The Observer

Le Donut, Le Street Food, and Other Signs of the Times

Eating habits, tastes, and social norms in France have changed radically. Witness the hordes of Parisians who flocked to the recent opening of France’s first Krispy Kreme outlet.
© Mathilde Aubier/France-Amérique

“Good news, folks,” smirked a U.S. television host. “You can at last find decent pastry in Paris.” It’s not only American tourists who might be thrilled: In December, at least five hundred sweet-toothed Parisians stood patiently in line – another American habit – to await the grand opening of the first-ever authentic U.S.-style donut store in France. Yes, mesdames et messieurs, Krispy Kreme has established a bridgehead in the land of croissants and pains au chocolat. The North Carolina-based chain, which has operations in more than thirty countries, has decided to see whether the French have an appetite for le donut. (When we import a strange foreign specialty, we like to keep the original name so that we can’t be blamed for it.)

The brand’s arrival certainly did not go unnoticed. First came the pre-launch guerrilla marketing campaign. Walls and billboards around town were plastered with wild-posters featuring provocative puns – Macaron démissionne ! (President Macron/Macaron, resign!), Changement de régime ! (Change of government/diet) – which created what we call in French le buzz. The new store itself became a talking point: Located in the pedestrian heart of the city, it occupies a site that previously housed a restaurant run by a Michelin-starred celebrity chef. And of course, French media went wild. Social platforms overflowed with exclamation points: “Homer Simpson’s favorite donuts hit Paris!!,” “For the love of donuts!!!” – you get the idea.

The press, too, had a field day, with the coverage ranging from fawning to furious. Much of it traded heavily in clichés – TV cops eating donuts in their car during a stakeout – and bad jokes: Krispy Kreme wants to make holes in the French market. And, as with many things American, a smidgeon of self-doubt crept in: Why are we rushing to scarf down their malbouffe (junk food) when we have perfectly good home-made fare like le croque-monsieur (toasted ham and cheese sandwich), le jambon-beurre (ham and cheese baguette), and other ham/cheese combos? And all that wild-posting? How vulgar. (The Paris authorities swiftly threatened the company with stiff fines for every poster it put up.)

The thing is, American-style fast food has long been popular in the land of haute cuisine – to the extent that le burger has been fully domesticated. One French quick-service food chain has even named its star product le hamburgé (“like a burger but with better, local ingredients”). What’s more, hamburgers – by any name – have gone up market. Even swanky restaurants offer premiumized versions, and a couple of Paris-based superstar chefs have opened their own gourmet outlets (somehow, “’burger joint” doesn’t sound quite right). France’s adoption of fast-food culture, and its assimilation as la restauration rapide, is a poorly kept secret, as is its embrace of American flagship brands such as Burger King, KFC, Five Guys, and, of course, McDonald’s.

“McDo,” as the chain is known here, is possibly the best-known name, but it was not the first mover. In the early 1960s, a decade before the Golden Arches arrived, a French entrepreneur called Jacques Borel acquired a franchise for Wimpy, a U.S. burger chain founded in 1934. Even back then, Borel saw the potential of American-style casual eating in France, dubbing his first store le café de l’an 2000 – the café of the 21st century. McDonald’s followed Wimpy’s lead: It opened in 1972 in the Paris region and then, after a legal dispute with the franchise-holder, reopened under new management seven years later. Thereafter, the floodgates opened. Despite finger-pointing – Borel was branded Public Enemy Number One by a leading French newspaper – and alarmist warnings about health hazards and cultural sabotage, the fast-food trend caught on big time, driven partly by a fascination with Americana.

But the movement was not a one-way boulevard. Although many of these incomers made a brash entrance, some realized that in order to survive, they had to “de-Americanize” and adapt their offerings to French tastes, reducing sugar content, using local raw materials – even selling croissants at breakfast time. Those willing to acclimatize became part of the landscape. By contrast, brands that insisted on remaining unabashedly American either went under or, like Burger King, had to pull out and rethink their approach before trying again.

© Mathilde Aubier/France-Amérique

How to explain, then, the recent success of the unashamedly all-American Krispy Kreme, not to mention the other U.S. brands that are lining up to try their chances in a steadily expanding market? The reasons are both sociological and economic. First, consumer habits have changed radically as a result of generational shifts: Younger French people, more open to pop culture and less formal than their parents, are now setting the trends that make the news. And, arguably, these younger generations have inherited less of France’s storied anti-Americanism from their forebears, so donuts – along with burgers, fried chicken, and other “specialties” from across the Atlantic – do not raise hackles in the way they once did.

Another reason for greater acceptability is that fast food in general, from burritos and banh mi to poke bowls and kebabs, has become hugely popular here, while the fabled three-hour French lunch has (mostly) faded into legend. What’s more, although the terms “fast food” and “healthy eating” are rarely spoken in the same breath, many outlets now offer vegetarian and gluten-free options to appeal to younger consumers. Last, the advent of Generation Netflix and home-delivery services has altered consumption to such an extent that the social stigma that once attached itself to the food-to-go industry has largely disappeared. Consequently, as a specialist in urbanism and geography has observed, fast-food restaurants have become an ideal laboratory for studying lifestyles and urban development over the past 40 years because they reflect new patterns of eating and socializing.

These social evolutions are visible in the economic numbers. The most recent annual survey (to end-2022) by the specialized consultancy CHD Expert-Datassential found that total annual revenues from the sector in France amounted to 25.7 billion dollars, reflecting a four-fold increase in the number of establishments over the past 20 years. Meanwhile, data from the national statistical agency, INSEE, show that fast-food outlets now outnumber traditional restaurants, not just in midsize and large cities but across the entire country. And while well-known brands – chiefly American – are visibly present in celebrated tourist locales and shopping destinations, the majority of these eateries are found in low-income areas. Whence a well-established correlation between income inequality and poor dietary intake. For the past decade, government agencies, dieticians, and NGOs have expressed concern about what they see as the ubiquity of fast-food outlets in deprived urban areas – especially the peripheral banlieues, or working-class suburbs – and the resulting impacts on health.

From that perspective, the industry is an ideal culprit. But the issue is more complex than it might appear. Experts point out that the presence of burger restaurants, kebab houses et al. in some towns and neighborhoods illustrates misjudgments and mistakes in town planning and business licensing over the past twenty years. At the same time, the proliferation of smaller, independent operations reflects the dynamic, can-do attitude of many young entrepreneurs who cater to a hyper-local, culturally diverse clientele with limited spending power. One of these on-the-go eateries, O’Tacos, was started fifteen years ago by a young housebuilder and his friends in a suburb of Grenoble in the French Alps. It has since grown into a nationwide operation that also has outlets in half-a-dozen European countries. (An attempt to penetrate the U.S. market ended in failure, but that’s another story.)

The list of ingredients that make fast-food a success in France – generational shifts, demographic patterns, spending power, cultural curiosity – took time to coalesce. But now, it’s an intrinsic part of today’s society, as well as a potential El Dorado for American brands seeking to compensate for an overcrowded market back home. (There are rumors that southern soul food – hot wings, fried chicken and waffles, and other delights – may be the next big thing.) What was once considered an unwelcome foreign invasion is now an intrinsic part of French society. That message came home to me last week when I opened a café menu to find that a croque-monsieur was listed under Le street food. I rest my case.

Article published in the February 2024 issue of France-Amérique. Subscribe to the magazine.