France is the home of the baguette, that savory, crisp staple of a fabled gastronomy. But just try getting a fresh one in the evening, or on a holiday, or even in August, when many of the country's 33,000 bakeries are closed.
Jean-Louis Hecht thinks he has the answer.
The baker from northeast France has rolled out a 24-hour automated baguette dispenser, promising warm bread for hungry night owls, shift workers or anyone else who didn't have time to pick one up during their bakery's opening hours.
"This is the bakery of tomorrow," proclaimed Hecht, who foresees expansion in Paris, around Europe and even the U.S. "If other bakers don't want to enter the niche, they're going to get decimated."
For now, though, that's a lot of talk.
He's only operating two machines— one in Paris, another in the town of Hombourg-Haut in northeastern France — each next to his own bake shops. The vending machines take partially precooked loaves, bake them up and deliver them steaming within seconds to customers, all for €1 ($1.42).
Despite the expansion of fast-food chains, millions of French remain true to their beloved baguette: It's the biggest breakfast basic — most often with butter and jam — and the preferred accompaniment for lunch, dinner and cheese.
Yet customer convenience here often takes a back seat to lifestyle rhythms. Many stores in small towns and even lower-traffic areas of Paris close for lunchtime. And in August, many businesses — including bakeries — shut down for part or all of the summer holiday month.
Late-night supermarkets are rare, even in Paris. And they're generally seen as a source of low-grade, desperation bread, not the artisanal product of a certified baker.
Hecht wants his automated baguette machine to fill in the gaps.
His first try two years ago ran into repeated technical troubles. Now, with the help of a Portuguese engineer and improved technology, Hecht developed a new-generation machine that started operating in Hombourg-Haut in January.
It sold 1,600 baguettes in its debut month, and nearly 4,500 in July. If that rate keeps up, the €50,000 ($71,000) machine will be paid for within a year, Hecht said.
"If you sell 100 baguettes per day, there's a 33 percent (profit) margin: It's phenomenal," he said, adding that he already has three patents pending.
His second baguette dispenser in northeast Paris started running last month.
Hecht came up with the idea a decade ago. He — like many French bakers — lived upstairs from his bakery in Hombourg-Haut and customers would often come knocking at his home after closing to scrounge for a baguette to hold them until morning.
"My wife said: 'We'll never get any peace!' so I said, 'We'll put out a bread distributor and we'll be left alone,'" Hecht recalled.
Now, he thinks the automated bread dispenser could revolutionize the lifestyles of bakers, many of whom get up before dawn to go to work. With the machine, they could sleep in a bit, he says.
Unlike bakery-fresh bread, these baguettes are precooked, a technique used by industrial, high-volume bread producers who deliver to many French vendors. Hecht calls it "a good compromise." The machine holds about 120 baguettes at a time in a cool storage area.
Customers don't get a choice. The machine spits out only one product: a hard-crust "tradition"-style loaf — a denser and crunchier cousin of the standard baguette. Anything not sold is tossed out after 72 hours.
Innovators for years have tried to develop baguette distributors, but no one has yet succeeded, according to officials at the Paris bakers labor union. Previous attempts hit inventory-management troubles, served up soggy or cold bread, or didn't garner wide appeal.
In an Associated Press newsroom taste-test, reviews were mostly favorable, ranging from "It's good!" to "I never would've guessed it came from a dispenser" to "the crust's a bit soft."
Still, French skeptics were out in force.
"For me, it's not homemade bread. It's not kneaded and baked at the point of sale — by definition, it's from a machine," said Marc Nexhip of the Paris bakers' union, who admits he's hasn't tried one yet. "I'm not convinced that good taste can be maintained over time. Maybe for 15 minutes — but not for several hours."
"It's definitely convenient — but it's just not quite the same as fresh bread," said Tiphaine Ath, a 31-year-old pharmacy technician, after picking one up in Paris for lunch. "Five seconds and it's ready? I have my doubts."
But for Hecht, it's about changing with the times.
"It's like with banks: before, everyone went to a teller; now, everybody uses ATMs," he said. "It will be the same with bread: Today, everybody goes to the bakery. Tomorrow they'll go to the baguette dispenser."