France seems like a food lover’s paradise, filled with open markets brimming with the season’s freshest fruits and vegetables. But when I moved to Paris in 2008, everyone was whispering about another place to shop for food. “It really makes my life easier,” my friend Jérôme tells me. “It’s my secret to a stress-free dinner party,” says another friend, Pierre. It’s called Picard — and almost everything they sell is frozen.
From green beans to blueberries to foie gras-filled filo pastry pockets, Picard’s products are known as the French home cook’s best-kept secret. But how did a country that celebrates seasonal produce fall in love with a frozen food chain? Today, we look at Picard Surgelés — how it started, why people love it, and whether it might ever come stateside.
What Is Picard?
At first glance, the store looks like a cryogenics laboratory, the walls lined with cold cases, and with more rows of deep freezers creating aisles through the center. The space is relatively small — about 2,000 square feet, on average — with austere tiled floors and fluorescent bulbs that cast a dystopian light. Signs in royal blue and images of oversized snowflakes contribute to the overall impression of iciness. Aside from a few pantry items — things like jarred tapenade, shortbread cookies, and ice cream cones — all of Picard’s 1,200 products are frozen. Shoppers stash their purchases in large, insulated bags to ensure everything is carried home at the proper temperature.
If it sounds a bit cultish, that’s because it is. French people rave about Picard to the point of obsession; the French media writes breathless articles about its astonishing success; in 2014, French consumers ranked it their favorite brand. Picard dinner parties are legendary, with the hosts hiding the telltale blue boxes deep in the recycling bin. “I always have something from Picard in the freezer; slices of mango at the moment,” says my friend Jérôme.
The company began in 1906, when Raymond Picard began delivering blocks of Alpine ice to Paris-area homes before refrigerators and freezers were common. By 1974, the business had been purchased by Arnaud Decelle, who began selling frozen vegetables from a storefront in Paris. Today, Picard is owned jointly by Swiss-Irish food conglomerate, Aryzta, and private equity group, Lion Capital, and has about 1,000 stores in France, where it commands 20 percent of the frozen food market. A recent expansion has also brought branches to Belgium, Italy, Switzerland, and Sweden.
What You Find in Picard's Freezers: Delicious Convenience
Picard’s products can be loosely divided into two categories. There are the fresh frozen ingredients: bags of unadulterated fruits and vegetables; meat and fish; timesaving conveniences, like minced ginger, chopped herbs, or sautéed shallots; and a range of sauces, such as beurre blanc with Noilly Prat vermouth.
“Their range of frozen fruits and vegetables is huge — bigger than in the States,” says Camille Malmquist, a pastry chef and Picard fan, who lived and worked in Paris for eight years. “They’ve got frozen peeled chestnuts, wild mushrooms, berries, pumpkin purée … all stuff that’s harder to find at the market, and when you do, it’s expensive and there’s a fair amount of work involved.”
Indeed, convenience is a huge part of Picard’s appeal. Take, for example, the store’s bestselling item: extra-fine green beans, which come topped and tailed. Picard sells 16 metric tons of them — every day.
No, French People Really Don't Cook
The bulk of Picard’s business comes from prepared foods, which cover every meal of the day, and sound like a fantasy menu of French cuisine. There are flaky croissants and tender butter brioches. Salads of puy lentils, or bulgur wheat and quinoa. Buckwheat galettes filled with mushrooms, ham, and Emmenthal cheese. Cocktail nibbles like gougère cheese puffs, or miniature quick breads of blue cheese, honey, and rosemary. Entrées range from the exotic — shrimp en papillote in a lemony coconut milk sauce — to the more traditional, like duck confit with a side of sliced potatoes sautéed in duck fat. Of the many desserts, the molten chocolate cake is a perennial favorite — the company sells two million of them a year.
“We have this impression that French people only eat fresh food all the time, but the reality is — at least in Paris — a lot of people don’t cook. You can tell from the small kitchens,” says Malmquist.
Picard maintains brand loyalty and interest by introducing 200 new products a year, all of them meticulously researched to satisfy consumer tastes. These new items also boost the sales of existing favorites. For example, as noted by an article in French financial newspaper Les Echos, a molten white chocolate cake improved sales of the regular molten chocolate cake, and a goat cheese, honey, and walnut pizza increased the sales of all the pizzas.
The Secret of Picard's Success: France Itself
“I think the success of Picard is deeply rooted in the food culture of France,” says Yves Coléon, president of Transmark Partners, a consulting group that advises European companies doing business in the United States. “The reason people love Picard is because of the quality. In taste, texture, flavor — Picard is replicating the type of food French people like — with the convenience of frozen food.”
This commitment to high quality begins with the raw ingredients. Picard maintains close relationships with farmers and other food producers — 67 percent of their products are grown in France — and imposes strict limits on the use of pesticides and fertilizers (they also have an organic line). They will only sell fish caught within the final three days of a capture. As well, they hold food preparation to rigorous standards, inspecting each item thousands of times. The result is a consistently perfect product — for example, cakes baked to the same precise shade of golden-brown.
The other key to Picard’s success, says Coléon, is a very efficient supply chain. Because Picard controls every single aspect of production, from field to factory to distribution, they can always ensure storage at the preferred temperature. “One of the reasons frozen food in the U.S. is loaded with additives and preservatives is because products go through many variations of temperature cycles,” says Coléon. “Picard doesn’t have this problem.”
Picard in the U.S.?
Picard’s forays to the international market have thus far been limited to Europe. But when the company recently announced plans to open in Japan, American fans grew hopeful. Unfortunately, there are several obstacles to an expansion in the United States.
“In the States, frozen food has always been viewed as a cheap, convenient alternative to preparing your meal,” says Coléon. “My sense is they’ve determined that people in the States are not willing to pay 30 to 40 percent more for high-quality frozen food. People looking for quality products will buy refrigerated or fresh — they’re not going to the frozen case.”
The other problem, says Coléon, is the complicated equation of distance and supply. In France, Picard has “their own stores, their own factories, a very close relationship with growers. They are totally integrated — as far as I know, they are the only ones to be so closely integrated,” he says. This business model could be difficult to replicate in the States, which is so much physically larger than France.
Still, for those longing for Picard, Coléon has identified a worthy substitute: Trader Joe’s. “They do a good job on frozen dessert. They control their supply chain pretty close. They control their stores,” he says. “Probably, it’s as close to Picard as you can find.”
Psst, Trader Joe’s — can you start stocking gougères?