At first glance, selling new ways of drinking coffee to the French might appear to have all the commercial potential of selling sand in the Sahara. Not so, says Jeffrey Young, who is Managing Director of the Allegra Group and a key strategist on the coffee industry in Europe. While France may have a very strong, entrenched café culture, this does not mean that their coffee culture is also particularly sophisticated, Young says. “The best coffee shop in France is run by an Australian,” he tells Global Coffee Review. “There’s a good analogy there with the wine industry,” Young says. “For a long time the French made the best wine in the world, but then they rested on their laurels and a whole new world of winemakers from California and Australia and Chile started to emerge,” Young says that the French idea of coffee is tied to tradition, rather than quality. “Coffee for them is a ‘petit noir’ – a little black – and the expectation is that it’s just going to be a little shot of espresso, which in most cases is not even a very high quality shot,” he says. But, he says, that is all changing, thanks in large part to the growth of the branded coffee shop segment in the country. “The chains have slowly developed the French market, introducing different types of coffees and flavoured drinks,” Young says. The first branded chain in France was the homegrown Columbus Café, which opened its first stores in 1994. Chief Executive Officer of Columbus Café Nicolas Riché says that, at that time, stylishly appointed cafés and coffee-to-go were foreign concepts in the French market. “French consumers were used to having their espresso at the counter in cafés or brasseries, nothing very trendy,” he says. “We had to educate the French customer on this type of coffee consumption (in paper cups). French consumers are now keen to try new coffee recipes such as cappuccinos, macchiatos and frappes.” While in many of the new wave of coffee countries such as the US and Australia exposure to good coffee in specialty coffee shops has led to a growing demand for good coffee in the home, Riché says that in France the opposite has occurred. “With the new coffee capsule trend introduced by Nespresso, French people experienced different coffee quality and can have good coffee at home. Now they want the same outside,” he says. Columbus now has about 70 stores across France and is opening around 10 new stores per year. However, it is not alone. Young says that, since Columbus broke ground there almost 20 years ago, international players have also seen the potential of the French market. McCafé is the market leader there now, with 176 outlets, while Starbucks also has a strong presence with 75 stores. Overall, France now has about 515 branded coffee stores, a figure that Allegra forecasts will grow by around 11 per cent per annum over the next three years to reach 695 outlets by 2015. Riché says that the design of the stores is key to the success of Columbus. “Columbus Café’s atmosphere is very far from that of traditional cafés,” he says. “We offer a true living space open to every customer in a cozy atmosphere. This type of place didn’t exist before we opened in France.” While traditionally food culture has flowed from France across the channel to the UK, the growth of the branded coffee shop segment has seen a reversal of that trend. Two major British chains, Costa Coffee and Pret A Manger, have planted their flags in French territory over the past 18 months. This, Young says, reflects the fact that much of the innovation in the industry is now coming from non-traditional coffee countries. “Countries that had an espresso culture to begin with, when the next waves of coffee came along they didn’t really move,” he says. But all that is changing now, and Young says the results are exciting. “There is massive interest in the American-style coffee culture. Columbus is riding this wave,” he says. “The French are becoming a lot more open-minded about food culture in general, which is great news for them and great news for the coffee industry.” Young and Riché will be speaking alongside other leaders of the European and international coffee industries at the European Coffee Symposium in Paris from 28 November For more information visit www.europeancoffeesymposium.com.