Bon Appétit

Paris’ First American Diner

In his book Pancakes in Paris, released this week, Connecticut-born entrepreneur Craig Carlson shares the story of how he landed in Paris and opened Breakfast in America – the French capital’s first American diner.
© Cédric Roux

French gastronomy is generally regarded as one of the leading heavyweights in world cuisine. Food enthusiasts travel to France from all over the world to sample and delight in the country’s famous dishes. While at the other end of the spectrum is often placed the ignominious food nations: Great Britain, Germany… and the U.S.A., whose critics typically look down on it as a nation whose culinary culmination has resulted in the Big Mac.

However, sat among the red and white, old-fashioned diner décor of Breakfast in America, working your way through a sumptuous plate of pancakes, you’d be hard-pressed to say that food from the U.S. didn’t deserve a fairer hearing. Craig Carlson – founder of Paris’s first American-style diner – certainly thinks so, and has gone through a maelstrom of merde to realize his dream of becoming a restaurateur in Paris. His story is as rich as the diner’s signature maple syrup, and has seen him find love, tackle the dreaded French bureaucracy, and even turn the Parisians onto American cuisine!

While Craig Carlson has always been an avid Francophile and foodie, he never thought he would end up living in Paris running a successful restaurant. Before the adventure of Breakfast in America began, he worked for many years in LA as a screenwriter, trying to chisel out a career in one of the most competitive markets imaginable. His love of food came from his grandma Lizzy’s home cooking, particularly her delicious scrambled eggs, and he began sampling Parisian lifestyle while studying in the French capital during his college years. He also later worked there as a post-production supervisor on a television series, The New Adventures of Robin Hood.

Before moving to France, Craig was a fluent French speaker, having become infatuated with the language while studying it in school and even going as far as to enact imaginary French conversations on his paper route. But the final piece of the puzzle fell into place when, back in the States and missing Paris, he realized the one thing that French food was lacking… pancakes! Suddenly, he knew that he wanted to open a diner in Paris, and he knew exactly what he wanted to call it. The idea of Breakfast in America was born.

Today, the business is thriving with their third diner (a franchise) having been opened in October of last year. But Craig Carlson’s route to the top wasn’t always a smooth one. Through a myriad of mistakes and overcome challenges, Craig Carlson has learned the hard way what it takes to set up a food business in the city of gastronomy.

In 2001, after a series of heroic feats of tenacity, Craig Carlson finally managed to raise enough funds to open his diner. He put down a deposit for a spot in his dream location, the Marais, and was ready to begin his new career as a restaurateur. However, Craig was about to learn his first lesson in French business: never count your chickens before they hatch. Having failed to secure a bank loan in time, his deal fell through and he lost a sizable chunk of his deposit.

© Breakfast In America

Although that experience was a gutting one, Craig Carlson now looks back on it as a blessing in disguise. His second location – on Rue des Ecoles – proved to be even more ideal than the first, and to this day is the proud home of the original Breakfast in America. Craig Carlson’s advice to any budding food entrepreneurs is to never get too attached to one location. “That blinds you,” he says. “If you do lose your first location, it often turns out to be for the best.”

The run-up to the diner’s grand opening was as hectic a period as any other in the business’ history. Craig Carlson had to navigate his way through a prima donna architect, no-show electricians, and the nigh-on impossible task of finding quality, American-style bacon in France! Fortunately, and in typically dramatic fashion, everything came together with just days to spare before the diner’s grand opening on January 4, 2003.

The diner’s first few months were slow, steady, but ever-improving. However, it wouldn’t be an adventure without even more twists and turns in the road ahead! Not only did Craig Carlson have to deal with demanding employees, hysterical neighbors, and an antiquated plumbing system, in March 2003, just two months after opening, the U.S.A. invaded Iraq. The result was incredible levels of anti-American sentiment throughout Europe, and Craig Carlson worried that Breakfast in America would feel the brunt of some of that animosity. Indeed, protests passed by the diner every day, always bigger and louder than before.

Craig Carlson’s anxiety reached critical point when a group of ten protestors came in for some refreshments without seemingly knowing that they were in an American-style joint. Certain that they would become belligerent when they realized where they were, Craig Carlson prepared himself for the worst. One of the protestors asked him the name of the diner. He responded, tentatively saying the word “America.” An awkward silence followed… but quickly the whole group burst into hysterical laughter. As Craig Carlson says, he was reminded of another reason why he loves France: “The French are able to separate politics from the personal.”

Curiously, for all the snobbery toward American cuisine, the French have taken to the menu at Breakfast in America with relative ease. Besides struggling to wean the French onto his bottomless cups of American-style coffee – or jus de chaussettes (“sock juice”) as it’s sometimes called! – he’s succeeded in making them fall in love with the vast array of delicious all-day breakfast dishes: scrambled eggs, bagels, sandwiches, wraps, burgers, but also traditional American desserts such as cheesecake, brownies, and milkshakes. They even demanded that the diner start serving le vrai hamburger – a demand that Craig Carlson was happy to oblige. Now Craig’s biggest challenge is to get his French clientele to start eating burgers with their hands and not with a knife and fork!

© Cédric Roux

In the early days, Breakfast in America was largely frequented by American expats and tourists, but now their clientele is around 70% French. The diners are particularly popular with local students who love to enjoy an American-style dish in between lectures. Priscilla Freschu is a French student who’s been coming to Breakfast in America once a week for three years now. Having just finished her favorite dish, the “2 x 2 x 2” (eggs, pancakes, and sausage or bacon) she said that one of the main reasons she loves the diner is because she never knows what she’s going to have: “Sweet or savory; here you can eat anything at any time!” She’s also been converted to the American-style coffee: “It’s jus de chaussettes but it’s good!” Michelle Campbell is another of the diner’s regulars. An American expat and former professor of photography at Parsons College, she’s been frequenting Breakfast in America for eight years now and loves coming for a taste of authentic America: “I like French food but I prefer pancakes to crepes!”

Along with the food, though, both Priscilla Freschu and Michelle Campbell expressed how much they love the ambiance. The old-school American music, funky décor, and the friendliness of the staff keep them and many others coming back. Certainly, Craig Carlson is proud to show off these aspects of American culture in his adopted country. Besides being an ambassador for American cuisine in France, Breakfast in America also caters to the needs of Paris’ large expat population. Much to the delight of its American clientele, the diner holds an annual Thanksgiving celebration with all the trimmings. The diner also combines food with politics and, for the 2012 U.S. elections, served up Obama burgers and Romney omelets for customers to cast their own unofficial, gastronomic vote. Craig has similar plans for the upcoming election, and is already planning what dishes would best suit Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump!

Craig Carlson has shared his incredible story in his debut book, Pancakes in Paris, released this September – a wonderfully charming autobiography that details his journey from growing up in upstate Connecticut to living his dream in the City of Lights. For Craig Carlson, the writing of the book was a chance to look back at the choices he’s made as well as to fall back in love with France. He’s certainly done that and is as content in France as he’s ever been. As he says, “I wouldn’t be whole if I didn’t have my French side. I couldn’t have either French or American; I have to have both. The book really brought that together.”

Now, supported by his husband Julien, Craig Carlson and Breakfast in America are moving from strength to strength, and have grand plans for the future. By opening more franchises, Craig Carlson is eager to continue merging his excellent American cuisine into French culture, and is still hopeful of one day being able to duplicate his grandma’s famous scrambled eggs!

Pancakes in Paris: Living the American Dream in France by Craig Carlson, Sourcebooks, 2016.

Article published in the August 2016 issue of France-AmériqueSubscribe to the magazine.