One day in Shanghai, five interns were dreaming of running their own neighborhood café. They scrambled every Yuan they could find and borrowed money here and there to invest and create the Café des Stagiaires. Today, the Café has become part of the ‘Stagiaires Hospitality Group’, with three cafés and a bakery in Shanghai, one café in Bangkok and a hotel restaurant in South of France. “With currently 60 staff, the original idea of having our own small place has run out of hands in a very positive way”, says co-founder Thomas De Bruyne.
With four friends from college, Tom worked during summer holidays and on internships around the world. “We made a promise to ourselves; we would work together, we would own our own business and we would not stop enjoying life just because we work hard. We have done so since the very beginning. I sold my car to be able to fund my part of the deal, but this was no sacrifice for what I was setting myself into”, the Belgian Café des Stagiaires founder Thomas De Bruyne (28) remembers. “Our starting capital got us going. All we wanted to do was recreate the idea of a good, cozy and welcoming café in Shanghai. With the wines, the Pastis, the Belgian beers and the atmosphere that we longed for. And look what happened.”
A local hangout
Ben, Max, and Tom were not the only ones who were looking for a local hangout France/Belgium style. So were hundreds of other interns and expats in Shanghai. “And locals”, Thomas adds. “In the beginning, when we had just opened the first Café on Yongkang Lu, Shanghai, 80 percent of our clientele was international. Today, we cater for a growing number of locals. They have come to enjoy the beers – 7 Belgian beers on draught, 25 more in bottles. At some point, we were the only café or bar to sell the famous Belgian La Chouffe beer; people waited in line to get served. Air crews from many airlines recommend us. That is how, step by step, our Café became more popular over the years.”
The concept remains the same: the Café is a neighborhood bar, where friends come together, talk and laugh enjoying good food and drinks with great prices. At noon, young office workers come to enjoy lunch. Later in the afternoon, other guests take a cheese platter over wine on the Café street terrace. At night, it can get crowded, as the evening heats up as those from work seek to meet friends for an after work catch-up. Then, after 10PM the bar space allows for dancing and has more of stand up dancing bar feel.
Relying on their broad background from the Swiss hotel school of Lausanne, the three friends ventured, summer 2016 into a more food and hotel - oriented concept with Le Mas de Lafeuillade, a 5-bedroom Bed and Breakfast with a French bistro in Montpellier. “Keeping the same relax and cozy atmosphere and spirit as the Cafés, Le Mas de Lafeuillade is more quality oriented with authentic and traditional French cuisine on the menu.”
Interns/stagiaires have remained an important part of the formula. Over time, the Cafés have welcomed around 110 interns from all over the world. “We offer them a four to six-months internship.
Of course, all was not so golden and there were various struggles that the young entrepreneurs had to deal with. From the original five founders, two decided to pursue their careers elsewhere. “The legal and financial hassle took time and energy. Fortunately, the three of us were able to keep this business going.” Another backdrop, the result of a new neighborhood planning policy by the local government, was that one of the Cafés had to close down. “Not an easy period for such a young company. Gladly, we survived.”
Morning coffee and croissants
In 2016, the owners translated the idea of providing all day services for Shanghai city dwellers to have their morning coffee with excellent croissants, into their first bakery outlet. And there is more, as the young entrepreneurs have now just opened the first outlet of their gourmet hamburger restaurants. Thomas: “We have overcome our difficult year of 2016. With this new outlet, we are clearly moving on. After relying on our profits of the first six years to fund growth, we have recently invited external investors. They are keen to take the ‘Stagiaires Hospitality Group’ to the next level.”