The smell alone is enough to drive you crazy, but one bite of the bread will send your eyes rolling in ecstasy. Antonínovo pekařství, the wildly popular bakery off of Jiřího z Poděbrad already has a bit of a cult following even though they only opened in January 2014. The idea of bakers baking bread right in front of the customers is a novel concept in the Czech Republic, and one that is the personal passion of owner Antonín Kokeš.
But bread wasn’t Kokeš’ first infatuation; he started his entrepreneurial streak in a bit more of a playful industry. Kokeš is also the director of Albi, one of the country’s major distributors and producers of cards, gifts and games.
To be accurate, Kokeš’ first stint at being his own boss came during university, right after the revolution. A classmate mentioned he met a tourist down on Old Town Square, looking for postcards.
“At the time, they were sold in tabák’s, behind the counters, so even if people knew to go look for them there, they probably wouldn’t see them” he said. Seeing a potential money making venture, overnight he and his roommate prepared a ‘business analysis and plan,’ borrowed the wardrobe door from their dorm room to use as a display stand and the next day went to the tabák by their school. They bought 1,000 cards for 1 CZK each; selling them for 3 CZK on Old Town Square turned a nice little profit.
“That was my mom’s monthly salary in those days,” he said. “We quickly realized how to earn some money.”
They eventually lost their source – Kokeš said buying from a retailer to resell isn’t the best business model, and they’d bought up all the postcards from the surrounding tabáks. So they went straight to the publishers, and decided to get legal and applied for a permit. By their second season, they had six stands in the most touristy places throughout the city and hired their dorm mates as their first employees. Publishing was the next step, and Kokeš said one of the company’s breakthroughs was when they started creating their own products. The first was a line of retro-style postcards from the First Republic.
“That opened the door for us to introduce new products and then greeting cards, international publishers, and then the biggest milestone was Hallmark,” Kokeš said.
The Czech Republic doesn’t seem to be a big card giving country, but Kokeš says there was a tradition of postcards, which was how they began. The distribution of Hallmark cards made them ‘the’ greeting card publisher in the country, and Kokeš said that was a time of huge growth. New media has dampened the trend and he said they had to constantly think about the way forward, entering first into the gifts, and then the games market. Games are now Albi’s core business, with the card sector only making up about 8% of the company’s profits.
“I call Albi a card company, but that’s just nostalgia I think, today we are a game company,” he said. “But people like games, and when we added the trivia ones, they became our best sellers,” he said. “Adult games sold insanely and our outdoor games do really well, too.”
It’s an industry that requires near constant creativity.
“Other countries may have more gift giving opportunities, but we look at a product and think, what can we do with this that will fit our culture,” he said. “Not everything that’s a best seller in other countries automatically goes over well here.” He mentions an Angry Birds game that only has so-so sales.
The company eventually expanded to both Slovakia and Poland, and Kokeš said he learned a lot.
“I really underestimated the differences between nations,” he said. “Maybe not so much in Slovakia, but in Poland especially the differences in humor are huge, the games they play. That’s why this business is so difficult, you can’t approach every market the same way – expecting to go in and just translate something and it will sell.”
Kokeš obviously still has more than a passing interesting in the games field, so what’s up with starting a bakery?
“I was thinking of starting something new, I was always too into my business, so I thought I could do something slightly different – even I thought it was a bit crazy,” he said. “But I was surprised by how much (experience) I used from the games, the way you organize a store, hire and motivate employees, approach customers, marketing.”
Kokeš’ inspiration came from Germany. A friend called from the Frankfort Airport, telling him there was a bakery, with an oven right in the airport. That aspect was crucial for Kokeš; it’s easy to bake bread somewhere else and sell it in the store, but he wanted people to see it being done on the spot. He visited lots of bakeries in Germany, and realized it wasn’t only being done in the airport.
“People here sometimes don’t seem to want quality, only caring how cheap something is, but I don’t think that’s completely true,” he said. “I couldn’t find good bread here, so maybe others wanted good bread too.”
He knew what he wanted from the start – traditional recipes, simple products and the oven must be in the store. A visit to the bakery sees two bakers constantly pumping out the dough by hand, popping it into and out of the ovens and just as quickly lines of people snapping it up.
“The result is how bread was baked a hundred years ago,” Kokeš said. “I wanted to change the culture of a bakery here, I wanted a cool, modern environment with bread that looks ‘old’ and ‘natural.’ People seem to like the atmosphere.”
Which is a big understatement. But that’s what makes chatting with Kokeš so fun – his sense of humor, down-to-earth style and listening to him wax poetic on the procedures of baking bread. His idea doesn’t sound so revolutionary, but little things keep surprising him.
“Going from doing international business, travelling, negotiations to making bread?” he said. “But so many people are excited about it, and I love it.”
The neighborhood apparently loves it as well, with other business owners, mainly expats, excited he is there, saying it is great for the community.
“I don’t think that’s a sentence you could translate into Czech,” he said, finding the different ways Czechs and foreigners approach business to be very interesting. “I just wanted to have a good bakery, but foreigners see it has changed the neighborhood.”
Kokeš is already planning a second bakery, probably in either Smíchov or Dejvice. He says people say he was lucky, he just started his ventures at the right time, but he disagrees.
“For me business is like going to the woods to find mushrooms, who knows what your day will be,” he said. “There’s no recipe for finding them, you just go. If you wait for the right time it won’t happen. So please go out and start.”