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Baker earns an automatic crust

A French baker and inventor believes he has solved the problem of how to get a fresh baguette, day or night, in the bread-mad country.

Jean-Louis Hecht has produced a 24-hour automated baguette dispenser, promising warm bread for hungry night owls, shift workers or anyone else without time to pick one up during their bakery's opening hours.

"This is the bakery of tomorrow," proclaimed Mr Hecht, who foresees expansion in Paris, around Europe and even the US "If other bakers don't want to enter the niche, they're going to get decimated."

At the moment he is only operating two machines- one in Paris, another in the town of Hombourg-Haut in north eastern France - each next to his own bakeries. The vending machines take partially pre-cooked loaves, bake them up and deliver them steaming within seconds to customers, all for a euro (87p)

Despite the expansion of fast-food chains, millions of French remain true to their beloved baguette.

Yet customer convenience often takes a back seat to lifestyle rhythms. Many stores in small towns and even areas of Paris close for lunchtime. And in August, many businesses - including bakeries - shut down for part or all of the summer holiday month.

Late-night supermarkets are rare, even in Paris. And they are generally seen as a source of low-grade, desperation bread, not the artisanal product of a certified baker.

He came up with the idea a decade ago. He - like many French bakers - lived upstairs from his bakery in Hombourg-Haut and customers would often come knocking at his home after closing to scrounge for a baguette to hold them until morning.

"My wife said: 'We'll never get any peace!' so I said, 'We'll put out a bread distributor and we'll be left alone,'" he said.

Now, he thinks the automated bread dispenser could revolutionise the lifestyles of bakers, many of whom get up before dawn to go to work. With the machine, they could sleep in a bit, he says.

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