Jérémie Salafa is a 27-year-old baker and confectioner – and reptile collector – who manages two shops, 15 people and loves “this somewhat thankless job”. For him, quality products and happy customers come before profit margins.
In Fribourg’s Old Town, Petit-St-Jean square is surrounded by greyish-yellow Gothic buildings: two cafés, a couple of galleries, a small chocolate factory, a microbrewery, a butcher’s and L’Ecureuil tea room.
When you open the door of L’Ecureuil – which means “squirrel” – a set of bells chimes rather quaintly. The room is painted orange and is home to shelves packed with groceries, fridges full of drinks, wooden displays with various types of bread and a window containing sandwiches and odd-coloured tarts.
The “lab” is in the back. It smells good. “I’ve been burning butter and that gives off a smell of caramel,” smiles a young man with long hair in a ponytail. Behind him a young woman is turning out some cakes.
The boss arrives: orange T-shirt, goatee, glasses, curly hair tied back under a Panama hat. This is Jérémie Salafa.
Salafa has just opened his second shop and is in the process of renovating the adjoining tea-room.
“I spent my entire childhood in this area and I was very keen to do something here. I was able to realise my dream by taking over this bakery. The customers are happy – especially the older ones – because the town centre is some distance away and there’s not much around here.”
After a three-year apprenticeship as a confectioner, Salafa decided not to train as a baker because he wanted to open his own business and be his own boss.
This is what he did when he was 19, receiving advice and a helping hand from his father, owner of a chain of cinemas. He thus became the youngest boss in town.
“Although I consider myself an artisan, a creator, it’s true that, by necessity, you have to deal with staff and admin – that’s part of being a boss. My father helped me get going,” he said.
Salafa started by building up a customer base at markets by selling his creations, which he had prepared at home. At first, he transported them in a barrow – like in the old days.
He then upgraded to a taxi or his father’s car. “Four years ago, I was forced to buy a car and hire a delivery man, because I can’t drive!”
Within 18 months his sales grew. “Gradually, people appreciated what I was doing and that let me prove to my father that there was potential. That gave him confidence and motivated him to lend me a bit of money to buy an oven and the few machines I needed to open my own business.”
In his first bakery, Salafa worked on his own for five years – in the shop front by day, experimenting in the back by night.
Today, the two shops employ 15 people, which works out at six or seven full-time posts.
“My team begin work at midnight and I come in a seven or eight. I’m now in a position to delegate, which is good!”
He is currently working on getting an apprentice – “I’m interested in passing on my knowledge”.
“Heavy, rustic products”
L’Ecureuil uses only natural products, wherever possible coming from within a 30km radius.
“Everything is pure butter. I don’t use a drop of palm oil – at a pinch Swiss rapeseed oil,” Salafa says proudly.
The butter, at CHF10 ($10.35) a kilo, is two or three times more expensive and it’s impossible for Salafa to make the same profits as some of his competitors who are tempted by semi-manufactured products on prepared bases.
“I’m forced to spend more for the taste and the colours. I prefer to have smaller margins but a product which I’m happy to sell and which those people who pay attention to what they eat appreciate,” he said.
“In that sense, I’m not a businessman. But I don’t have any great needs and I didn’t start this business to become rich. My goal is to have a good life.”
Brown bread, white brown, spelt bread, nutty bread, flax bread, pumpkin seed bread, sandwiches, jams, original tarts – every product is a creation which grew in the head of the squirrel…
There are no auxiliary products, such as baking powder. This results in “quite heavy, rustic products which follow the seasons”.
And his best-sellers? “The chocolate-pistachio fondant or the pumpkin seed tart. Or the ‘tartelette au vin cuit’ [a local delicacy similar to a treacle tart].”
Salafa denies that his friends consider his job a bit old-fashioned. “On the contrary, they look on it favourably. Most of them have more usual jobs, for example working in an office. But they see all the work that’s behind what I do and that it’s a thankless job – and they stand by me,” he said.
As for the future, Salafa says he lives from day to day. “You can make your own luck, take your chances and ensure that things turn out well!”
His hobbies include looking after his garden – and his pet snakes. “I’ve got two boas and a lizard. It’s calming – the snakes help me relax. They’re nice and static. And the lizard isn’t afraid of the snakes,” he grins.
(Translated from French by Thomas Stephens)