French intern brings new flavor to Bluegrass Baking Co.

agarau@herald-leader.comJuly 21, 2014 

The smell of fresh bread and the sight of croissants, baguettes and fruit tarts might make you think you've stepped into a French boulangerie.

And when you hear the endearing accent of the young woman behind the register, you might have to glance out the window to ensure that you are, in fact, in Lexington.

You're at the Bluegrass Baking Company, where Flora Vanneste, an exchange student from Caen, France, works as a marketing intern. She came to Kentucky through the Sister Cities Program.

"My friends weren't really sure what Kentucky was, but as soon as you say it's in America, everyone says, 'Oh America!' and is excited,'" she said.

Bluegrass Baking Company, which owner Jim Betts started 23 years ago, specializes in artisan bread and is heavily influenced by baking styles and recipes from France. Betts also sells tarts and other sweet treats, but you will never find a doughnut in his kitchen in the Stonewall Center on Clays Mill Road.

Marketing wasn't a big problem for Betts; business is going well. He hosts interns more out of an interest in French culture than a need for extra help.

Betts was connected to the Sister Cities program through Vanneste's host mom, Cathy Nohe. Nohe is a committee member for the Deauville branch of Lexington's program.

"I love that bakery. I think it's the best French bakery in town," Nohe said. "I was talking to the owner and I thought 'This is a really interesting, engaged guy. I wonder if he would be interested in hosting an intern'."

This is the second summer Betts has hosted an intern. Eventually he hopes to set up a bakers exchange so that Lexington bakers can study the craft in Deauville, Lexington's French sister.

Vanneste, who recently celebrated her 21st birthday, arrived in Lexington on May 5. She is currently studying International Trade at University of Caen.

Two other French students are taking part in this summer's internship program. One is in the marketing and communications department at the University of Kentucky and the other is in the accounting office at Transylvania University.

"I think that Lexington serves a very important purpose in so far that it is not New York and it is not L.A.," Nohe said. "We try to help our students understand that America is a lot more than just those cities. There are regional differences, cultural differences, religious differences. It's a very diverse nation."

Despite her French roots, Vanneste doesn't actually enjoy baking. She has tried some recipes at the bakery like croissants, apple pie and chocolate chip cookies. The cookies were her favorite.

"She's very precise," Betts said of Vanneste's baking skills.

Vanneste interpreted the compliment differently.

"I'm slow," she said.

Vanneste preferred to focus on marketing, researching ways to help Betts attract more customers. She has posted more regularly on the bakery's Facebook page, encouraged Betts to update the bakery website, and surveyed customers to learn what they are looking for in a bakery. She has also visited other Lexington bakeries to scope out the competition.

Vanneste noted that the baked goods at Bluegrass Baking taste very similar to those she eats in France, but there are some big differences in bakery culture. While many American stereotypes about French people are far from true, their undying love of bread is no myth, she said. Vanneste found it odd that most Americans don't eat fresh bread with every meal and seem to prefer sliced sandwich bread to a baguette with dipping sauce.

"It is also different because when you walk into a bakery in France you don't really talk. It's just hi, what would you like, then bye," she said. "Here you talk a lot. Jim really knows a lot of the customers who come here."

At first, Vanneste wasn't comfortable with all that talking.

"I used to tell her just talk! I don't even care what you say; just practice," Betts said. "Now I see her interacting more with customers and actually initiating conversations."

Vanneste's trip hasn't been all work and no play. A horse-rider since age 6, she has taken advantage of living near so many horse farms and has been out riding.

Also, she visited a French friend who is interning in New York City.

When she returns to France in early August she will miss the Kentucky weather. Normandy is notoriously rainy, she said.

Betts said he will miss Vanneste's business advice and her customer service.

And it seems that bakery regulars will miss her, as well.

Some of his customers have grown accustomed to the feeling of French authenticity Vanneste brings to the store.

One woman even walked in with a cheery, "Comment ca va?"

Annie Garau: (859)213-1685. Twitter: @agarau6

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