Patrick Leon Esquerré doesn’t know how to cook. But that didn’t stop the former executive at Young & Rubicam from launching his own chain of self-serve French restaurants deep in the heart of Texas. Esquerré (pronounced es-CAR-ray), 72, mixed a soupçon of his heritage with a pinch of listening to customers — and added a dash of good fortune in the form of backing from a Dallas retail legend. The result: a chain — celebrating its 30th anniversary this year — that mixes American convenience with French food and ambiance. La Madeleine has expanded, with 63 locations today from Texas throughout the Southeast and up to Washington, D.C. The company, sold to Groupe Le Duff in 2001, has begun franchising, and generated $149 million in sales last year. His story:
I was born and raised in a beautiful chateau on a farm in the Loire Valley, the garden of France. Family and friends would have a six- to seven-course meal every day, a feast from the garden and farm. It’s where I learned what good food is.
My grandfather was an entrepreneur who rebuilt houses and buildings after World War I in northern France. He built our farm for leisure. It was about 250 acres and was too small to be a working farm. My father, who was a farmer, bought more and more land on credit, until one day the other farmers wanted their money right away. My parents had to sell everything they had to pay them.
Back then, I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I had failed my baccalaureate degree three or four times. I was always in love with a girl. When my parents lost everything, I was like a little prince who, overnight, had to pay for everything. I decided that I would stop my stupid life and achieve something. So in 1965, I got my MBA from the École Supérieure de Commerce de Paris in finance and marketing.
After that I went to work for Young & Rubicam in Paris, London, and Geneva. I spoke English and had all American or British accounts. In 1974, I created my own marketing business. I worked for Jacques Chirac, then mayor of Paris, and organized events for Pope John Paul II when he came to Paris.
In 1981 a friend introduced me to an American businessman named Robert Hefner III [founder of the GHK Cos. in Oklahoma], who wanted me to organize rodeos in Europe. He sent me to Oklahoma City, and I spent a week at the National Finals Rodeo. I said the idea wouldn’t fly. Next he sent me to look at Billy Bob, a big cowboy club in Fort Worth, where you square-dance and eat brisket. He wanted to start similar nightclubs in Paris, London, and Milan. That’s when I said, “Time out.”
I thought we should go in the other direction. Why not bring French food to the United States? We could start simply, with a bakery. In 1982, while in the startup process, Penn Square Bank — which Hefner did business with — went bankrupt. So I became the only one putting money into the bakery. I put in about $100,000 and was broke. A friend gave me a check to keep me going.
My mother said, “What are you doing in Texas? You know nothing about baking. Come home.” That made me more determined to do it. So I raised a half-million dollars and started the bakery. The money came from friends in France and a friend in Dallas. They knew I didn’t know anything about Texas or baking, but they knew me. You achieve by pulling people to you who are willing to help you.
Paul Metadier, a very close friend of my parents’ who was my “second father,” was the first investor to commit. Stanley Marcus [co-founder of Neiman Marcus] in Dallas backed my idea, and others followed. Back then, I didn’t know who Stanley Marcus was. One day I was talking to a manager in a gourmet store in Dallas about cheese and bread. She said, “I’m meeting Mr. Marcus tomorrow. Would you like to meet him?” I said yes.
I’m a believer that when you set your mind to something, your subconscious mind will make millions of things happen for you. But you have to give it a goal, and you have to have tenacity. When I met Mr. Marcus, he asked me, “What are you doing here, young man?” When I told him my idea, he said an authentic French country bakery near Southern Methodist University would be a success.
So I found a location near SMU, in front of the football stadium, and went to the real estate agent. He asked, “What kind of guarantee do you have, or assets?” When I said I had none, he said rent would be $21 a square foot, which was very expensive; I’d have to sign a three-year lease, with the first year’s rent in advance, and would get no allowance for improvements.
I said, “This is very strange because Mr. Marcus told me to find a location near SMU.” He said, “Who?” So I called Mr. Marcus and gave the phone to the agent. In 20 seconds he was saying, “Yes, sir. Yes, sir.” The deal became $14 a square foot, a nine-year lease, one month’s rent in advance, and the landlord would contribute $50,000 for renovations. I discovered later on that the owner of the building was Republic Bank, and Mr. Marcus was on the board of the bank. Mr. Marcus became my adopted American father. I had lunch with him every two to three weeks. Everywhere I went, I used his name as the can opener.
I discovered there was no restaurant concept in town for women. So I listened to women and did what they told me to do. People would walk by the storefront and ask, “What’s going to be here?” When I said, “A French bakery,” they’d say, “Oh, one with a brick oven?” Or, “one with wooden beams?” So we got a brick oven, and I ordered antique wooden beams from a building in New Orleans.
We opened on Feb. 23, 1983. It was a Friday, and I couldn’t figure out how to make the cash register work. So I said, “Everything is free.” Everybody said, “Why is this crazy French guy giving away all his food?” So everyone came over the weekend to see what we were. I created the bakery like a museum, and put farm tools on the walls and fresh flowers on the tables. It was an instant success. We made a $10,000 profit the first month, then $150,000 profit the first year.
When the guests said, “We need soup, sandwiches, and some food besides pastries,” I panicked and called my mother in Paris. She came over for two months. She didn’t speak English, but she brought her recipes, and that really made La Madeleine take off. We tried to create a home away from home for guests that was casual, but had cachet. I never spent a penny on advertising. Women talk and talk. They did all the promotion for us.
We started selling merchandise in the late 1980s. Our tomato basil soup was a big hit, and Sam’s Club came to us, asking to sell it in their stores. So we started doing that.
In 1990 we had seven bakeries, each making about $2.2 million a year, and continued rapid growth through 1998. With the first few bakeries, I didn’t know anything about anything in retail. I discovered that we needed to cluster the bakeries close enough geographically to build the brand. So that’s what we did when we expanded to Houston, San Antonio, Atlanta, and the Washington, D.C., area.
After that, we had a wave of investors from my brother’s family in France, then a wave with American investors who wanted to buy some of us out. In 1998 the company was in good shape, with 65 stores and annual revenue of $125 million. One of the French investors had wanted to sell the company. I couldn’t buy him out, so he bought me out, and I left. The company was later sold in 2001 to Groupe Le Duff.
It was a very difficult decision to sell. After I left La Madeleine, I opened Café Patrique, a casual restaurant with a charitable concept of being a gourmet angel to benefit the hungry. It didn’t work, so we closed.
Three years ago John Cahill, the new COO of La Madeleine, called me and asked me to become an adviser. So I’m there to guide them on the original concept. I visit the restaurants, mingle with the managers, and share ideas at meetings. I love doing this because it’s a family to me. Today I’m in Dallas three-fourths of the year and in Paris one-fourth of the year. I still behave like I’m a 30-year-old kid. That’s when I discovered I had a brain.
Listen. Most of the time people listen to themselves and not to others. How can you win over others if you don’t listen to them?
Adapt. In France a good loaf of bread has many holes in it from the fermenting dough. Our customers said they couldn’t make sandwiches with our bread because everything fell through the holes. So we adjusted the recipe to create the best bread with the smallest holes for our American customers.
Surprise. To teach my managers about what they were selling, I took all of them to France for a week, 12 of them at a time, so that everyone could truly understand the roots of La Madeleine and better train their staff.
Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly implied that Stanley Marcus invested in La Madeleine. Marcus helped La Madeleine and its founder, but he did not put money into the company. In addition, the earlier version stated that a French investor had wanted to sell La Madeleine “for a long time.” In fact, he had wanted to do so, but only for about three months.
This story is from the September 2, 2013 issue of Fortune.