From Soho institution to high street staple: £50m flotation brings Pâtisserie Valerie into the big time

When a Belgian pastry chef called Madame Valerie opened her bakery in London’s Soho with a mission to “introduce fine Continental pâtisserie to the English” in 1926, she arrived in an unlikely hub of innovation.

As she and her husband busied themselves perfecting mille feuilles and eclairs for a native clientele raised on steamed puddings, a few doors away on Frith Street a Scottish engineer called John Logie Baird was perfecting another newfangled invention to spring upon unaccustomed audiences.

But while television, first demonstrated by Baird in his rooms to members of the Royal Institution in January 1926, did not take long to spread far and wide, Pâtisserie Valerie has needed a little longer to reach to a mass audience.

Until as recently as 1987, “Pat Val’s” was still a single cake shop where clients remembered its stern, if not downright surly founding owner sitting by the counter as late as the 1970s, exhibiting a haughty disinterest in her clientele.

Customers, who flocked from far and wide attracted by the reputation of Madame Valerie’s pastries, seem not to have minded and were allowed to choose from an array of cakes placed on a stand on each table, paying for the number consumed.

But after a slow expansion under the ownership of three Italian brothers who took the number of outlets to eight in 2006, Pâtisserie Valerie has of late been on something of a sharp upward trajectory which culminated this week with the announcement that its private equity-backed owners are to stage a £170 million flotation on the stock market.

The sale, led by serial dining entrepreneur Luke Johnson, whose portfolio of gastronomic holdings has ranged from The Ivy to Pizza Express, will see investors sell shares worth about £55 million and confirm Pâtisserie Valerie’s status as Britain’s behemoth of dainties.

With a total of 89 stores now open across the country and many more planned for the nation’s high streets and shopping centres, Madame Valerie’s Soho creation has in many ways become the Pret A Manger of profiteroles.

But critics argue such gateau-driven ubiquity has only been achieved at the loss of some of the passion and authenticity of the original outlet and sits awkwardly with a quiet revolution in British attitudes to pâtisserie which is driving rising demand for high-end artisanal cakes produced by single outlets.

Enzo Scalzo, one of the three brothers who acquired Patisserie Valerie in 1987 and sold it in 2006, told The Independent: “The business has gone where it should because it is such a wonderful brand. But I think it has also taken a little bit of a battering - it is not the business it was in terms of being family-run. When you have so many shops, of course a bit of that charisma is gone.”

Indeed, Pâtisserie Valerie and its backers are following a well-trodden path in taking a single-outlet gastronomic institution, such as the original Pizza Express (also founded in Soho) or Carluccio’s, and turning it into a mass market brand.

The 2014 edition of the Harden’s restaurant guide, compiled from the reviews of thousands of diners, criticises Pâtisserie Valerie as “terrible now it’s a chain” and suggests it has followed the path of other once-quirky eateries by having “all charm squeezed from them”.

Peter Harden, the guide’s co-founder, said: “There is a huge tension between the running of one establishment and then seeking to expand that across one location, let alone many.

“There is a big piranha bowl of private equity companies out there scouring our cities for ideas that will ‘scale up’ for outlets in stations and malls and it’s extremely difficult to get right.”

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Pâtisserie Valerie’s owners beg to differ and, judging by the number of three- to four-star reviews on Trip Advisor, the great British consumer’s admiration for Madame Valerie’s tarts and gateaux is largely undimmed.

Paul May, chief executive of Pâtisserie Holdings, which supplies its stores from seven central bakeries, said: “We’re very aware of the need to retain the spirit of the original Pâtisserie Valerie. We studied the business very carefully after taking it over. We don’t want spoil its feel. We kept the ingredients and the size of the products the same. Every cake is handmade.”

Other pâtisserie specialists nonetheless see Pâtisserie Valerie as the old-fashioned end of a fast-changing market in “posh cakes” which has seen top pâtissiers such as star French baker Philippe Conticini head to London.

Master pâtissier Eric Lanlard, the former head pastry chef for the Roux brothers and now owner of the Cake Boy shop and cookery school, said: “I don’t think much has changed in somewhere like Pâtisserie Valerie in terms of innovation for the last 30 years.

“The British have in the past been a bit intimidated by patisseries. But I think people are now also looking for something sophisticated and appreciate the skill of a patissier. If you want an apple pie then you make it at home but if you want something a little special then you head for the pâtisserie.”

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Money & Business

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executive / Foreign Exchange Dealer - OTE £40,000+

£16000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Foreign Exchange Dealer is re...

SThree: Experienced Recruitment Consultant

£20000 - £40000 per annum + OTE + Incentives + Benefits: SThree: Established f...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£20000 - £25000 per annum + OTE 40/45k + INCENTIVES + BENEFITS: SThree: The su...

Recruitment Genius: Collections Agent

£14000 - £16000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company was established in...

Day In a Page

The long walk west: they fled war in Syria, only to get held up in Hungary – now hundreds of refugees have set off on foot for Austria

They fled war in Syria...

...only to get stuck and sidetracked in Hungary
From The Prisoner to Mad Men, elaborate title sequences are one of the keys to a great TV series

Title sequences: From The Prisoner to Mad Men

Elaborate title sequences are one of the keys to a great TV series. But why does the art form have such a chequered history?
Giorgio Armani Beauty's fabric-inspired foundations: Get back to basics this autumn

Giorgio Armani Beauty's foundations

Sumptuous fabrics meet luscious cosmetics for this elegant look
From stowaways to Operation Stack: Life in a transcontinental lorry cab

Life from the inside of a trucker's cab

From stowaways to Operation Stack, it's a challenging time to be a trucker heading to and from the Continent
Kelis interview: The songwriter and sauce-maker on cooking for Pharrell and crying over potatoes

Kelis interview

The singer and sauce-maker on cooking for Pharrell
Refugee crisis: David Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia - will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi?

Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia...

But will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi, asks Robert Fisk
Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

Humanity must be at the heart of politics, says Jeremy Corbyn
Joe Biden's 'tease tour': Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?

Joe Biden's 'tease tour'

Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?
Britain's 24-hour culture: With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever

Britain's 24-hour culture

With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever
Diplomacy board game: Treachery is the way to win - which makes it just like the real thing

The addictive nature of Diplomacy

Bullying, betrayal, aggression – it may be just a board game, but the family that plays Diplomacy may never look at each other in the same way again
Lady Chatterley's Lover: Racy underwear for fans of DH Lawrence's equally racy tome

Fashion: Ooh, Lady Chatterley!

Take inspiration from DH Lawrence's racy tome with equally racy underwear
8 best children's clocks

Tick-tock: 8 best children's clocks

Whether you’re teaching them to tell the time or putting the finishing touches to a nursery, there’s a ticker for that
Charlie Austin: Queens Park Rangers striker says ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

Charlie Austin: ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

After hitting 18 goals in the Premier League last season, the QPR striker was the great non-deal of transfer deadline day. But he says he'd preferred another shot at promotion
Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea