Was there a Michel behind Michel’s Patisserie? And was he actually French? The coffee and cake chain, now known just as Michel’s, is a common sight in shopping centres today but has little resemblance to the patisserie Michel Cattoen opened on Sydney’s north shore in 1980. Cattoen was, indeed French, and had trained as a chef, baker and pastrycook before immigrating to Sydney in 1963 to work at the high-end restaurant, Le Trianon.
In the 1970s, Cattoen opened his own restaurant, Ile de France, in the Sydney suburb of Bexley and was instrumental in forming the Australian branch of the Acadamie Culinaire. His pastry shop, soon followed by a second one in St Ives Village, specialised in all things French. Charmaine Solomon sang their praises in the Sydney Morning Herald in 1983:
…as North Shore pastry-lovers know, he and his team of pastrycooks turn out a delectable selection of gateaux, petits fours, croissants, brioche, croquenbouche [sic], St Honore, Paris Brest, Black Forest, Napolitaines and all those other names which conjure up visions of delight.
Cattoen and his wife, Elizabeth, extended their pastry business to four shops and 36 outlets as well as supplying airlines and wholesalers. A Sydney Morning Herald story recounts that they sold the business in 1988, retaining the St Ives shop and renaming it La Petite Lorraine.
From that point, Michel’s Patisserie was in the hands of businessmen Noel Carroll and Noel Roberts. In 1990, they launched their franchise model, with cakes supplied from a central point to the franchisees. The new Michel’s Patisserie also placed a heavy emphasis on coffee and outlets became spots for weary shopping centre customers to take a break.
By 1994, there were 35 outlets in Sydney with 10 more planned. The company announced it expected to grow at a rate of 25 stores per year for the following four years, with plans to expand into Melbourne, Brisbane and Adelaide as well as to country towns, starting with Dubbo. The business won many awards over the years and, in 2007, was sold to the ASX-listed Retail Food Group.
In 2015, Michel’s Patisserie began supplying its outlets with frozen rather than fresh cakes. The quality of the product declined markedly, as did sales. Many franchisees lost large amounts of money, but the company appeared to be selling on the franchises knowing they were unprofitable.
By the end of the decade, Retail Food Group was facing a class action from franchisees as well as a lawsuit by the regulator, ASIC. In 2022, the company reached a $10 million settlement agreement that saw many disgruntled franchisees receive reparations and have their debts wiped.
Despite the turmoil, in 2019, Roy Morgan Research found that Michel’s had a customer satisfaction rating of 91%. But the typical customer was an old-age pensioner. “The typical Michel’s customer is more likely to be a woman than a man, aged in the 65+ bracket. Nearly half of Michel’s customers are not working, but the vast majority of these are retired,” they said.
The range today is vastly different from the French classics first sold by the Cattoens. Yes, there are macarons and a few cakes, but it’s mostly pies, sausage rolls, wraps, quiches and even hot chips. Perhaps they should stay in character and call them French fries.