While the ingredients alone of a classic French baguette may be a simple few, knowing how to transform them into something with the right crust and the perfect fluffy inside all comes down to technique, according to Arnaud Curtat, founder and owner of The Blue Pumpkin.
As his 12 Blue Pumpkin outlets started to gear up for Valentine’s Day, Curtat, 40, took time to explain how he was able to grow one little smoothie shop in Siem Reap, started by his Thai wife, into a real local Cambodian brand-name franchise with 250 employees.
“What makes me very proud is that we really can compete with all the international brands or any other brand coming to Cambodia. We are not afraid and we can compete easily with them. We are Cambodian-grown and we have an international style.”
The core of Blue Pumpkin’s success is Curtat’s particular attention to baking techniques especially for the basics like croissants and baguettes which traces all the way back to France where he was working at a bakery shop. He learned from a French baker : “it is not the recipe that counts – it is the technical skills. The most simple things are the most difficult to do – only four ingredients. If you don’t have techniques to do it, you can mess up everything.”
That lesson has carried Curtat forward to the present day at The Blue Pumpkin – with branches in the airports in Phnom Penh and Siem Reap, and at the particularly popular Blue Pumpkin riverside location in Phnom Penh where people can put their feet up and relax on their computers with WIFI for a few hours.
On Valentine’s Day, which is this coming Tuesday, February 14, the Blue Pumpkin team are baking 300 heart-shaped raspberry mousse cakes, ten of which contain a heart-shaped jade pendant. Those who get the pendant also get a voucher for a Valentine’s meal for two persons at The Blue Pumpkin. Also available is a bigger heart-shaped cake.
“If you buy the cake, you might win,” Curtat smiled, adding that young Cambodian men are more and more willing to spend some money on their girlfriends.
“Valentine’s Day is a huge day for young people in Cambodia. This has caught on so quick during the last three to four years,” he said.
Curtat, who was born in Lyon and grew up in Paris, met his Thai wife, Ms Sudarat Phaetkhim in 2000 while both were employed by Novotel in Phuket, Thailand. It was a natural step for both of them when Curtat got a job at Sofitel in Siem Reap as a pastry chef because both Novotel and Sofitel are brands of the Accor Group.
While Curtat worked as a pastry chef at Sofitel, his wife didn’t have a job so they opened a small place for her to work mostly selling fruit shakes.
“My wife was making fruit carvings to sell at the hotels and one of the nice vegetables to carve were pumpkins, so we thought The Blue Pumpkin sounds nice.” That’s how The Blue Pumpkin got its name.
From the first outlet in front of Siem Reap hospital, Curtat invested in an oven and a mixer and today The Blue Pumpkin has nine outlets in Siam Reap where Curtat enjoys time with his wife and three sons.
As his hard-working wife takes care of operations and staff, speaking fluent Khmer, Curtat runs the distribution centers where he employs two French pastry chefs, one in Siem Reap and one in Phnom Penh.
“All of The Blue Pumpkin is owned and managed by us,” Curtat said.
“The Phnom Penh airport is a bit different than every other place because they have one company taking care of every outlet, and they take all kinds of franchises, like Dairy Queen. They contacted us for the new airport, saying they were looking for good brands. All the standards are the same, and this is a Blue Pumpkin shop, but we don’t manage it,” he said.
As for the white interiors of The Blue Pumpkin outlets, Curtat says he remembered bakeries in France with lots of gold colour and mirrors. He made a vow to himself that some day when he had his own bakery the interior would be cool and clean and simple with an emphasis on the products themselves.
As for hiring staff, they have to speak good English first.
“For us good attitude and good feelings are very important. We feel these are more important than resume’ and background. I want my staff to be friendly. I’m proud of my staff. Cambodians are good workers and honest – more honest than French,” he laughed.
“I am very proud of our people and we keep them many years. They usually go to a higher brand name job when they leave. That makes me proud that when they leave they are going to a good job.”
Curtat’s vision for The Blue Pumpkin is to keep opening more shops with high standards of good taste and quality.
What about franchising The Blue Pumpkin around the world?
“I have lots of proposals from Malaysia and Singapore,” he said.
“What I like is that Cambodia is a very easy country and we feel welcome here. I’m not a French guy making business in Cambodia; just a guy making business. We just want to make business and make money and to grow. It is easy but you have to work hard and be serious. What we did here we never could have done in France; the way we enjoy our lives. We have three kids and can spend time with them. We have good personal and good business lives.”