are the number one refrigerated dessert brand at Whole Foods supermarkets.
"I never expected it to scale this way," Pouvreau says. "It all happened so quickly that I never had time to plan anything. I just rolled with the punches. I'm still rolling with them."
Pouvreau thinks consumers are finding his products irresistible because they are decadently rich -- but decidedly measured in terms of portion.
"It's really resonating because people want something super tasty, they want to treat themselves -- but they don't want to feel that guilt you get from sitting down and eating a whole pint of ice cream," Pouvreau says. "It's the French approach to dessert -- incredibly delicious, but served in small portions."
Pouvreau makes five varieties of classic pot de crème: dark chocolate, Madagascar vanilla, lemon curd, salted caramel and riz au lait (a vanilla rice pudding). But while he's a classic French pastry chef, he's been in America long enough to be comfortable with bending the rules. That's why he also sells three plant-based vegan varieties of his dessert: dark chocolate pot de crème, mango & passion fruit riz-au-lait, and coconut & vanilla riz-au-lait
The decision to greenlight a vegan line didn't come easily; the concept of a vegan pot de crème, after all, is antithetical to classic French cuisine.
"I wasn't sure you could substitute vegan products for cream and eggs," says Pouvreau. "It just went completely against my culture and training. But I have an incredibly talented inventor on staff who convinced me we could do it, substituting coconut cream for dairy cream -- and he was right. Our plant-based products are rich and delicious, and they're opening a vast new market for us. The demand for vegan foods is huge, and it's growing."
Pouvreau's greatest struggle as an entrepreneur and manufacturer was in developing the proper mindset.
"I went from a chef whose job was to create artisanal desserts made to be eaten the same day to mass producing a product that had to have a two-month shelf life with no preservatives or stabilizers– but still taste delicious and fresh," he says. "I just had to start thinking in different ways. Tradition guided me as a chef, and it still does. But now I have to lead with innovation. We've made so many mistakes. We keep making them, actually. But we're improving every day. We'll never stop innovating to both improve our current line and develop new products."
Challenges: "COVID-19 is the big one," says Pouvreau. "Keeping a plant running and maintaining staffing levels during a global pandemic is a huge challenge. Our main priority is our people -- just keeping everyone healthy. I anticipate a good recovery in the economy when the virus starts to ease, but of course we don't know when that will happen."
Opportunities: Pouvreau forecasts a bright future for Petit Pot: "Even though we're in thousands of stores, we don't think we've really begun to satisfy the demand for high-quality refrigerated desserts -- particularly in the plant-based space. We anticipate strong and ongoing growth."
Needs: "Our biggest need is growing our team -- finding enough people, and the right people," says Pouvreau.