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Business

French Columbus Cafe Posed to Take on Starbucks

As traditional French cafés decline, one entrepreneur has turned his espresso bars into the continent's second largest coffee shop chain.

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The Philosopher's Breakfast - minus the Gitanes

The picture of sprawling pavement cafés on Parisian boulevards and badly-lit bars full of Gitane-smoking old men knocking back espressos has long been the image of French café culture.

But one Frenchman's vision to challenge this perception and build an empire of home-grown Starbucks style espresso bars over the last nine years has turned his very own coffee house chain into the continent's second largest.

Philippe Bloch and his business partner, Ralph Hababou started Columbus Café in 1994 and the chain now mirrors the service of the dominant American chain -- on the menu are Brownies, muffins, Lattes, Mochaccinos and syrup-flavoured cappuccinos in takeaway paper cups. And, just like its globally branded rival, its shops offer little space for its customers to sit down.

Kelnerin bei Starbucks Coffee in Berlin

A Barista serves with a smile in Starbucks' Berlin branch.

Following this U.S. model, Columbus has "Baristas" rather than waiters and waitresses and some of its shops are even non-smoking, a real deaprture for French café culture. Despite this, Bloch says Columbus is fast winning over a younger, predominantly female French coffee drinking market.

"We are drawing in new people who weren't tempted by the grimy café down the street with the drunk standing at the bar and cigarette smoke everywhere," Bloch told Reuters news agency, adding that over 60 percent of its customers were women.

And he says he's winning his battle to bring American style coffee culture to France, where coffee-giant Starbucks is yet to open a single branch. Second largest continental chain

Coffee-Bar

Great coffee, lousy seating.

Since its launch, Columbus has built up a chain of 30 coffee bars. A new flagship store opens in Paris this month and Bloch plans to add another 10 stores to the 30 which already exist in the near future.

Columbus Café is now the second largest takeaway coffee chain on the continent and expects turnover to increase by 50 percent this year, bringing it close to the €10 million mark. A typically French business battle

But Bloch has not had a smooth ride.

In his new book published last month, "Bienheureux les fêlés… : Tout le monde peut créer son entreprise", Bloch describes his battle to create the Columbus café. It was a rocky experience which saw him fighting against disinterested investors, infuriating French bureaucrats and even took him to court where a judge attacked him for attempting to be "too American."

Nevertheless, in a country where the numbers of traditional cafés have dropped drastically -- from 330,000 at the start of the 20th century to just over 43,000 today -- Bloch's achievement is not to be sniffed at.

Ready for Starbucks?

Yet whether the former consultant can ensure his business is ready to take on the international coffee giant is uncertain.

Starbucks: Kaffeeshop jetzt demnächst auch in Deutschland

Coming to a Parisian boulevard any time soon?

As yet, the Seattle-based firm has not opened any branches in France, where a 35 hour working week and strict regulations can severely affect profit margins. It has taken some established fast food giants over a decade to make a Gallic profit.

Starbucks -- with its 6,000 branches worldwide and yearly turnover topping $3 billion -- already has cafés in Britain, Austria, Greece, Spain and Switzerland.

In Germany, where pavement café life is also a force to be reckoned with, much of the investment in the 16 Starbucks cafés has been shouldered by German department store, Karstadt. Using local firms to bear the brunt of set-up costs, might be considered wise in times where Starbucks is facing increased competition in international markets.

In February, Starbucks Japan announced a 70 percent drop in profits between March and December last year. The chain also announced in March it would be closing the doors of its six cafés in Israel, due to "operational challenges" in the market.

Starbucks Coffee in Berlin Kaffeehaus Außen

The challenge is afoot.

"Three years ago, the debate was whether Starbucks would be successful abroad," John Glass, an analyst at CIBC Global markets in Boston, who follows Starbucks told Reuters news agency. "Now the question is how they will fare against mounting competition in the form of knock-off chains."

But Columbus or no Columbus, Glass said he expected Starbucks to try their luck in France "fairly soon."

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