SPECIALTY BREAD MAKER ACQUIRED BY SARA LEE

LOS ANGELES -- Continuing their growth pattern in the specialty-bread market, Sara Lee Fresh here has acquired Seattle-based A La Francaise, an independent bakery focused on specialty and artisan breads.A La Francaise founder Joan Johnson said she was surprised when Sara Lee approached her about the acquisition."I wondered what such a large company would want with a small operation like mine," she

LOS ANGELES -- Continuing their growth pattern in the specialty-bread market, Sara Lee Fresh here has acquired Seattle-based A La Francaise, an independent bakery focused on specialty and artisan breads.

A La Francaise founder Joan Johnson said she was surprised when Sara Lee approached her about the acquisition.

"I wondered what such a large company would want with a small operation like mine," she said. "But I was looking to expand and they were looking to become more involved in the artisan bread business."

Dawn Caldwell, director of marketing at Sara Lee Fresh, said this is precisely the reason Sara Lee approached A La Francaise.

"A La Francaise is one of the fastest-growing brands of bread in the Seattle area," said Caldwell. "They have made a name for themselves in the specialty-bread category and we were keen to acquire their impressive reputation."

Johnson's current menu features a variety of specialty breads that are low in fat but big on flavor. Choices include unusual creations such as Deux Olive, a rustic chewy bread studded with two kinds of olives; Provence, a golden crusted loaf fragrant with the area's local herbs like basil, fennel, lavender and thyme; and Yukon Gold Potato, which gets its soft moist interior from fresh cooked, sweet and creamy Yukon Gold potatoes.

To satisfy the less daring tastebuds are A La Francaise's unique versions of more traditional bread favorites, including Sourdough, Golden Wheat and Baguette Rustique. Retail prices for the breads range from a one-third Zen Baguette for $1.69 to specially designed theme breads, such as heart-shaped for Valentine's Day or bunny-shaped for Easter, which sell for approximately $5.49.

Breads are individually packaged and labeled on the front with the company name, bread variety and a brief description of the product. On the reverse side, consumers will find nutritional information, a listing of ingredients and a Universal Product Code bar code for scanning. There are no immediate plans to change current products, or their packaging, and the name A La Francaise will remain unchanged.

A La Francaise products are currently offered in approximately 150 supermarkets, all within the Pacific Northwest region. Stores receive their orders seven days a week, courtesy of Johnson's fleet of 12 delivery trucks and vans. The vehicles are leased and emblazoned with the A La Francaise logo. Johnson said the affiliation with Sara Lee will give A La Francaise the power to expand its customer area.

"They have made a commitment to grow our business," she said. "The goal is to triple our size over the next few years."

Caldwell said Sara Lee hopes to help Johnson increase both geographically and product-wise, but a precise plan of action has not yet been completed. Johnson added that one way this expansion will be achieved is through Sara Lee's financial contribution to the marketing of her products, an area where a boost in funds can make a great difference.

The acquisition of A La Francaise follows the August 1998 takeover of Alfaro's Micro Bakery Inc. -- a specialty bakery based in northern California. Alfaro's is best known for its authentic Santa Cruz Sour Dough, which is offered in a wide range of flavors -- from Roasted Garlic to Sun Dried Tomato.

Johnson noted that Sara Lee has a hands-off approach when it comes to her company. She said one of the first things Sara Lee had her do was pay a visit to Alfaro's owner, Richard Alfaro. He explained how his operation has functioned since it became a part of Sara Lee and assured her he was given freedom to run the business his way.

"I liked their approach," said Johnson. "They want to keep the same staff and have me continue to run the business. I get to have my cake and eat it too."

Johnson will remain as A La Francaise's vice president and general manager. She reports to the president of Sara Lee Fresh, Simon Mani.