“Let Them Eat Pancakes” – Enjoying an American Breakfast in Paris

Breakfast in America, Marais

Craig Carlson’s newly released book, “Let Them Eat Pancakes” is a must read for anyone who loves pancakes and Paris.  That would be my husband, who loves American breakfasts.  In fact, when we have been in Paris, enjoying the wonderful café au lait and croissants, after a few days we longed for that American breakfast.

Pancake awareness day is on September 26 but why not enjoy pancake throughout the month of September and throughout the year, even if you can’t make it to Paris?  “Let Them Eat Pancakes” is a fascinating account of unique and sometimes hysterical moments in the life of the American (Craig Carlson) who had the audacity to open an American breakfast restaurant in Paris.  As my husband and I took turns reading the book to one another, we felt as though we were experiencing a Paris quite different from the one we visited.  The book takes a deep dive into the way things happen when one lives there and runs a restaurant and is an American.

Please read on and learn more about “Breakfast in America” as Craig Carlson generously answers questions about his experiences.

Craig Carlson Author Photo credit Meredith Mullins 2020

Craig Carlson, Author of Let Them Eat Pancakes

1.     Your restaurant looks so tempting in a video that we are tempted to come to Paris for breakfast. I know you have American tourists who enjoy your restaurant but do you have visitors from nearby countries who come to Paris for your American breakfast?

Yes, customers from all over the world come to my diner, Breakfast in America. Besides Americans tourists (when they’re allowed to travel to Europe), most come from nearby countries such as the U.K., Spain, Italy, Belgium and Scandinavia. The diners have really become what The Hollywood Reporter dubbed a “cultural crossroads” for Americans and people from all over the world.

2.     Your restaurants are the only ones offering a piece of America to Paris, 24/7 breakfast, American style. Since you opened your first restaurant, what are some changes that have taken place in terms of how you do business and who visits the restaurants?

(Please note Craig’s correction: we’re open seven days a week, but from 8:30am-11pm, not 24 hours. Back when I first came to Paris to open my diner, I wanted it to be open all the time, but I was surprised to discover it’s next to impossible to have an all night permit in Paris.)

When I opened the first Breakfast in America in 2003, most customers were American tourists and expats living in Paris, accounting to roughly 70%, with 30% being French (including a sprinkling of other countries.) Now it’s completely flipped, with at least 70% French and the rest American and other nationalities. Another big thing that’s changed in the last year or so, we’ve been getting more and more customers from Asia. That’s because the diners have been written up in several magazines and online sites there. As far as how doing business has evolved, a couple years back I made a decision to really get the message out to customers that they can have breakfast at any time, not just the morning, but all day and night, too! I’ll never forget the first time a French customer asked me at 10pm if he could have pancakes. I said, “Of course, why wouldn’t you?” And he responded, “Because pancakes are for breakfast. But it’s supper time!” That’s when I realized that French people are much more strict about what they eat and when. Today, French customers come in at all hours, day and night, to have their pancakes, eggs and bacon, home fried potatoes, French toast and the rest! Some customers have even joked that I’ve corrupted the French, since my diner has changed some of their eating habits. I only have one thing to say about that: “Guilty as charged!” 

3.     Were you married when you opened your first restaurant?

No, I met my husband just after I opened my second diner in 2006. Ironically, he wasn’t keen on American food and had never even had a real American breakfast before. Complicating matters, at the time he was also a vegetarian, so forget bacon, eggs, sausage or burgers. Naturally, I recommended he try the pancakes. When his stack arrived, Julien asked for a side of guacamole, which he proceeded to smother all over his pancakes. Then he added so much pepper on top the pancakes turned black. “What are you doing ruining a perfectly good pancake like that?” I asked incredulously. He looked at me and smiled, “But a pancake is just a blini, n’est-ce pas?” “Uh… n’est not!” I shot back. Looking back now, it’s a wonder Julien and I ended up together!

Craig received first copy of Let Them Eat Pancakes

4.     America has handled the pandemic in its midst poorly.  In what way have you, your husband and the restaurant been impacted by Covid-19?

Like everyone, Julien and I – and especially the diners – have been majorly impacted by the pandemic. On the night of Saturday, March 14th, the government ordered restaurants to close at midnight, giving us just four hours to deal with all the logistics of shutting down the business. Unfortunately, we didn’t have enough time to give away all the food that we had prepared for Sunday brunch the following day, our busiest day, so thousands of dollars worth of perishable items had to be thrown out. Adding to this, when the lockdown was announced, our apartment was in the middle of renovations, so Julien and I ended moving into the second diner in the Marais. During the next several months of confinement, we slept on an air mattress in the office, hardly ever stepping outside. Fortunately, that diner still had most of the fridges and freezers packed with enough food to last us through most of the lockdown. On top of that, since we were already living in the diner, we decided to open up for take out and delivery weeks before customers were allowed back into restaurants. In fact, we were one of only three places in the neighborhood to do that. Parisians were ecstatic that we were offering food delivery. Surprisingly the number one thing people missed during the lockdown: French fries!

Eventually, the French government allowed restaurants to open up in phases, first with outside service only, then with inside service, but with limited seating. To help make up for lost revenue, the mayor of Paris allowed restaurants to expand outside seating onto the sidewalk and parking spaces in front of them. That really helped keep us from going bankrupt! Now, knock on wood, business has almost returned to normal, although with recent spikes of Covid-19 cases in France and most of Europe, everyone is afraid there will be a second lockdown. If that’s the case, we’re hoping we’ll be able to weather the storm with other types of financial assistance from the French government. Or until a vaccine is found. 

5.     The way in which the location of your first restaurant came about comes with a remarkable story.  Can you share that?

