Paul Lafayet founder Toni Younes is helping Hong Kong get hooked on French pastries, writes Sandra Lam.
Looking at an array of macaroons as colourful as the Pantone system, it reminds me of the 2006 movie Marie Antoinette, which portrayed the French court as a place where indulgence had no limit.
Legend has it the dainty meringue-ganache confection was brought to France in the 16th Century by Catherine de Medici’s Italian chefs when she married Henry II. But some say it came to prominence by two nuns, who during the French Revolution, sought asylum in Nancy in France and supported themselves by baking macaroons.
While the origin of macaroons is debatable, one person who has helped bring them to the high streets of Hong Kong is Toni Younes. The founder of Paul Lafayet Patisserie Francaise, Younes opened his first shop in the K11 mall in Tsim Sha Tsui in January 2010, when macaroons were still rather unknown among locals. He now has seven shops in the city, with two more opening by the end of August.
Born to a French family living in Lebanon, Younes’ passion for food was sparked from a young age. “It’s terrible in Lebanon,” he laughs. “You expect to have lunch with five, but you [end up] having 30 people coming over.”
After graduating from Paris Sorbonne University in 1988, he began travelling to Hong Kong in 1991 after setting up a suitcase business in France with partners. In 2007, he moved his business from France to Hong Kong so it could be closer to sourcing and production.
He’d long been aware of a gap in Hong Kong’s culinary scene. “If you go back to the 1990s, Hong Kong was not much known for coffee or cakes. Every time when I came from France, I brought some dry or Christmas cakes to friends here,” he says.
“People in town were very receptive and positive to this kind of cake. It was like: ‘Toni is coming, can we have some cakes?’ So Toni equals cakes. I realised that maybe it’s really a generation that loves it.”
His passion only took flight when the global financial crisis hit in 2008. “When Lehman Brothers [went] bankrupt and the global economy slowed, I thought: ‘Maybe now you have time; let’s go for what you like.’”
It was his two sons who gave him the push he needed. “My eldest son, Merwann, was studying 18 hours a day for his university admission exam, but [for my 48th birthday] still prepared a macaroon tower using 200 macaroons with his brother.”
Younes recalls a bank manager being sceptical when he applied for credit to set up the business. “I remember first time when I went to the bank, the manager said: ‘What is it? It’s a biscuit.’ I said: ‘No, it’s a macaroon’.
“I asked him, ‘Can we have credit for that?’ He said: ‘But it’s not your business. We know you through [your] travel items and now you want to do something about food? Come on, you’re not going to [do] this business. It’s 24 hours, seven days a week.’”
The bank was finally convinced by his passion. “I had had a long and successful business relationship with this bank and ultimately they trusted me, even if my ideas were quite unconventional at the time.
“Of course, it helped that the quality of the presentation and the design of the brand were so attractive and appealing. It’s hard to say no to beautiful ideas.”
Merwann has been working with his father since February 2013 after having worked for an international logistics company since he graduated. “Lots of competitors were coming to the market. I could not wait for another year or two,” Merwann says.
To the elder Younes, gastronomy evokes emotion and forges a bond between the chef and the customers. “When you’re in a restaurant, the chef comes to you and asks if you enjoyed the food. If you buy a handbag or something else, it’s not the same emotion that you have with food.”
He says this is what sets his business apart from other international French patisseries that have arrived in Hong Kong since 2012. “They are well-established, they come from France, but we’re born here. We have a face. We talk to customers. We have our chefs and staff here. Everything we do is freshly made in the morning.”
He takes a long-sighted view towards competitors, because it means more people will get hooked on French pastries. “When more people open shops, the market becomes bigger,” he says. “They are friendly competitors.”
But it is fiercer competition and a challenge for staff retention as his employees are constantly headhunted by other five-star hotels. “We have a very nice mixed team, from France and locally. We train them. Generally, we take people with zero experience. We’re like a training academy.”
He was equally generous when some of his employees moved on, giving them a good reference when a six-star hotel called him. “Some people started with us four years ago,” he adds. “They left and then came back. They needed experience outside. Some people opened shops and we gave them some ideas.
“One chef even opened a shop and asked us for permission to use our recipe. You can’t stop them – it’s nice he asked.”
Hong Kong people aren’t known to be loyal when it comes to food, but Younes is positive on his company’s outlook and believes the French pastry business will be sustainable.
“Food is not fashionable. Patisseries have been around in France for 200 years. We try our best to communicate to our customers and our marketing on what we do. If somebody wants, we can customise. Price-wise, we’re still affordable luxury. We are consistent on what we do. We sell cakes, but we sell happiness as well.”