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  • Brenna Brown

PBC small businesses part 3: COVID-19 sought to steal their livelihoods. They gave them away

Updated: Feb 1, 2023

As simple as it may sound, all-purpose flour is one of the most crucial assets Autret utilizes in the confines of his kitchen. By the time a typical workday is done, the French baker’s hair, apron and hands are more than likely to have a generous coating of the white debris. (Photo courtesy of Brenna Brown).

Whenever weary travelers find themselves stumbling through West Palm Beach’s thriving labyrinth of tourist attractions, one little shop tends to stand out from all the rest: Loic Bakery Cafe and Bar. Standing adjacent to South Dixie Highway’s scenic walking route—comprised of colorful apartment complexes and a diverse collection of coffee shops—potential customers are instantly beckoned forth by the bakery’s most popular attributes: The intoxicating aroma of fresh-baked pistachio croissants, the small wooden tables encompassing its lush outdoor courtyard and the amicable smile of the French baker the idyllic storefront was named after, in May of 2018.

At first glance, no one would ever suspect that anything out of the ordinary had ever taken place within the local pâtisserie. No one would ever suspect that the storefront’s beloved baker was a former red beret, paratrooper and military occupant of a French minesweeper. Ultimately, no one would ever suspect that—approximately two years ago—Loic Autret, 50, had turned his France-inspired bakery into a compound complete with the weaponry of his choice: a set of blazing ovens, the ingredients necessary for baking and his own two, experienced hands.

Throughout the last 20 years, Autret has become no stranger to adapting to the unexpected. In addition to having a 10-year military career under his belt, he wed an American he had met in France and followed her overseas in August of 2000. Fluent only in the language of his home country, the French immigrant knew he had to find something he could do with his hands if he wanted to secure a sustainable livelihood in America. Familiar with the art of the croissant, Autret spent years gaining the education and experience necessary for opening the bakery that bears his name today. He learned how to expect the unexpected.

Thus, when the infamous pandemic launched its first frontal assault against humanity in mid-March of 2020, the soldier-turned-baker knew exactly what he had to do to ensure that his livelihood—and those of other hospitality workers—survived: keep baking bread.

Determined to make a new collection of croissants for his eager customers, Autret engages in a series of consecutive steps to prep the dough for folding. (Photo courtesy of Brenna Brown).

“I saw people who didn’t have food … because people lose their paycheck they got nothing right away. So I said, ‘You know what? For the first time in my life, I will do something for real to help people,’” Autret said. “I did that in the army, but as a civilian, I said … ‘Let's make extra bread. Let's give it away to the people.’”

As admirable as the French baker’s philanthropic pursuit was, it wasn’t something that he could achieve on his own. Issued by Gov. Ron DeSantis on March 17, 2020, Executive Order No. 20-68 limited restaurant occupancy by 50% and mandated social-distancing regulations.

As a result, Autret’s generosity was ultimately hindered by his inability to get physically close to the people he sought to serve. He soon realized that his potential act of service would remain potential if he failed to find a safe way to deliver his bread. He needed allies to move his plan forward. He needed people willing to deliver his extra bread. Peter Cruise, an elected commissioner for the Palm Beach County Commission on Ethics, did more than just step into the role Autret so desperately needed; he became the baker’s very own “bread delivery guy.”

“During that time, Loic saw that I was on social media. … Then he called me and said, ‘I have all these baguettes that I need to give them somewhere every day and I'd like to help,’” Cruise said. “So, long story short, I asked Rodney, ‘Hey, can you use French bread?’”

Rodney Mayo, owner of Subculture Restaurant Group—an enterprise consisting of approximately 17 local establishments—was yet another businessman who knew he couldn’t just hide in the trenches of his home while the COVID-19 mercilessly targeted hospitality workers. Given that the pandemic had put 650 of his own valued employees out of work, he knew the issue at hand was far greater than anyone could have possibly anticipated: Ex-servers trying to make their remaining tips last; former hospitality workers anxiously waiting for their unemployment applications to be approved; and proprietors who hadn’t yet closed their doors doing everything they could to keep their small businesses alive. It was a crisis that could not be ignored and called for local, immediate and voluntary action.

After traveling overseas to a foreign country, taking the painstaking steps necessary to learn English, becoming educated in the delicate arts of the culinary world and keeping the bakery bearing his namesake open during a pandemic, Autret exhibits nothing but pride as he stands beneath his establishment’s sign. (Photo courtesy of Brenna Brown).

“All of our staff was at a loss as to what they were going to do and where they were going to get food and pay rent … and we weren't able to give them any answers,” Mayo said. “But one thing I said we could do is to make sure that everybody got fed.”

From that moment on, Mayo was no longer just a well-known businessman; he became a human catalyst for one of the city’s most significant COVID-19 counterattacks: Hospitality Helping Hands, otherwise known as H3. A program that Cruise has since dubbed the “hospitality people helping hospitality people” movement, H3 was created to bring relief to unemployed hospitality workers and their families.

Taking the city’s social distancing regulations into close consideration, Mayo and his volunteers carried out their plan: A select few would come to one of Mayo’s participating establishments—fully masked and gloved—to set up tables and supplies. At the same time, small groups of people—Cruise being a regular volunteer—would drive to local businesses to pick up the food they couldn’t sell and bring it back to home base. From that point on, hot meals would be packed up and handed off to the hospitality workers waiting in their vehicles. These drives would go from noon to 6 p.m. every day. Aware of their recipients’ need for food that would last longer than one night, H3 volunteers soon incorporated grocery pickups into their public service strategy.

Like the industries their targeted demographic came from, the food and services provided by H3 and its volunteers were in high demand. The 3,000 people assisted in the early days of this program grew exponentially and required food/grocery drives to be opened at Mayo’s other establishments. It was at this moment that Autret’s baguettes were finally able to leave his locked-down compound and make their way into H3's desperately sought-after grocery bags.

H3 volunteers take turns rotating between three of their food drive's main stations: organizing, packing and distributing to vehicles. (Photo courtesy of Rodney Mayo).

Unsure of the total amount donated, Autret remembers baking thousands of baguettes and leaving them outside his door for Cruise to pick up and deliver.

That was more than two years ago. Now, having just watched the last of his customers trickle from the premises, Autret strides out of his kitchen and—taking a deep, well-deserved breath—gently flips the front door’s “open” sign to “closed.” Shoulders slumped with exhaustion and flour tucked neatly into the creases of his hands, he takes a seat at one of the bakery’s outdoor benches. Running his fingers through his hair—making the bleached ends even lighter—Autret simply rests and remembers. He remembers when his beloved bakery felt like nothing more than a barren set of barracks. He remembers when the world just outside his door came to a sudden standstill. He remembers the presence of the pandemic and, even more so, remembers the fight he and his allies gave it.

In the early days of H3's food distribution events, the lines of cars stretched for nearly 2 miles. In response, volunteers packed bags and boxes as quickly as their hands would allow in order to meet the ever-growing needs of their waiting recipients. (Photo courtesy of Rodney Mayo).

COVID-19 had dramatically altered the livelihoods of some of his own, inflicting devastation on his business as well as those scattered throughout the city. In doing so, however, the pandemic had also created its own worst enemy: Adversaries who were unwilling to give their enemy an upper-hand by acting as bystanders.

“I believe in karma, always believe in karma, you know?” Autret said. “You need to give to receive. It's not about only money. It's about joy; about everything. You give kindness, you will receive kindness or even more.”

By Brenna Brown

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