If you show up at 8 a.m., you’ll be greeted by the intoxicating scent of just-baked croissants at Lou the French on the Block, the cozy, charming bakery and bistro run by husband-and-wife team Laurent (“Lou”) and Karima Correa. Their very French obsession with quality requires that the croissants be baked immediately before the store opens, while baguettes are baked throughout the day. Karima or another friendly face behind the counter will greet you, likely while Chef Lou is pulling batches of fragrant goodness out of the oven in back. Everyone in the shop will enthusiastically answer questions about the array of traditional pastries and sandwiches (ranging from wild smoked salmon to classic roasted chicken), happy to help with pronunciation or speak a little of their native tongue with you.
A Match Made in Paris
Lou and Karima both grew up in the City of Light; they met over a decade ago through friends and bonded over their shared passion for American culture. Lou had played college basketball in the U.S., while Karima’s desire to travel and meet people from around the world led her to become a flight attendant (a job she has retained; she’s likely in flight if not at the restaurant). The two were married in 2010, but when Lou’s professional basketball career was sidelined by a hip issue, he applied for the U.S. green card lottery. Surprisingly, he won a spot, and he quickly focused on a new goal before the visa expired: perfecting the craft of French baking — through the informal tutelage of a professional baker and an immense amount of practice on his own — so that he and Karima could open a shop in the U.S.
The hand of fate seems to have steered the pair to Toluca Lake. They arrived in L.A. in June 2012 and immediately landed jobs at the Lila French School. There they got feedback on their pastries, with Lou tirelessly reformulating recipes to account for differences in American ingredients. Soon they were catering and selling their goods at local farmers markets, renting space in a commercial kitchen at night. Business grew steadily through word of mouth, while a sparsely populated commercial area that eventually would become Toluca Lake’s new restaurant row caught Lou’s eye for a possible store. Karima wasn’t convinced, seeing it two years before the area had really started developing. “Every time we were driving by he was saying, ‘Here,’ and he was pointing right here,” she says. “In my head I was like, ‘Why?’” Still, one day Lou convinced her to approach one of the existing businesses and ask about leasing a space. As luck would have it, a small space they considered perfect was available, and they jumped on it. Lou the French on the Block officially opened for business in June 2016, exactly four years after the couple arrived in California.
Labor of Love
Lou and Karima’s dedication to providing the authentic flavors of Paris and, admittedly, limited storage space entail shopping almost daily from seven different vendors. They use organic milk, eggs and produce, and, of course, French butter. Honoring baking traditions while following their instincts is proving to be a successful recipe. Although the work is hard and the hours long, they appreciate the way they have been welcomed by the neighborhood. “You try to have fun at the same time as working,” says Lou. “You’re spending the day talking to customers, and a lot of them become friends.”
With the shop running smoothly and trusted staff members in place, the couple occasionally gets a break from the 16-hour days. However, with their eye on eventual expansion, they won’t “rest” for long. Lou points to his prior basketball training as a factor. “I think for any athlete, after playing their sport, they need something to focus on,” says Lou. “If I don’t set up goals, I think I would get bored.”
However, they emphasize that they will let growth happen naturally and wait for the right opportunity to present itself. “We’re following his gut,” says Karima.
To meet another entrepreneurial couple on Riverside Drive, read “Restaurant Row Romance: Red Maple Café.”