An American diner serving pancakes and bottomless cups of coffee may be ubiquitous in the US, but in Paris it’s exotic! That’s why every homesick expat knows about Breakfast in America (aka BIA), the only place to get authentic American diner food in Paris. What most of don’t know is what founder Craig Carlson had to go through to open his first diner over 13 years ago.
“Pancakes in Paris: Living the American Dream in France” is Craig’s sometimes harrowing but refreshingly honest tell-all/memoir, coming out September 6th. He’s graciously agreed to give Secrets of Paris readers a sneak preview.
Chapter 12: OPEN FOR BUSINESS; CLOSED FOR WAR
“Non!” —Front-page headline of Libération, March 2003
6:00 a.m., Saturday, January 4, 2003. Breakfast In America’s official opening day. That morning, I didn’t roll out of bed—I sprang out. I couldn’t wait to flip BIA’s sign to OPEN.
After a quick shower, I got dressed and stepped outside. It was pitch-black. But also white. Everywhere. Paris was in the middle of its biggest snowstorm in decades. It was insanely beautiful—like a Christmas card. Naturally, I saw it as a great sign.
I arrived at the diner at 6:30, giving myself enough time to get the place ready for our 7:30 opening. The moment I stepped inside, I couldn’t believe how cold it was. And drafty. That’s because the facade was all glass, from floor to ceiling, with gaps between each window pane.
When the Marins first installed the facade back in the sixties, it was very à la mode (fashionable). But now, as I stood shivering in the empty diner, I felt like pie à la mode. Like a big fat scoop of ice cream. I tried the Marin’s high-tech solution for stopping the drafts— covering the gaps with scotch tape. It blocked out some of the cold.
But it didn’t stop the north wind from whipping in through the huge gaps at the top and bottom of the facade.
I turned on the space heaters by each booth, hoping it would be enough to warm the place up, since there was no central heating. (They weren’t.) Next, I turned on the American coffee machine and excitedly got my contraband mugs ready. Of course, I had big plans for the mugs and couldn’t wait to test them out on my customers.
My idea for the mugs came from an amazing cross-country road trip I’d taken to California with my friend Deb after I’d gotten accepted to USC. As we drove along Route 66 (or what’s left of it), we stopped at several classic roadside diners. One place stood out in particular—a rundown concrete block on a dusty road somewhere in New Mexico. As we ate our breakfast, I noticed that every time a regular came into the diner, the waitress would grab his or her favorite mug off of a shelf that was full of a variety of mugs—all in different shapes, styles, and colors. The waitress would then bring each customer their favorite mug and serve them their morning joe in it.
I planned to do the exact same thing at BIA with my contra-band mugs.
Beep. Beep. The little beeper on the coffee machine went off. BIA’s first pot of coffee had been brewed! I grabbed a mug off the shelf. (I had several favorites. Today’s pick was a pancake joint with a name that might evoke what a kangaroo does to get from one place to another.) I poured myself a cup, wrapped my freezing hands around the mug, and took my first glorious sip. Ah…
I did one last check around the room. Everything was ready.
The tables were set and the brand-new menus printed and laminated. Just one thing was missing: my cook. He was set to arrive at seven.
My eyes went over to the vintage seventies jukebox in the corner of the room. It was the last item that I’d had installed at BIA—and it didn’t even cost me a cent, thanks to a company that loaned out coin-operated jukeboxes for free. All I had to do was split the coins with them. When the jukebox was delivered, however, I noticed that nearly all the music was Johnny Hallyday—the Elvis of France. When I told the jukebox guy that BIA was an American joint, he said, “Don’t worry! Everybody loves Johnny!”
Everybody except me. And Americans. And possibly the rest of the planet.
“Just in case,” I said, “do you have any American music?”
The jukebox man grumbled, then replaced some of Johnny’s CDs with a few “American” CDs, such as Pink Floyd, Queen, and the Rolling Stones. Of course, the jukebox would only work if customers put coins into it. Until that happened, the music in the diner would have to be supplied by my iPod. I’d made several playlists, depending on the time of day and the type of clientele. Today’s selection was vintage jazz.
At 7:00 a.m. on the dot, Feng came running into the diner, looking worse for the wear, as if he’d been up all night partying.
“Good morning, Feng,” I said, holding up the coffeepot. “Want some?”
Feng shook his head. “Brrr, it’s freezing in here.” He ran down-stairs to change and came back up in a flash. After firing up the grill, Feng held his hands over the flames.
“Hey, at least you’ll be warm over there,” I said.
Feng smiled, then began frying strips of real bacon and garlicky home fries on our brand-new grill. I took a whiff of the delicious aroma. It smelled like morning.
I had no idea what to expect that first day. Given all the problems with the renovations, I’d had no time (or budget) to do any real promotion. Instead, during the weeks leading up to our opening, I’d done whatever I could, such as handing out BIA business cards every- where I went and plastering a “Coming Soon!” sign on our facade.
