Starting a Business in France: Interview with Craig Carlson, Founder of “Breakfast in America” Diners

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Starting a Business in France: Interview with Craig Carlson, Founder of “Breakfast in America” Diners
Craig Carlson is the founder/owner the Breakfast in America diners in Paris. Carlson first came to France in 1985 through a study abroad program, and fell instantly in love with the country. When he returned to the U.S. after studying in Paris, one of the many things he brought home with him was a love of cinema, which led indirectly to a five-year career as a screenwriter. Eventually his knowledge of the French language brought him back to Paris as a post-production supervisor on an American TV series being edited in Paris. When he returned to Los Angeles after a year, determined to find a way to return and live in Paris for good, as he ate his first American breakfast in a diner with friends, he realized “that it was the one thing I had missed when I was in Paris.” That “ah-hah” moment led to his perhaps somewhat quixotic idea of opening an American diner in Paris. However, he did it, and he succeeded, quite against the odds; a fascinating, often funny, occasionally nail-biting story he tells in his book, Pancakes in Paris: Living the American Dream in France. The book is a New York Times bestseller, and was selected as Best Book of 2017 by Expatriates magazine.  Carlson recently took the time to answer Janet Hulstrand’s questions in this exclusive interview for Bonjour Paris. Janet Hulstrand: Craig, thanks for doing this, and let’s just cut to the chase. What gave you the idea of opening an American-style diner in Paris? And how has that idea gone? Craig Carlson: I first came to France in 1985 as an exchange student with the “Junior Year Abroad” program at the University of Connecticut. The moment I arrived in Paris, I instantly fell in love with the country, the language, and especially la bonne cuisine. After I had spent time in Paris for the second time, in 2001, I knew what I wanted to do next with my life: I wanted to open an American diner in Paris. I even knew what I was going to call it: Breakfast in America. My lawyer did warn me that the name could be a problem thanks to the 80s rock band Supertramp, which had a multi-platinum-selling album by the same name. But that’s another story: you’ll have to read about that in my book. Anyway, the Supertramp problem was nothing compared to all the other obstacles I faced, mainly that I’d never owned my own business before, let alone a restaurant – the riskiest business of all – and certainly not one in a foreign country with a foreign language that just happens to be the culinary capital of the world. But I was so sure of my idea I was determined to make it happen. In the beginning it was definitely a struggle. Take for example the word “diner.” In French, it means “to dine,” or “to eat dinner.”  Many French customers were confused, especially when they’d see our name, “Breakfast in America Diner.” To them that seemed contradictory: I had to teach them the American meaning of the word.  Another challenge I faced in the beginning was that I had no budget for advertising, so I had to rely on word of mouth, which fortunately, spread rather quickly. Once American tourists and the expat community in Paris heard there was an American breakfast joint in town, they began pouring in. Then there was the challenge I faced with French customers in the beginning. Most of them held a very strong stereotype about American cuisine: that it only consisted of hamburgers and fast food. On a personal level, I wanted to show my adopted country that there was more to American cuisine than burgers. In the beginning we only served breakfast at the diner — breakfast at any hour. But that didn’t last for long. After only a couple of months, my French customers began asking me when we were going to start serving “un vrai ‘amburger, pas MacDo?” (A real hamburger, not McDonalds?) So ironically, the American stereotype I was trying to avoid was quickly introduced to our menu thanks to my French customers! Not long after that, the French press starting writing articles about us, and thanks to that coverage, it wasn’t long before the makeup of our clientele flip-flopped – with 70 percent of our customers French, and the rest American and other nationalities. Some Americans have poo-pooed the idea of an American diner in Paris. I’ve read a few online comments that say things like: “If I’m in France why in the world would I want to go to an American restaurant?” Believe me, I completely understand! I love French cuisine, and have always wanted to be integrated into French culture. But it’s a little different when you’ve lived in Paris a long time. Sometimes comfort food can really satisfy the soul. And in my opinion, something like an American diner is not a fast food place. It’s a neighborhood spot where locals of all backgrounds can hang out together and converse for hours. That is what it’s like at BIA. We’ve built a community of French, American, and international customers, many of whom have been coming for years, and who we know by name. That’s something I’m proud of. Janet: In your book, ”Pancakes in Paris,” you describe some of the ups and downs you had…
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Lead photo credit : Author and business owner Craig Carlson. Photo: Pancakes in Paris

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Janet Hulstrand is a freelance writer, editor and teacher who divides her time between France and the U.S. She is the author of "Demystifying the French: How to Love Them, and Make Them Love You," and she writes frequently on France for a variety of publications, including her blog, Writing from the Heart, Reading for the Road. She teaches “Paris: A Literary Adventure” for the education abroad program of Queens College of the City University of New York; classes at Politics & Prose bookstore in Washington D.C.; and Writing from the Heart workshop/retreats in Essoyes, a beautiful little village in the Champagne region (l’Aube).

Comments

  • M
    2017-10-26 21:19:20
    M
    I spend a few weeks in Paris every other year and after having read Pancakes in Paris I decided to try BIA. As advertised, everything was as good or better than expected EXCEPT the breakfast sausage. I identified the sausage in an email to Craig as British bangers which he acknowledged in his reply as British sausages. I sent him a recipe for an appropriate American breakfast sausage a la Jimmy Dean. Never heard back - oh well the bacon is great - just stay away from the Brit Rail Bangers

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