Founder Patrick Esquerre Returns to La Madeleine as a Special Advisor

Last Friday, La Madeleine hosted a blogger’s breakfast to unveil their new look. Our man on the CEO beat, Glenn Hunter, was there. He files this report:

When it comes to taking advice from women, Patrick Esquerre and Philip Costner of La Madeleine Country French Café are of one mind.

Esquerre, who founded the bakery-café chain in 1982 and recently rejoined it as a “special advisor,” says the café first became a hit because he listened to suggestions from its female clientele, including well-off Dallasites like the late Annette Strauss. They told him to put in fireplaces, for example.

Costner, the café’s COO since July 2008 for new owner Groupe Le Duff, of Montreal, says he’s learned to listen to females as well–specifically, to his 12-year-old daughter. Accompanying Costner to a La Madeleine, the girl asked him, “Dad, what do we do here?” right off the bat, Costner recalled.(The café’s “buffeteria” concept seemed confusing to her.) Then, spotting all the bakery goods and other menu items, she asked, “Dad, what do they sell here?”

Partly as a result of such questions, La Madeleine is undergoing a facelift including new menu boards, kitchen upgrades, and 10 percent more seating space. The most noticeable change: instead of ordering and moving through a line cafeteria-style, patrons now will order at a central point, take a table, and wait for their grub to be delivered. Just like at Pei Wei, say.

The changes are being implemented first at the Preston/Forest location, where Esquerre munched on a croissant the other day and talked about his new position with the company. While he’s been gone from La Madeleine since selling the chain in 1998, the native of France’s Loire Valley said he’s taking on the advisory role because Costner is the first top executive in years to “really understand” the fast-casual eatery he founded.

“I’m going to be in the dishwashing room; I’m going to be with the people. Then you can evaluate the scene,” Esquerre said. “My motto is ‘Listen, Adapt, Surprise.’ I learned that from the women. This is what I call love.”

Costner said annual sales for La Madeleine, which has 60 cafes in Texas, Atlanta, Washington D.C., and Louisiana, are between $115 million and $130 million.