Making bread in Antigua

Douglas McVicars and his partner Dianne White, who just opened their fifth link in a chain of bakeries and pastry shops in Antigua, have turned out to have it right when it comes to making a living off French bread and sandwiches. Doug, a former Home Depot executive in Toronto, and Dianne, a recent architecture graduate, moved to Antigua in mid-2003.

Doug started working part-time for Franciane in January 2004 and was soon offered the position of manager with profit sharing, full benefits and incentives, including stock in the business. Today Franciane’s sells about 300,000 sandwiches a year; this on an island with a population of just over 70,000. The business has now expanded to five stores in total with plans to open franchises in other Caribbean islands, including St. Lucia, St. Kitts & Nevis and Dominica in the next year or two. Dianne, using her training as an architect, designed the latest store. It was designed to serve as a prototype for the planned expansion.

Doug says he had to make a major change in the direction Franciane was taking after he took office. He felt that the former manager was targeting the wrong clientele; expats, tourists, yachts. So the first thing he did after taking over was make it a local place, targeting the locals. He bought more products on the island, while the former manager had imported a lot from France. He made drastic changes to the menu. Tuna, crab, turkey, roast beef and local salt fish replaced pate and Brie. This made the sandwiches more substantial, which were well received by the local population.

They’ve had competition from a new Subway franchise that opened six months ago, but it hasn’t affected their sales. Doug says it’s because they are so expensive and they sell items for $20 that Franciane’s has for $10. There was an expected loss of some customers, but were quickly replaced by others who were happy to see a shorter line at Franciane’s.

Antigua also has its traditional types of breads, which are heavier and often loaded with canned butter, pork sausage, and cheese.

“That was one of my first experiences when I first came here,” says Doug. “Dianne took me to Brownie’s (bakery).”

“Yes,” Dianne remembers. “She brought you a sausage and cheese sandwich.”

“It was different,” adds Doug, “but it was nice, very heavy. But don’t get me wrong, you can’t eat our sandwiches every day, either.”

Quite a few customers might disagree. The staff at Franciane know regulars who eat the same sandwich every day or mix and match the fillings, yet arrive at about the same time every day.

Diana says. “They seem to like it, and what we try to do is provide them with the right fillings that they want. Like saltfish and red herring. We’ll also bring the local cheese, because not everyone likes cheddar and Swiss. They seem to be very attached to cheese.” in a can. So we’re still trying to add to the menu.”

Antiguans were already familiar with French bread because there was previously a Swiss bakery located in a popular tourist section of the island along with another French bakery in the capital, St. John’s.

Slowing down the pace of life in Toronto has been a welcome change for the couple. Doug and Dianne didn’t even realize how much their rhythm had changed, until a recent trip to Miami, when they were walking to catch a flight, while the Americans beat them up and glared at them as they tried to get to the plane. “After things like that,” Dianne says, “you just start to remember why you left. Everybody (there) moves like every moment of the day counts. When you’re here for two years, you don’t realize how much you’ve slowed down.” Really”.

Doug says that he is satisfied with the clothes and other items that he can buy on the island. Dianne might have a few more complaints since, like most women, she tends to crave a little more variety in terms of shopping. However, she is content to fly to Puerto Rico whenever the need arises. Many locals do the same.

They have adjusted to the schedules of the supermarkets on the island in terms of the availability of fresh produce, which quickly disappears on weekends. Doug remembers the surprised reaction of some international medical school students who frequent one of Franciane’s establishments when they were told there was no lettuce for their sandwiches. “They were like, ‘What do you mean you don’t have any lettuce?'” he recalls. “And I asked them, well, how did you get here? And they told me: ‘By plane’. And I said, ok, do you see any road that leads from here to Miami?

“Acquisition on the island is not as easy as it seems,” he says. “There are some tough times of the year, like November when hotels reopen, and we may fall short.” They have learned how to develop connections with local wholesalers, who will warn them of expected shortages in advance. The pair used to import a 20 ft. container of authentic French bread and pastries once every three months, but the popularity of the business has now changed to one container every 28 days.

Many people have expressed skepticism that a fairly young company has diversified so quickly, but Doug says Franciane’s shows no signs of slowing down and, in fact, is planning at least two other stores, including one inside the airport.

And are you happy with your decision to migrate to the Caribbean? Give Doug the last word:

“I always said that I would go to live in the Caribbean when I was in my early 40s,” he says. “And I said, you know what, if you never do it, you never will. A good friend of mine in Toronto said, ‘You’re coming back.’ But I could go to another island, I don’t know what I’ll do, but I like it here. I really like it”.

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