‘IT’S A CONSTANT EVOLUTION’
When customers walk into Renaud’s Bakery and Bistro in the Arlington Plaza, the first thing they notice is the display — as the front counter is packed with bright colors and treats of all shapes and sizes, from delicious tarts to croissants to eclairs.
Sights like these may seem straightforward, a simple matter of arranging pastries on a shelf, but don’t be fooled. The process behind Renaud’s has taken founder Renaud Gonthier decades to master.
Mr. Gonthier first trained as a chef in his birthplace France, but retrained as a pastry chef. He was attracted to the details and architecture of pastries, and the creativity this allows.
“It has more structure to it. Everything is measured. Everything is explained,” Mr. Gonthier told the News-Press.
This structured creativity is something that Mr. Gonthier pursued throughout his career. After school, he worked for several small hotels and fine restaurants in Burgundy, France for eight years before coming to the U.S. to work for Ritz Carlton when he was 21. Mr. Gunthier became a top pastry chef at the Ritz, and then at The Breakers in West Palm Beach, before working for the internationally famous Barton G. Catering firm in Miami.
“I like to experiment. I like to do different things. I like to re-think. I’m very creative, so for me I just think that’s a path I follow. I just like to change things and re-think and changing jobs was a good way to do it,” said Mr. Gunthier.
Each job represented a new area of baking pastries for Mr. Gonthier to master. He learned that the restaurant pastry is a pastry of the moment, while pastry shop products need to last until the customer gets home. He mastered the incredibly high standards of the Ritz, while realizing the strict procedures for the hotel were stifling his creativity.
“You retrain your skills into being able to master all those areas. From breakfast pastries to making cakes to making chocolate to making showpieces to making ice creams, it’s all specialized areas,” Mr. Gunthier said.
Eventually, Mr. Gunthier decided it was time to open his own place. Leaving the U.S. was not an option, and so Mr. Gunthier and his family moved to Santa Barbara. It reminded him of his own small town and there was a family in the area, and so Mr. Gunthier set out to build a business, opening his first location in Loreto Plaza in 2008 and the second in Arlington Plaza a year later.
Even though he had years of experience and an impressive range of skills under his belt, opening his own pastry shop presented Mr. Gunthier with the challenge of the unknown.
“When you open a business you don’t know. It was our first business, too. We had a business plan, but it was ridiculous. A business plan is something you put on paper but it changes, and so for us I think that was the biggest challenge,” Mr. Gunthier.
Mr. Gunthier rose to the challenge, adapting the business to fit customer needs and deliver the best pastries possible. When he first began, Mr. Gunthier wanted to focus on cakes. But as the business grew, he realized Americans only buy cakes in grocery stores and that he needed to change their offerings.
“Our sales really bond to breakfast pastries. It’s a big section and we didn’t really plan that at the beginning. It was a plan to have them but not to sell as many as we do,” said Mr. Gunthier.
Adaptation has remained a part of Renaud’s as it now includes locations on Coast Village Road and bakeries in three Gelson locations. Renaud’s has also expanded its lunch menu, updated its decor and even changed the shapes of its croissants.
“It’s a constant evolution. It looks static if you look at it from day to day, but if you look at pictures from what we were doing, say two or three years ago, and what we’re doing now, it’s completely different,” said Mr. Gunthier.
But throughout all the change, Renaud’s has remained simple, high quality and delicious.
“It’s always been focused on a great product that’s simple so people can understand and relate. We don’t do complicated dishes. We’re always trying to simplify as much as possible,” said Mr. Gunthier.
Each Renaud location has its own personality. When asked what made the Arlington Plaza bakery special, Mr. Gunthier said it is “super mellow.”
“Here I know a lot of the customers and it’s very quiet, away from the road. People know each other,” Mr. Gunthier said as he pointed out several regulars enjoying the store’s small patio.
“People know the staff. It’s a small team here, so it’s always the same people at work. It’s a little bit more of an opportunity for people to bond, and have that small business sense of community.”
Mr. Gunthier is satisfied with Renaud’s three locations, but said they will continue to make subtle changes like seasonal pastries and upgraded machinery. Even so, customers can always expect some of the best french baking Santa Barbara has to offer when they visit Renaud’s Bakery and Bistro.