Start to Finish: What Inspires Execs | September 2017

Au Bon Pain's CEO on Why Making a Difference Matters

Ray Blanchette and the fast casual are pushing the envelope on flavor, clean labels, and fresh baking.
Ray Blanchette, president and CEO of Au Bon Pain. Au Bon Pain
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I worked on a farm as a kid, so I’ve been in the food business my whole life, basically. I started at Carlson Restaurants as a manager-in-training in the late ’80s at TGI Fridays, and left years later as the president of Pick Up Stix—that’s really where I learned how to lead and learned a lot about myself. I went from there to be the CEO of Joe’s Crab Shack.

One of the things that attracted me to Au Bon Pain was I felt like I could make a difference here. We’re fast casual, but we hadn’t necessarily evolved our thinking in terms of how the guests want to access the business. We just finished rolling out online ordering and payment. You can order your entire meal, walk in the café, grab it, and leave. We’re really excited about integrating that into the fabric of the culture of our company.

Au Bon Pain has a really bright, better-for-you halo because we’re so committed to clean labels and no preservatives, but on the other hand we’re selling pastries. I spent the first several months here trying to bridge that in my mind: How do you establish positioning around that? For me it was all about finding balance; there are times that the Good Egg sandwich is exactly how you want to start your day, but there are also days you need a chocolate croissant and a latte.

How people are eating today and what they’re putting in their bodies are fundamentally different than it was just a decade ago. Everybody fancies themselves a foodie. When we start talking about ingredients, we can be really robust in those conversations and people get it. We’re pushing the envelope on flavor, clean labels, and fresh baking. I think these are hallmarks of the brand that are going to continue to be very relevant.

This is today—and really has been for my 30-year career—a very dynamic industry. It’s constantly growing and evolving. I’m an operator at heart, so I spend a lot of time obsessing over how we execute. I also make sure we’re always thinking of what our managers and staff are going through every day so we can provide resources that are helpful.


What’s your favorite menu item at Au Bon Pain?

Right now I would have to say it’s the Good Egg: rustic baguette, two whole eggs, avocado, fresh spinach, tomato, and a little citrus aioli.

What is the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?

My old boss said, “Never stop hiring.” In our industry, you’re as good as your worst employee. Surround yourself with great people and never stop looking for talent.

What are some of your interests outside of the business?

I do a lot of hiking in the White Mountains and Mount Washington. When I need to recharge my batteries, usually on a lake in Maine is where I find my solace.

Who has inspired you as a leader?

I wouldn’t have been a CEO for the last decade if it weren’t for great mentors along the way: Dick Rivera, Wally Doolin, and Richard Snead.