C'est Si Bon, bakery's loyal customers say

Every city has its beloved local bakeries — places that draw people daily to fresh baked goods.

For 36 years, C'est Si Bon Bakery has been that neighborhood spot, reliably turning out aromatic baguettes and croissants as well as sandwiches in Newport Beach.

Regulars even know the co-owners, Paul Kohne and Bruno Campos, by their first names.

On a recent Thursday afternoon, a line of customers led out of the shop to the sidewalk, and many of the 20 or so who were waiting were willing to say it is so good, as the English translation of the bakery's French name means.

In their space on Riverside Avenue at Pacific Coast Highway, Kohne and Campos, both 62, pursue their love of running an artisan eatery where bread plays the starring role.

Children holding a parent's hand, high school students, working professionals and retirees routinely queue in a line for a sample of the bakery's offerings, whether it's a cup of afternoon coffee or that popular "bomb" cake, concocted entirely out of chocolate.

This little taste of Paris developed in the mid-'70s, when Kohne and two other co-founders, brothers Scott and Greg Russel, who all happened to be half-French, worked for Club Med, a French corporation of vacation resorts found in many parts of the world.

While working at the resorts, Kohne and the brothers noticed that guests would often forgo dinner in favor of the selection of appetizers and wine, which led the three to think about opening a bread, wine and cheese shop.

Kohne, a Bay Area native, wanted to located the future store near a place where people would typically want such pairings. Proximity to the beach seemed ideal.

So the friends drove to San Diego, and though they liked the closeness to the water, a French bakery already had a strong foothold in the area.

They journeyed up the coast, stopping at Del Mar, but determined that the sparse population wouldn't give them the best exposure.

Then they landed in Newport Beach, where they learned that not many bakeries were selling the specialties that the budding entrepreneurs were envisioning and that locals weren't necessarily familiar with French baguettes, croissants and gourmet coffees.

They saw a niche.

After they secured the location, the two brothers found a master baker in France and flew him here for two weeks so he could teach the owners the recipes for croissants and bread.

The business took off, with the biggest clients coming from Little Saigon, largely shop owners who would order 500 to 1,000 baguettes for their markets.

Today, the cafe is known for its selection of sandwiches, buche de Noel cakes, chocolate chip cookies, croissants served fresh five times a day and baguettes served fresh 10 times a day. The bakery supplies fresh breads to 60 local restaurants and grocery stores, including Gallo's Deli, the Rusty Pelican, Growers Ranch Market and Sabatino's.

Campos, a French Moroccan who had worked at Club Med with the three founders, joined the business in the early 1980s. At some point, it was just Campos and Kohne running things.

A staff of about 40 employees, Kohne said, includes two bakers who have been with the business for over 20 years.

Treating people with respect and integrity, he said, is returned tenfold. And serving croissants in a basic brown paper bag and pastries in nondescript, unembellished boxes is also part of the down-home vibe that the owners try to project.

"My philosophy is that it's what's inside that counts," Kohne said, noting that his marketing is all through word-of-mouth.

"I like seeing people break bread together," Campos said. "I love seeing that."

Kohne and Campos point to their loyal customer base as proof that their approach works.

"What's amazing to see is people who first came in as babies grew up and are now bringing their babies in," Kohne said. "You've seen generations come and go. It makes me feel good. I like that we have become a tradition and a place for memories.

"You've done something besides giving goods to somebody and that's rewarding."

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