This Struggling National Bakery Chain Was Just Rescued

Major café chains that were founded in the 1970s—think Starbucks, as well as others—grew enormously in the past five decades to become American staples. The pandemic definitely dampened that status for some, especially the café brands that hadn't sustained loyal followings quite strongly enough into this decade (unlike Starbucks). Fortunately, after several years of floundering, a well known French-American bakery chain has narrowly escaped its final fate. An unexpected fast food franchisee has just stepped in not only to resuscitate this popular bakery, but to give it a whole new life.

Legend has it that the French bakery equipment manufacturer, Pavailler, established Au Bon Pain in Boston in 1976 as an exhibition piece to demonstrate the utility of their equipment. Au Bon Pain grew incrementally throughout the late 1970s with locations in New York City and Hackensack, New Jersey. Though it wasn't really known as a particularly massive money-maker, in 1993 Au Bon Pain was acquired by Panera Bread's predecessor, St. Louis Bread Company.

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Even from that point, the Au Bon Pain brand—which coins itself as "the bakery café"—didn't become much of a mover and shaker… though it is largely regarded as a reliable fixture when city dwellers and airport travelers have a craving for a croissant or basic coffee. In recent years, many Americans saw their nearby Au Bon Pain locations disappearing altogether or being converted to Panera stores. Today it's reported that Au Bon Pain currently has 171 locations throughout the U.S., mainly in city-center locations and airports, plus nearly another 80 in India and Thailand. In the past few years, rumors swirled to suggest the bakery chain just wasn't high on consumers' radars, while the shifting tide of the pandemic surely had an impact, too.

However, just as some spectators predicted that Au Bon Pain was about to collapse, a buyer stepped in. Restaurant Dive has reported that on Tuesday, Ampex Brands closed on the purchase of Au Bon Pain.

Ampex Brands is a franchisee of Yum Brands, which is the company that owns Taco Bell, Pizza Hut, and KFC. With their Yum-brand business combined with several 7-Eleven locations, it's reported Ampex Brands runs 400 restaurants and convenience stores. The Wall Street Journal has reported that Ampex Brand's purchase of Au Bon Pain includes approximately $60 million in assets.

It's a departure from the fast-food convenience Ampex has turned into a reported $500 million annual business to date, but the company says they'll use Au Bon Pain to provide "superior quality food that is also good for you" to patrons who are looking for a snack at any time of day.

What does this mean for fans of Au Bon Pain? It's not clear how many of the current locations will remain active, but it actually sounds as though the new owner is baking plans to take the brand bigger. Ampex itself will franchise Au Bon Pain out to a reported 131 potential new locations, starting by growing Au Bon Pain along the East Coast, taking it into locations like hospitals, university campuses, and transportation hubs. It seems the partnership could also see Au Bon Pain products sold in some of Ampex's 7-Eleven stores.

Ampex CEO Tabbassum Mumtaz said Panera's loss is his company's gain, calling the Au Bon Pain acquisition "a great opportunity to reposition a legacy brand." Mumtaz added: "The bakery café category will rebound, and Au Bon Pain is well-positioned to grow."

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