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.”

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