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…

Lead photo credit : Author and business owner Craig Carlson. Photo: Pancakes in Paris

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Janet Hulstrand is a freelance writer, editor, writing coach 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 "A Long Way from Iowa: From the Heartland to the Heart of France." She writes frequently about France for Bonjour Paris, France Today, and a variety of other publications, including her blog, Writing from the Heart, Reading for the Road. She has taught “Paris: A Literary Adventure” for education abroad programs of the City University of New York since 1997, and she teaches online classes for Politics & Prose bookstore in Washington D.C. She is currently working on her next book in Essoyes, a beautiful little village in Champagne.


  • Michael James
    2017-10-26 23:36:56
    Michael James
    After reading the first part, especially the whinging about Kafkaesque labour law, I was relieved to see that Craig Carlson does appreciate many of the benefits of French practice. He (and Emmanuel Macron) should be very careful about any changes to that Code du Travail. It could so easily turn into a race to the bottom--never mind the US which we can all see is a disaster zone for the powerless at the bottom of the chain, but just look across the ditch to the UK with its casualisation, part-time and zero-hours-contracts. (I am also highly sceptical that true unemployment is that much worse in France compared to the UK and USA--or you wouldn't have a President Trump or rampant opioid addiction etc etc, not to mention jobs that simply don't pay enough to support a normal life.). And before repeating the clichés concerning its 3,324 pages, he should tell us what the equivalent in his native country is. Does he imagine it is nothing--even given how badly employees are treated there? And it being a very complex type of law, it will be filled with potentially conflicts--as it is everywhere; it is why lawyers exist, none more proliferating than in the USA. I'd say the thing about French law is that it really is designed to protect the people--sometimes that is at the "expense" of business owners but maybe that is a big factor behind what France is today? (Nevertheless Bernard Arnault, who didn't inherit great wealth and via his creation of LVMH, is Europe's richest person. Odd, if you believed all those stories about crippling taxes blah blah.) I dread his wielding of the term "flexible" because it always means only one thing when it comes to business: employees and customers will suffer. And in the end the very society we live and depend on. And then there is the supreme irony in this complaint about how hard it is to start a business in France. He shows it really just takes perseverance--and guess what? it's the same the world over and most start-up businesses go bust quickly. Given the (arguably greater) difficulty of starting in France perhaps it attracts/breeds a hardier more realistic type? I don't really know --except that all those British expats who have succeeded, give testimony that it is really not as bad as the Anglosphere makes out (and the obvious things --learn the language, work with the local mairies and politicians etc--are only ignored by the foolish who deserve to go bust). But here's the thing, which Craig even indirectly acknowledges, just look around you in France, and especially in Paris: vastly more owner-run small businesses than in the US (or anywhere in the Anglosphere--an Australian, I've also lived in the UK and USA) where the dominant store is a chain, a franchise and with as much charm and diversity as you'd expect. The entire street-level of Paris has tens of thousands of such stores and the only US city remotely comparable is parts of Manhattan (and there are a lot of complaints that corporate chain-store America is taking over even there). In the 80s I once walked the the night-time streets of Paris (admittedly the inner areas) with an Australian friend who ran a ladies fashion business (supplying to other stores and department stores) and he was doing his annual visit to Paris (for the pret-a-porter shows at the Porte de Versailles; this is the nitty-gritty end of the business not the haute couture shows we see on tv). Busy with a camera (somewhat surreptitiously as there is a specific division of French police whose job is to tackle this IP theft--hopeless of course) he said Paris was simply miraculous in the number and diversity of its women's wear shops, and that there was nowhere else in the world like it. Well, I'd say the same is true--to different extents--for many types of retail and especially food, cafes and bars. The problem with Craig and his BIA (and his apparent desire to turn it into a big chain) is that it is destroying precisely what he and most of us love about Paris. To me it is self-defeating to talk about "evolution" and "diversity" not to mention the dreaded "flexible" when it simply turns every street in the world into a identikit, and uninteresting, version of an American street (well a Mall really).