Having spent most of his life working as an information technology expert on three continents, Francois Morin has a new home and is embarking on a decidedly different new career.
The 55-year-old Frenchman is planning to open a small bakery in downtown Billings this spring, concentrating on a handful of simple, traditional French breads.
“The main thing is to get as close to natural as possible,” Morin said. He intends to use Montana wheat as much as possible, and though he envisions breads with added ingredients, like walnuts, he will stick mainly with flour, water and yeast. And he won’t be in a hurry.
“The slower you go, the more flavor in the bread,” he said.
He hasn’t come up with a name for the bakery yet, but he does have a location—on the ground floor of the Stapleton Building at Broadway and First Avenue North. He’ll be on the First Avenue side, tucked in between the Big Dipper Ice Cream shop and a doctor’s office that is just east of Rockets Gourmet Wraps.
Morin will be leasing the space from Jeremiah Young, who runs the Kibler & Kirch design studio on the second floor of the Stapleton Building. Young met Morin a few months ago, through a mutual friend, and the gears soon started clicking.
Young had already been thinking of an event he would call “Breaking Bread,” bringing artists and serious collectors together in his Stapleton Gallery over a good meal based on good bread.
“I just love to eat with people,” Young said. “It’s a very intimate thing.”
The dinner, in early December, was a big hit. It featured Jeremy Engebretson, the chef-owner of the Lilac café, and Morin, who created a different bread to pair with each of Engebretson’s dishes. Invitations to the dinner were in the form of miniature loaves of black charcoal bread, dusted with the Stapleton Building logo.
Based on that event and a few other affairs at which Morin’s loaves have been available, Engebretson said, “the response has been just ridiculous for his bread.”
And when Young found out Morin wanted to open a bakery, he had just the spot for him. Voila, you might say. Young described it as “a narrow, intimate, wonderful little space,” perfectly suited for a small bakery.
The space still needs to be renovated, a doorway will have to be cut into the exterior wall and a baking oven is on order. Morin is also looking for a big mixer. Asked when he hoped to open, he said, “last year.” As it is, he’s shooting for sometime this spring.
Morin is connected to Billings through his wife, Marmee Connell, a Billings Senior High graduate who is the daughter of developer Marty Connell. After college, in 1990, Marmee went to Paris to work in IT for the same company that employed Francois.
Long story short, they were married in 1994—at “a big wedding in Red Lodge,” Francois said—and then had three children, all born in Paris. They moved to South Africa in 2002, where Morin headed the same company’s IT department, and after five years they moved to Singapore, where Morin was in charge of the company’s IT operations in Asia.
After five years there, he was going to be transferred back to Paris, but he and Marmee decided to stay in Singapore, where he worked on his own for four more years. They decided last year it was time for a new adventure.
“It was time to change countries, change environments, try something different,” Morin said.
Over their years together, Marmee had come back to Montana with the children every summer and Morin had been here regularly, too. So Montana it was. As for work, Morin decided he’d had enough of the corporate world, and he wanted to try something he loved.
During all their years abroad, Morin said, he learned to make bread, and good food generally, for a simple reason: “The best way to have good food when you are away is to make it yourself.”
His passion for bread-making deepened in Singapore, where he met a Malaysian man who made superb French breads, made them so well that Morin studied under him. When Morin opens his bakery in Billings, he’ll be using the sourdough starter he acquired in Singapore.
The bakery will be a one-man operation, at least at the start, and though he may add a few items like croissants at some point, he will focus solely on bread to begin with—classic baguettes, sourdough bread and country loaves, some made with rye and buckwheat.
He will sell everything fresh, which is absolutely essential with breads like baguettes. In Montana with its dry climate, he said, “you cannot keep it (a baguette loaf) three days because it’s going to be hard as a rock.”
He will take orders through a website, which will guarantee people bread when they need it for special occasions and will help him plan which styles of bread to make on any given day.
When he and Marmee moved to Billings last summer, Morin said, some people said he would do much better if he opened his bakery on the West End. For him, there was never any doubt that it would be downtown.
“I’ve been coming downtown for 25 years and it’s improved so much,” he said.
With a growing population of downtown dwellers patronizing an ever-growing number of cafes, coffee shops and craft breweries, he said, and with so many other specialty businesses downtown, a French bakery seems like a natural fit.
And after nine years in Singapore, where it is perpetually warm and quite humid, he’s even enjoying the recent streak of Arctic weather.
He laughed and said that might change, depending on how long the streak persists.
“Maybe after three months, we’ll see,” he said.