Paris baker Tony Doré pulls a rack of toasted, golden baguettes from the oven. He says he’s baking them all day long to keep his customers supplied.
“Every day, so many people thank me for staying open,” he says. “If the bakeries started closing, people would be unnerved. In France, we eat bread at every meal. It’s a tradition. We cannot go without good bread.”
As the world confronts the coronavirus, millions are confined to their homes. In most places, the only people going to work are those whose jobs are deemed essential. In the U.S., that includes supermarket employees, pharmacists and postal workers. In France, it also includes bread bakers, or boulangers.
Keeping up production of the nation’s favorite loaf, the baguette, turns out to be essential to helping the French survive the crisis.
France has more than 30,000 independent bakeries and the French consume around 10 billion baguettes a year.
At the Boulangerie Faubourg Saint-Charles, Doré says a few things have changed with the coronavirus pandemic. The scent of bread still wafts from ovens in the back, but Doré has now hung plastic sheeting in the front of his boulangerie to separate the displays of pastries and sandwiches from customers. Each of his employees now wears a mask and gloves and only one person at a time is allowed inside the warm, fragrant bakery.
Due to a government waiver that came last month, Doré says he’s also allowed to stay open seven days a week now. In normal times, French labor law mandates that a business close at least one day a week to give employees a rest.
Sales, he says, are roughly the same as ever, though more customers are buying in bulk these days.
Outside, a long, widely spaced line of customers snakes down the block. Denis Rouvière is standing by his car, wolfing down a chicken and vegetable sandwich he’s just bought. Rouvière works for SOS Medecins, France’s home medical service, and makes house calls all day.
“I’m a doctor and I have full days visiting people in their homes,” he says. “With all the restaurants closed, I have no other lunch options. This bakery has become my regular canteen.”
Veterinarian Nour Ahmed Mirali, who is attending to his canine and feline patients at his home, says it is vital to be able to step out and get fresh bread. He’s picking up a baguette and a cake with his 9-year-old son Marwan.
“The boulangeries are helping us make it through,” he says. “Both physically and spiritually.”
Mirali says a loaf of grocery store bread is simply not comparable. He calls it the difference between a Ferrari and an old jalopy.
A block away, septuagenarian Bernard Gibert is pulling a caddy filled with groceries down the sidewalk. Four baguettes poke out from the top.
With a hearty laugh, Gibert claims bread, not wine, to be the essential staple in France. And in a startling concession in these unorthodox times, he says he plans to freeze these baguettes so he doesn’t have to go to the bakery every day.
Then he turns to head home. And tells me I’d better do the same.