As I walked in the door of Breakfast in America (BIA), the manager greeted me with a friendly how-do-ya-do and told me the owner, Craig Carlson, would be right down to meet me. Craig is a friend, and he graciously agreed to sit down with me over an American lunch to talk about how this whole adventure of his – creating the first American diner in Paris – began.
You wouldn’t realize when you first meet Craig that he is an American expat institution in Paris. He’s genuinely humble, a warm bear of a man, one of the gems in life that I always feel so lucky to come across. His success in the restaurant business hasn’t tainted him, although it has taught him a great deal about business, entrepreneurship (particularly starting a business in a country not one’s own) and about following your dreams, to hell with the naysayers!
Over our two hour lunch, Craig and I sat in his diner in the Marais, his second location amusingly called BIA Too. While I munched down on a California chicken wrap stuffed with crispy lettuce and juicy tomatoes and slurped back a thick and creamy chocolate milkshake, something reminiscent of my childhood, I could have so easily been back in New York or down south at a local mom & pop: the large Heinz ketchup bottles, the metal rimmed tables, the Footloose-style, corvette red booths, the checkered tile floor, the all-American music in the background. And then, of course, there is the staff. Everyone who works at BIA in the front of the house is Anglophone, which makes BIA a hotspot (dare I say a rite of passage) for North American students. Craig and his group have done the perfect job of bringing America to Paris.
Craig’s story is one of a kind. Unlike so many expats, myself included, who came to Paris looking for what the city had to offer us, Craig stepped off the plane with a burning desire to create. Impassioned by the idea of bringing American breakfast to Paris, and armed with a modest investment fund from friends and family back home, he began building contacts in the restaurant business, going through the cumbersome steps of incorporation, and scouting out a location.
Ever since he was a kid, Craig has spent time working in restaurants in one fashion or another, including a stint at Chez Bourgeois in Los Angeles. So it’s not too surprising that he ventured into this domain when he decided to go out on his own. During a career in California’s film industry, a 37-year-old Craig was on location in Paris looking desperately, and without luck, for a place to get a decent American style breakfast when the idea of BIA hit him: there was a niche to fill. Within a year, he opened the doors of BIA for the first time. What makes Craig’s story so remarkable is that unlike so many people he’s met since he began BIA who woefully tell him that they had the same idea years ago and are kicking themselves for not doing it – Craig did do it.
That was 10 years ago, well before the proliferation of brunch places in Paris (we might even say that Craig and BIA were the forerunners of the brunch craze in the French capital). In the lapsing years, Craig and the BIA team have opened a second restaurant – the first is on rue des Ecoles near la Sorbonne in the 5ème, the second in the Saint Paul quarter of the Marais – and they are both bustling. Craig says that the restaurant business is a lot like the movie business: both industries require staging the atmosphere you are trying to sell, he explains. In a cosmic way, it seems like Craig’s whole life has cumulated to prepare him for this particular venture.
When I asked Craig if most of his clientele were tourists looking for a taste of back home, which is exactly how I first came across BIA some seven years ago, or native French people, he said most of the accents he hears around the tables are French. Who knew the French loved American food so much? Craig has an explanation for that too: They don’t like our food, he says, so much as they like our breakfast!
When Craig began BIA, he struggled against an enormous learning curve amplified by a factor of 100 given that the business customs in France are rather different from those in North America. He has hilarious stories of starting out: bizarre bank managers; unintentional faux pas; wacky French business partners; scary ex-employees; and those first sleepless months when he was practically running a one-man show, serving breakfast each morning then snacks and drinks at the bar at night until he eventually succumbed to popular demand and introduced a burger-based menu accompanied by some more staff. But those are all his stories to tell. (And please do tell, Craig!)
I will share one story, though, that Craig told me over our lunch this week since it goes with my own intrigue of cross-cultural comparisons. When Craig first came to Paris to start BIA, he went to a number of banks with his Business Plan in hand and all his unbridled American enthusiasm. When the bankers asked him what his long term plans were for the restaurant, he launched into a diatribe about how he wanted to open 10 diners, how successful he was certain they would be, and all his dreams for growth and expansion, thinking all the while that this confidence would impress the decision makers and show them his commitment to the project. Unbeknownst to him at first, however, his efforts had the opposite effect on the French bankers who come from the tradition of French pessimism. Contrary to his intentions, Craig’s unchecked assurance, that very American idea that all it takes it effort to succeed, was actually working against him in the eyes of the French money handlers.
At its heart, Breakfast in America is a story of one man’s initiative, his undying confidence and resilience in the face of grumpy French bureaucrats and all the naysayers who told him the restaurant business is too difficult – even for professional chefs – so he shouldn’t even bother. Well, this time hindsight doesn’t get the last laugh for ten years later Craig is still here in Paris, alive and not only in business, he’s thriving!
Cheers to that!