Few coffee lovers in the UAE can fail to know Gerard Reymond, man behind the country’s café culture. After setting up a coffee shop in Sharjah in 1978, his personal brand of chit-chat is now as popular as his pastries. “I haven’t made too much money in the 34 years of my life in the UAE, but I have enough for me to have a smile on my face and to keep going,’’ says the Frenchman. “My customers think I have charisma, but I think that’s something George Clooney has. What I have is a natural way with people.’’
Gerard, 60, is a man who has measured out his life in coffee spoons. “I rise at the crack of dawn to bake cakes and pastries just so I have more chat time with my guests,’’ he says. “I haven’t really run this business according to corporate theories or business plans. I’ve only been following my heart and doing just what I love – preparing good food, sharing it with my patrons and talking with them.’’
Previously a lover of waterskiing, riding, boating and golf “during my younger years’’, today he is happy to spend time overseeing his six outlets across the UAE. “I believe that in my business 15 per cent of people come for the cakes, 15 per cent for the coffee, 20 per cent for the ambience and 50 per cent for the ambience of the owner!’’
My life revolves around the coffee shops. I believe things work if you have the right team – people who understand your dream and are ready to translate that into reality. My real time as a pastry chef started when I was asked to come to Sharjah in 1978. I was working in St Tropez and I met this young French Algerian man who was looking for a pastry chef to open a shop for him.
At the time I’d never heard about the UAE. He was accompanied by a very wealthy and important person who was the main stakeholder and I joked with him, “Your idea of a French restaurant in the desert is like a flying saucer.” Surprisingly, the man took my joke seriously, named the restaurant Flying Saucer and invited me to head it! So here I was, all of 25, ready for a new adventure in a place I had never heard of.
Until then I had always lived in France, but I was happy that my sponsor had placed so much faith in my capabilities and for the next few years I worked hard to prove his faith was not misplaced in me. The restaurant began doing well and by 1980 I had made a name for myself. But then the restaurant suffered losses and its owner decided to close it down. I then received an offer from a gentleman named Rafiq Faqih to open a coffee shop under my name in Al Ghurair Centre in 1981. It was an instant success.
I loved my work but I loved the people even more. So I’d get up at 4am, bake my cakes, pastries, croissants and puffs and then spend time chatting with my guests. I had a personal one-to-one relationship with them all and was always at the coffee shop – perhaps the factors that made it a success. Today, 30 years later, I can say I know the ins and outs of business, know what it takes to make profits, the costs involved.
The most important thing to me in my business is the people who made it a success. I have clients who’ve been coming here for the past 30 years. I’m almost part of their family. A few months ago, a lady walked into my café, hugged me as though I was a long lost relative and wept with joy. I was taken aback as I didn’t recognise her but she told me she’d left Dubai a few years earlier and on her return was so overcome with nostalgia that the first thing she did was to drive straight down to Café Gerard where she said she used to spend so much time.
Another day a young mother came in with her little daughter to tell me how she’d been coming here with her parents when she was a toddler and now wanted to share the experience with her kids. I think this is the greatest investment I’ve made. My father used to tell me that luck is a very important factor to be successful. I believe in that. You may have the money, the opportunities, can be intelligent, handsome, rich and yet things don’t go your way. The important thing about luck however is that you have got to grab it and make it work for you.
I have always looked for challenges, left my home and country because I wanted to challenge myself. And I was willing to slog. In 1988 when the Magrudy’s opened on Jumeirah Beach Road, I set up my second coffee shop there, which was a hit. I was happy with just the two coffee shops as I like to concentrate on the quality of the business. It took me 12 years to open the next branch in 2000 at Abu Dhabi’s Marina Mall.
I went on to open another two outlets in Ajman City Centre and Al Qasba, Sharjah.
The sixth branch I’ve opened in Downtown Dubai is the new concept of Café Gerard – the one that caters to the next generation. It has sofas, plasma televisions and just the kind of thing my 20-year-old son Antony loves!
I was 40 and unmarried when this beautiful vision walked into my café. Lea, an amazingly beautiful Syrian girl was 20 years younger. Things moved so quickly, we married in 1990. It was perfect for a year. My son Antony was born and then Lea, who was from England, decided to go back, and we divorced. She gave me a beautiful son and we are still friends. I am neither a pessimist nor an optimist. I am a realist because I’ve come up the hard way, believing entirely in the power of my hands to create what I believe are the best pastries, cakes and croissants.
I was born in Toulon, in southeast France in the Provence Alpes-Cote-d’Azure region. I was the youngest of five children. When I was 13, my father, Roger Reymond, an engineer, found out I wasn’t doing well at school and gave me 24 hours to choose a trade I’d like to learn as an apprentice. He gave me options – a bakery, a patisserie, a butchery or a charcuterie. I was a bit of an artist and the thought of rolling out pastries I’d seen in delis seemed the most appealing. The next day my father called up a friend and sent me to his pastry workshop. Although the work was hard, I enjoyed it.
I would work at the bakery for three days and go to school twice a week to do a foundation course. I was happy and I put my heart and soul into perfecting my art. At 17, I graduated with my CAP (Certificat d’aptitude professionnelle) to be a full-time pastry chef and began earning a living. My big break was when I was 24 and I got a job in St Tropez on the French Riviera.
When I returned during the holidays to my home, I told my father I had learnt enough to set up my own patisserie. My father being the conservative man that he was said I needed to be married to open a pastry shop. “You need a good wife to handle the front office and the cash box while you make those pastries.” So the idea of having my own business was put on the back burner until I was invited to set up a shop in Sharjah.
I don’t believe in dreaming – but my son does. He has graduated from a prominent university here in Dubai and has great plans for himself. I want him to get an idea of how to bake the perfect croissant, make the best coffee and handle cash at work. But Antony is just 20 and I do not want to kill his dreams.
I feel earlier I was an actor drawn to the thick of the events, now I am a spectator watching all that unfolds from the outside. I have built a brand, personalised it. In the end I think I have managed to do something with my life. I think in life one should not obsess about being wealthy. Money is important, but that is not the end. You must have time to enjoy what you have created.
I am at my coffee shop every single day, talking to people, enjoying the ambience of the café and I feel overwhelmed to see so many happy, smiling faces around me. I have seen people meet and marry here. Few things give me more joy than leaning back and enjoying a cup of coffee with my patrons.