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If it had been up to Julien Renaut, you would have never heard of him. The French-born chef was perfectly happy being an anonymous source of spot-on baguettes, chocolate macaroons, and tartes au citron, which he supplied to Front Range restaurants via his Thornton-based La Belle French Bakery.
In fact, you may have already sampled Renaut’s creations at the more than 100 local coffee shops, cafes, and dining spots he sells to, including Denver’s Le French, Le Bilboquet, and Capital One Cafe; Boulder’s Brewing Market; and Loveland’s Dark Heart Coffee. La Belle French Bakery’s wholesale business was so successful that Renaut moved the four-year-old operation to a larger warehouse just off bustling 120th Avenue in Thornton in early 2020. But shortly thereafter the unthinkable happened: the COVID-19 pandemic.
“On that Wednesday night last March [the day after restaurants were told to close for indoor dining], I didn’t have any orders for the next day,” Renaut says. “None. I knew this was serious and we had to do something. My goal was just not to lay off anyone.”
After years of avoiding opening a storefront, he made a snap decision on March 20, 2020. “I thought: ‘Maybe we just need to go retail,’” he says.
Renaut and his staff cleared out a back corner of the kitchen and put out two folding tables and a sign on the back door. The next day they started selling their French pastries direct to consumers. Renaut shared a video on Facebook and Instagram showing his sweets and announcing that La Belle French Bakery was open to the public. That’s when the multitude of folks who live in the neighborhood realized for the first time there was an excellent source for croissants and baguettes nearby. “People stopped by and suddenly we got busy,” Renaut says.
At the same time, customers started making spontaneous donations. “We received a donation of $100 from a lady and I didn’t know what to do with it,” Renaut says. “I decided to give out food to those who needed them. Then we got more donations. We matched them and have given away almost $10,000 worth of food.”
Though La Belle offers in-person shopping, it is takeout only and operates differently than most neighborhood bakeries. Customers stroll in through a back entrance and are greeted by a petite space featuring shelves displaying one example of each pastry available that day. Aside from a handful of freshly made desserts, Renaut freezes many of his pastries immediately after the baking process and reheats them to order.
“A lot of businesses want to sell pastries, but they get stale quick,” Renaut says. “I decided to bake and freeze the pastries immediately. Then the shops just defrost what they need. It keeps the price lower and tastes just as good.”
Admittedly, this is not the quaint café experience I found in Paris where years ago I nibbled a pain au chocolate and slowly sipped a café au lait on-site. However, I happily sat in my car watching customers waltz in and out of the bakery while munching on a gorgeous strawberry croissant. I left with a shirt festooned with buttery shrapnel, and a glorious whipped-cream-filled Paris-Brest dessert and a tender scone to devour later.
Born in Lilles, France, Renaut attended pastry and chocolate school followed by a stint working in a bread bakery. He visited the United States to find work and eventually landed at a French bakery in Breckenridge before opening La Belle French Bakery in 2017.
With wholesale and now retail customers, Renaut uses more than 200 pounds of butter every day to make pastries. “We have doubled the size of the business since March 2020,” he says. “We lost a lot of customers but now many are reopening and the retail part is a success.”
Opening a retail space has also allowed him to have more fun and craft limited-run specials drawn from his expansive recipe repertoire. Recent standouts have ranged from heart-shaped cheesecakes with a mirror glaze, to chocolate- and coffee-cream-filled éclairs and fruit tarts, to his personal favorite—piña colada croissants. “We fill them with pineapple chantilly, toasted coconut, and rum pastry cream. They’re really awesome,” Renaut says.
However, Renaut says La Belle is not the place to order your kid’s cartoon-themed birthday cake.“We do what we like and what we do best. Often, we are asked to make cupcakes, or some doughnuts, or something and I decide not to make it. I’m passionate about the pastries,” he says.
La Belle French Bakery is open Monday–Friday, 8 a.m. to 4 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday, 8 a.m. to 12 p.m., 12189 Pennsylvania St., Unit 2195, Thornton; 303-596-6561. Order online here.