At Bonaparte Breads, surrounded by the smell of freshly baked bread and just-brewed coffee, it’s easy to give in to the temptation to eat dessert first. Flashy French pastries dominate the scene, but store manager Annette Blondel is just the opposite: Often out of customers’ sight, she’s the understated woman in the back of the bakery taking care of logistics.
When Blondel finally takes time to share her story, it’s one of happenstance, friendship and trust in the next generation.
When Blondel moved to Howard County in 2003, she was at a gathering with friends when she discovered Pierre Lefilliatre, owner of Bonaparte Breads in Savage Mill and Fells Point.
Both Blondel and Lefilliatre are from Normandy, France, where they spent their childhood years, but they didn’t discover each other until they moved to the U.S. decades later. Since that chance meeting nine years ago, Blondel has been the manager of Bonaparte Breads in Savage Mill, which Lefilliatre has owned since 1997.
The Spring Rush
Now a proud grandmother of two, Blondel said she can’t believe it’s been nine years.
Over a nine-year span, one of the constant favorites has been the chocolate almond croissant. “But actually, all of them sell pretty equally,” said Blondel, “and Pierre refuses to bake anything that doesn’t come from France.”
Bonaparte Breads is enjoying an early summer rush this year, and Blondel generally works feverishly out of sight, assessing everything from coffee to pastries, preparing not only for customers but for the nine different deliveries to farmers’ markets.
Blondel’s business savvy boils down into a simple philosophy: Find out what the customer wants, and stick with it.
That message was reinforced when she tried to change the coffee at Bonaparte Breads.
“We have very good coffee at a very reasonable price for the customer, but the coffee is very expensive for us to purchase,” she said of her decision to surreptitiously switch to a cheaper brand. “That same day, I had a regular customer tell the person at the cash register that she needed to see the manager.”
Blondel came forward and the customer said four fateful words: “You changed the coffee,” causing Blondel to trash the new coffee attempt and resume her usual fare, which she still serves today.
In June, her customers are gathered as usual inside the bakery, or outside with their dogs, contentedly sipping the coffee they’ve come to love. At lunchtime, the menu opens out to sandwiches on thick bread and select ingredients that Blondel hopes surpass chain restaurants in character and flavor.
BWCC: Part of the Community Fabric
As a Baltimore Washington Corridor Chamber (BWCC) member, Blondel said Bonaparte Breads feels more sewn into the community fabric and more in touch with fellow business owners. With stores in both Savage Mill and Fells Point, Blondel said that a sense of community is what sets the bakery apart. “People know us, whether personally or through the chamber,” she said, “and they are our regular customers.”
In three years, Blondel will retire, and she’s currently training a new store manager to take over the Savage Mill store. She said she trusts the next generation to maintain the bakery at the same high level. “It’s time for me to move on and spend more time with my grandkids,” she said. “Everything in here is good. The store will be fine.”
On the bakery walls, paintings and historical documents focus on Napoleon Bonaparte and the history of his life.
Blondel points out a photo of Pierre Lefilliatre that also hangs on the wall. The bakery owner is dressed in a Napoleon Bonaparte uniform — and the actual uniform is displayed decoratively from a hanger just above the photo. “You see?” said Blondel enthusiastically. “Pierre looks exactly like Bonaparte.”
There is a resemblance, and this was first recognized when Lefilliatre operated a bakery in Paris. During a community event, he was asked to dress up like Napoleon Bonaparte. Since then, he has become a collector of all things Bonaparte.
“At his house, he has an entire cup and saucer collection, and just about every other Napoleon Bonaparte item you can think of,” said Blondel. “It looks like a museum.”