PARIS // France may be home of the baguette, savoury staple of the nation's renowned gastronomy, but getting a fresh one is harder than one might think.
Especially in the evening, on a holiday or in August, when many of the country's 33,000 bakeries are closed.
Baker Jean-Louis Hecht, from north-east France, thinks he can help. He has launched a 24-hour automated baguette dispenser, serving warm bread to hungry night owls, shift workers or those who simply did not have time to pick one up during his bakery's opening hours.
"This is the bakery of tomorrow," said Mr Hecht, who foresees expansion in Paris, across Europe and the US. "If other bakers don't want to enter the niche, they are going to get decimated."
For now, he is operating only two machines - one in Paris, another in the town of Hombourg-Haut in north-eastern France - each next to his own bakeries.
The vending machines take partly precooked loaves, bake them and deliver them steaming within seconds to customers, all for Dh5.2.
Despite the expansion of fast-food chains, millions of French remain true to their beloved baguette - it is the biggest breakfast basic, most often with butter and jam, and the preferred accompaniment for lunch, dinner and cheese.
Yet customer convenience here often takes a back seat to lifestyle rhythms. Many stores in small towns and low-traffic areas of Paris close at lunchtime. In August, many businesses including bakeries shut down for part or all of the summer holiday month.
Late-night supermarkets are rare, even in Paris, and are generally seen as a source of low-grade, desperation bread, not the artisanal product of a certified baker.
Mr Hecht wants his automated baguette machine to fill the gaps.
His first try two years ago suffered repeated technical troubles. Now, with the help of a Portuguese engineer and improved technology, he has developed a new-generation machine that started operating in Hombourg-Haut in January.
It sold 1,600 baguettes in its debut month and nearly 4,500 in July. If the rate keeps up, the Dh261,000 machine will be paid for within a year, Mr Hecht said.
"If you sell 100 baguettes per day, there is a 33 per cent [profit] margin. It's phenomenal," he said, adding that he already has three patents pending.
His second baguette dispenser in north-east Paris started running last month.
Mr Hecht came up with the idea a decade ago. Like many French bakers, he lived upstairs from his bakery in Hombourg-Haut and customers would often knock on his door after closing to scrounge for a baguette.
"My wife said, 'We'll never get any peace'. So I said, 'We'll put out a bread distributor and we'll be left alone'," Mr Hecht recalled. He believes the automated bread dispenser could revolutionize the lifestyles of bakers, many of whom get up before dawn to go to work.
With the machine, they could sleep in a bit, he said.
Unlike bakery-fresh bread, the baguettes are precooked, a technique used by industrial, high-volume bread producers who deliver to many French vendors. Mr Hecht calls it "a good compromise". The machine holds about 120 baguettes at a time in cool storage.
It offers only one product, a hard-crust traditional-style loaf that is a denser, crunchier cousin of the standard baguette. Anything not sold is thrown out after 72 hours.
Innovators have tried for years to develop baguette distributors but no one has yet succeeded, according to officials at the Paris bakers' labour union.
Previous attempts hit inventory-management troubles, served up soggy or cold bread or did not garner wide appeal.
French sceptics are still out in force.
"For me, it is not homemade bread. It is not kneaded and baked at the point of sale - by definition, it's from a machine," said Marc Nexhip of the Paris bakers' union, who admitted he has not tried one of the baguettes yet.
"I'm not convinced that good taste can be maintained over time. Maybe for 15 minutes but not for several hours."
"It's definitely convenient but it's just not the same as fresh bread," said Tiphaine Ath, a 31-year-old pharmacy technician, after picking one up in Paris for lunch. "Five seconds and it's ready? I have my doubts."
But for Mr Hecht, it's about changing with the times.
"It's like with banks. Before, everyone went to a teller, now everybody uses ATMs," he said. "It will be the same with bread. Today, everybody goes to the bakery, tomorrow they'll go to the baguette dispenser."