Sure. Based on my own experience, I can say with confidence that the old adage is true: the three most important things for a restaurant are, “Location. Location. Location!” After months of exhaustive searching, I finally secured what I thought was the perfect, dream location. But for reasons I recount in my first book, at the last moment it all fell through. I ended up losing nearly all my seed money that had taken me years to raise from investors. Just when all hope looked lost, I stumbled upon an old couple in their 70s who owned a café and were about to retire. The café was in the perfect location, near the Sorbonne University and a slew of hotels that catered to American tourists in the Latin Quarter. Only one problem: the elderly couple was very particular, having refused for years offers from potential buyers. They later said they were waiting for the right person. Turns out, the couple didn’t have any children and their café was like their child. Fortunately, we hit off really well, and I became like the son they never had. The first chapter of my book, Let Them Eat Pancakes, tells the touching story of what happened next. Suffice to say, I was forever grateful to them, and we remained very close. 

6.     Until Covid-19 changed our world, you spent time in LA and Paris.  How do you envision your travel in the future and how will not being in LA impact what you do?

After I studied cinema at the University of Southern California, Los Angeles became my American home. (I’m originally from Connecticut.) Then a few years back, I bought a little 1924 bungalow in the Highland Park area of the city. Julien and I loved returning two to three times a year, tending to our fruit trees and trying out as many breakfast joints as we could on the company dime. (Each time we’d order a huge breakfast at a diner or coffee shop, we’d shout, “Research!”) This year, both our trips to LA in March (and October to celebrate Julien’s 40th birthday) had to be cancelled. We’re both extremely saddened by this. On a personal level, we miss going back to see friends, as well as hiking and camping in Yosemite. For us, every trip back to the States was a chance to recharge our batteries so to speak. On a professional level, however, the travel ban has had an even bigger impact on business because there are no American tourists in Paris right now. You can really feel the void. They brought so much life to the city. French business owners in my neighborhood whom I’ve spoken to keep telling me, “We miss you Americans! Paris isn’t the same without you!” I couldn’t agree more.

7.     I understand that employing workers in Paris is different than let’s say hiring restaurant workers in LA. Can you speak to that?

Wow, there’s so much to say about that, I could’ve filled up my whole book, Let Them Eat Pancakes, on the subject! Here’s just a tiny bit of the list: the labor laws in France are super complex, with very extensive worker protections. For example, it’s next to impossible to fire an employee, even if they don’t show up for work or are stealing from your establishment. There’s virtually no flexibility either. If your employee has a 20-hour a week contract, by law he or she can not work more than 20% above their contracted hours, which means a maximum of 24 hours a week. And on top of that, those four extra hours are expensive overtime. Next, every employee, from a fry cook at McDonalds to a CEO at a bank gets a minimum of 5 weeks paid vacation, (not counting holidays). As you can imagine, this is a huge business expense and a logistical challenge; you have to hire more people than you actually need so that there is always someone to cover a vacation. To be honest, as a businessman I’ve grown to really appreciate this aspect of doing business in France. Life is short, so I think all workers should be entitled to 5-weeks paid vacation. When’s the last time you’ve heard an American businessperson say that? Similarly, I really respect that everyone is covered by universal healthcare. And the best part is, as a business owner, I don’t have to take on the huge expense of insurance as happens in the States. The government covers most of it so my company isn’t burdened by the cost. So as you can see there are many plusses and minuses to doing business in France, with the plusses edging out the minuses, in my humble opinion.

Pancakes with two books

8.     Since Americans can’t visit Paris right now, do you have a sense of the groups of people who are enjoying your American breakfasts? 

Interestingly enough, in addition to the European tourists I mentioned before, I’ve been surprised to find out that at least half of my current customers are brand new and have never eaten at Breakfast in America before. Most are French who’ve said, “I’ve wanted to come to your place for years, but there’s always a line.” Ironically, thanks to Covid-19, there aren’t lines like we used to have (except on weekends), so there’ve been lots of folks coming to the diner who might otherwise not have. Also, because Breakfast in America has a much larger presence on the sidewalks and streets outside, (thanks again to the city for allowing us to put tables and chairs outside in places that were once forbidden), neighbors who’ve been living in the area for years have noticed us for the first time! It’s funny how we filter out places next to our homes. I’ve recently noticed many places near my own apartment for the first time and have vowed to pay them a visit. 

9.     Given the huge difference between food culture in Paris and the US, how do you account for the appreciation and popularity of your restaurants?

I think there are a couple reasons to account for my restaurant’s popularity. First, the French love traveling to America and taking road trips to places like the infamous Route 66 (or what’s left of it!)  Going to one of my diners, with its 100% American décor, is a kind of nostalgia for them. Second, customers have said that having a big delicious breakfast at any time of the day or night feels exotic to them. It’s kind of like when I lived in the States before opening Breakfast in America. I used to love going to French restaurants, practicing my French with the waiter, eating snails and baguettes, and feeling like I was back in France. It felt exotic to me, too. But honestly, I could never have imagined that my American breakfast joint would feel exotic to such sophisticated folks as the Parisians!

10.  Is there anything further you would like to share with the Splash Magazines Worldwide readers?

Because of the travel ban, I’ve noticed an interesting, unexpected trend at my diners. I can’t count the number of French customers – often families with kids – who had to cancel their trip to America this summer and decided to come to Breakfast in America as a kind of consolation trip. In fact, just Sunday night a family told me they had their whole road trip planned through the Southwest, with stops at the Grand Canyon, Death Valley, Vegas and all, but had to scrub it. Coming to an American diner in Paris seemed like the next best thing. It made me feel proud, as if I were a kind of cultural ambassador between the U.S. and the French.

Photos: Courtesy of Breakfast in America

Breakfast in America website

Purchase: “Let Them Eat Pancakes”

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