As the sun rises, Mathieu Esposita walks through pink-tinted London on his way to work. He unlocks the door of his bakery around 6 am and sets to work on croissants, multigrain bread, and brioche.
This is his favorite time of day.
“It’s a special time because the sun is rising and there aren’t many cars, not many people. It’s really quiet,” says Mathieu. “The noises are all different – you hear birds – and the light from the sun is different. Everything is different.”
Pastries are next, and soon customers are dropping in before work to grab a coffee and a treat. The King’s Cross neighborhood has come alive, and the blaring of car horns and ambulances replaces the birdsong of the early morning.
The bakery is called Aux Pains de Papy, which means “Grandpa’s Breads” in French. Mathieu’s grandfather started baking in southern France in 1948, and taught the craft to his six-year-old son (Jean-Pierre, pictured between his sons Mathieu and Guillaume). Mathieu’s father soon owned five bakeries of his own. So when Mathieu visited London and saw how few artisanal bakeries there were – despite the city’s world-class ethnic food – he knew what to do.
Aux Pains de Papy started in France in 2009, and soon moved to London. But not before Mathieu’s grandfather passed away, a month after the bakery opened. “He saw it,” says Mathieu. “He saw it.”
Now, photos of his grandfather hang on the walls in the London shop, and his grandpa’s memory is preserved in the logo, a man in an apron bending over bread dough.
When I ask Mathieu what it’s like to run a family business, his eyes light up. “Ahh, that’s amazing,” he says. “It makes things easier and harder at the same time. . . . You have something to protect.”
So he can’t help but feel pressure to make the perfect croissants, and feel doubts when the bakery has a slow day. In the middle of our interview, he dashed back inside to help out with something, as his mother smilingly offered me a bottle of water.
A nurse for 13 years, Mathieu’s mother helped shape his views on happiness. She treated young children who were blind, legless, or dying, and she always gave him perspective when he started to complain. “You can’t complain because you’re still walking, you can see,” she would say.
But Mathieu’s real wakeup call came when one of his best friends passed away at age 17. “I always say to myself, ‘How happy am I to get older?’” Mathieu explains. When he starts worrying about something or feels like he’s having a bad day, he reminds himself of this. “Money or cars or power don’t matter – of course not,” he says. “I’m happy and I’ll always be happy, as long as my wife, my brother, my parents are healthy.”
It’s an attitude that would make his grandfather proud – a man who never complained and was “always happy,” says Matthieu.
Aux Pains de Papy has two employees – besides his father and brother – and Mathieu works to make sure they’re happy as well. “I say to them, ‘We are part of a team, everybody has to be happy,’” he explains. “If they’re happy, customers will be happy as well.”
I was one such customer – or at least I wanted to be, one Friday evening after dinner. But as I neared Aux Pains de Papy, I saw that it was closed. The Esposita family was gathered outside at a table, laughing and drinking wine.
Mathieu came over to me and apologized for being closed, but offered to show me around. He pointed out the room full of gleaming baking equipment, nestled behind a glass wall (in traditional French style) so customers could see their bread being made. He proudly explained that everything sold there – with a nod to the shelves of sandwiches and pastries – was made on site.
He then grabbed a baguette from behind the counter and handed it to me for free, sending me off with a smile that made my evening and inspired a moment on Happier.
And just like that – like floury dough under a rolling pin – happiness spreads.