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Opening your business while studying at EHL?

You might find this idea overambitious or completely delusional, but EHL alumni and co-founders of Belgian-French bistro Café des Stagiaires, Thomas de Bruyne, Benjamin Blaise and Max Bonon, will prove you otherwise.

Many EHL students dream of opening their own business after graduation. What if you were told that you could achieve this while studying, and partner with your best friends?

You might find this idea overambitious or completely delusional, but EHL alumni and co-founders of Belgian-French bistro Café des Stagiaires, Thomas de Bruyne, Benjamin Blaise and Max Bonon, will prove you otherwise.

The founders’ story

In 2011, the three young men moved to Shanghai for their 3rd year internship. While working at a French bistro, they came up with the idea of creating their own bar. Staying true to their French and Belgian roots, they based their concept on the French “apéro”, which consists of enjoying drinks and snacks after work. Café des Stagiaires – also known as “CS” by its most fervent customers – rests on the idea that a bar should have its own unique soul to succeed.

The initial concept was to have a bar run by trainees (hence the name “stagiaires”) who would adhere to the Café des Stagiaires’ philosophy: open-mindedness and pragmatism. The name “Stagiaires” translates to “Shíxí sheng” (实习生) in Chinese, which sounds like “saucisson”, the founders’ favourite snack for apéro. The name stuck, and Café des Stagiaires was born!

The founders wanted to create a convivial atmosphere. Although luxury speaks to them as well, they preferred to be very close to their customers. By breaking through the barrier which sometimes separates employees from customers, they decided to open a café which would make anyone feel welcome. With its vintage and cozy vibes, it is true that one feels instantly relaxed when they enter CS.

Internship in Shanghai & Café opening

Why would three French and Belgian guys choose Shanghai as their HQ, you might ask. With their initial exposure to Chinese culture, they realized that Shanghai’s F&B scene offered either lounge or local spots, but nothing in between. They found a niche market there and decided to create a place   which would welcome both locals and expats. Today, the mix of local and foreign customers has balanced out to an almost 50-50 ratio.

Coming back to EHL after their Shanghai internship, Max, Ben and Thomas worked on their own Student Entrepreneurship Project (SEP, an alternative to the Student Business Project students usually undertake in Bosc 6). During this time, the café was left under the supervision of two friends  in China, with ongoing supervision from Lausanne.

Expanding to Bangkok

Trainees are still at the core of Café des Stagiaires Bangkok’s philosophy. Upon arrival, they are given an intro week similar to EHL. They are then trained to perform operational tasks: table running, but also customer relationships, upselling and inventory management. Trainees have regular feedback to make sure they are making the most out of their time at CS Bangkok.

Roles and responsibilities

Each co-founder has different responsibilities to focus on. Benjamin is the director of the corporate office in Shanghai: he controls finance, administration and human resources for both Café des Stagiaires and Pain Chaud, the company’s new bakery chain.

Max opened a 5-bedroom hotel and restaurant in the South of France in 2016 called Mas de Lafeuillade. His previous focuses were operations and strategy. Today, he is in charge of developing new projects for the group in France.

Thomas is in charge of events, marketing, openings and development. He moved to Ho Chi Minh to oversee the opening of a new café, while making regular visits to Shanghai and Bangkok.

Tips to entrepreneurs & internship interest

Here are some tips from Thomas to entrepreneurs in Asia:

  • Stability & Profitability: entrepreneurship in Asia can be volatile and difficult to stabilize. The market changes quickly, so one needs to adapt to new trends and processes continuously.
  • Standardization and consistency: despite cultural differences, maintaining the same standards to each outlet is crucial. Operational tasks should be standardized, and the main departments (Finance, Marketing, Events, Design) should be centralized.
  • Do first, stabilize after: China is a very fast-evolving market and there is almost no time to think before doing – especially when you don’t have big investments to start with. Instead, never rest on your laurels and seek to improve on a daily basis! Keeping your business successful is an everyday challenge.
  • Rely on distributors: For importation matters, working with distributors ensures that you won’t have to deal with importation issues itself. Rather, rely on distributors you trust so they are in charge of the whole process.

Now, if you are planning a trip to Bangkok or Shanghai, or if you are still wondering where you could go for your AP internship, Café des Stagiaires is here to welcome you!

Author: Lorraine van Nijen, Bachelor Student

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