I think it would be safe to say that this was perhaps the softest opening of all time. But for me, that was a good thing. First, knowing the French didn’t like hype, I had a hunch that they would prefer to discover BIA on their own, instead of having it rammed down their throats. I also preferred a soft opening because BIA still needed to work out the kinks. It was one thing to have fancy theories about what might or might not work, but reality was something else entirely. In other words, I still had a lot of things I needed to test out on my real-life customers, including:
Simple greetings. When a customer walked through the door, should I say “bonjour” or “hello”? The French famously hate it when foreigners don’t try to speak their language. But, of course, we were an American joint. Would the French find a hearty “hello!” exotic or rude? And when I spoke to them, should I use the polite form of you (vous) or the friendly, down-home version (tu)? After all, diner lingo was famous for being unpretentious. Saucy, even. Any miscalculation on my part could easily offend the French.
Business hours. American tourists get up early and eat early. Parisians do not, especially for dinner, which they rarely eat before 8:00 p.m. That’s why most restaurants in France close between the hours of 3:00 p.m. and 7:00 p.m. (la coupure). My goal was to, eventually, keep the kitchen open all day long, with nonstop service. How would the French take to that?
In the meantime, to keep costs down, our hours (and staffing) would have to be kept to a minimum. Therefore, for the time being, food service would be from 7:30 a.m. to 3:00 p.m., Tuesday through Sunday, for breakfast only. Bar service and snacks would continue until midnight—except for Sundays, when we’d close at 4:00 p.m., after brunch. Mondays we’d close completely. Once business picked up, I intended to expand our hours as needed.
American vs. French service. In America, servers make most of their money on tips. That’s why they’re constantly checking on customers and catering to their every need. In France, it’s much different. Not only does the concept of tips not exist, but the French don’t like it when you’re in their face every minute, interrupting their intense, world-changing conversations.
The same was true of bussing tables. I learned at André’s restaurant never to remove a customer’s plate too soon or to bring over the check until they’ve asked for it. Both practices are considered very rude in France; it gives the impression that you’re trying to push customers out the door—as if all you care about is turning tables, you goddamn capitalist pig, you!
Squatters. What about customers who never leave, smoking the hours away while you’ve got rent and salaries (not to mention super high taxes) to pay? In my business plan, I’d broached this delicate subject as follows: “BIA may be a cool place to hang—but not for too long. Given the French propensity to sit for hours, we will gently nudge our customers to be on their way. But only during peak periods, so those waiting can be seated.”
“Earth to Mr. Carlson,” Feng said from the kitchen, snapping me out of my thoughts. He pointed to the frying-pan clock. The eggs read 7:29 a.m. I rushed over to the door. Right as the minute hand moved to thirty, I flipped over the authentic OPEN sign I’d brought from the States.
“BIA is now officially open for business!” I said.
Feng smiled through a thick cloud of smoking bacon. “I’m ready!” he said.
Out of consideration for my neighbors, I did not turn on the ventilation system. Not only did the motor make a lot of noise, but it also sucked in tons of cold air through the gaps in the facade. I figured I could turn on the ventilation once the room was packed with customers (along with their valuable body heat).
That was a bit of wishful thinking. I knew it would be slow on our first day, but this was ridiculous. Our first customers—a friendly couple in their thirties—didn’t arrive until after 9:00 a.m.
“Hello!” I said.
The couple looked startled. “Oh my God,” the wife said. “You speak English!”
“I better,” I said. “Since this is an American joint.”
The couple laughed, then told me that they were on vacation and had just seen our sign in the window proclaiming, “American Coffee! Free Refills!” And that’s exactly what they ordered—two coffees at the counter.
“You’re my very first customers,” I said. “Just opened today.”
“No kidding?” the husband said, checking out the room. “Wild! This place reminds me of a diner back in Jersey.”
“Jersey, huh?” I searched through my mugs, grabbing a pair that had the logo of a popular coffee shop in the Northeast. “D’you guys know this place?” I set the mugs on the counter in front of them.
“Oh my God, yes!” the wife said. “We go there all the time!”
I smiled; my mug scheme seemed to be working. As I poured the couple their steaming hot coffee, I said, “Would you like to take a look at the menu?”
The couple nodded. “Oh my God, honey, look!” the wife said as she looked at the menu. “They’ve got pancakes!”
“No way,” the husband said. “In Paris? That’s awesome!” “Oh, honey, we’ve got to come back here.”
“Hell, yeah,” the husband said. Then he grumbled, “Breakfast at our hotel totally sucks!”
“That’s why we’re here,” I said. Then I handed them a stack of business cards. “Be sure to tell all your friends.”
The wife smiled, took the cards, and shoved them into her purse. Then she held up her mug. “Can we get our coffees to go, please? We wanna beat the lines at the Louvre.”
“Of course,” I said.
I grabbed a pair of to-go cups and filled them with a fresh dose of java. The couple thanked me and headed out into the snowstorm with the biggest smiles on their faces. My heart filled with pride; BIA’s very first customers left happier than a pigeon with a french fry.
Pre-order your copy of Pancakes in Paris online, through your local bookstore, or if you’re in Paris on September 29th, don’t miss the launch party and book signing at the Abbey Bookshop (29 rue de la Parcheminerie, 5th) from 7pm.