Breakfast In America Founder Cooks-Up an Oasis on the Left Bank
Most weekend mornings on Rue des Écoles in the Latin Quarter, Parisians form a meandering line stretching down to the next intersection—not for a museum, boulangerie, box office, or park, but for Craig Carlson’s diner oasis: Breakfast in America. With just the right dose of nostalgia and top notch breakfast cuisine, BIA has become not only a staple of American ex-pat life in Paris, but also an increasingly large attraction for locals and tourists of all sorts, having expanded to three locations (Latin Quarter, the Marais, and Grands Boulevards).
Yet for Carlson—a tall, mop headed Connecticut-native with aviator glasses—the entire venture came close to failing miserably several times, mostly at the hands of French bureaucracy, but also less predictable factors.
“I had to learn the hard way,” Carlson said while lending his services to a shorthanded staff at the franchise’s Marais location. “I had no idea what to do with the temporary contract vs the indefinite contract, where you can practically never fire them. The very first employee I had, the temporary contract ended after three months, and it went into an indefinite contract, and his behavior changed.”
So maybe the pancakes were not up to snuff or the drink orders were arriving late? Unfortunately, the boundaries of an indefinite work contract in France can be pushed quite a bit further.
“In the middle of service, in front of my customers, he threatened to kill me,” Carlson said with a dead-pan. “I took him at the end of his shift and said, ‘Look, you’re gone. You’re fired.’ Little did I know that, like, I wasn’t allowed to do that!”
Like many Americans confronted with a slight in the workplace, Carlson’s disgruntled employee filed a lawsuit against his boss.
“I thought it was a cut and dry case,” the now-seasoned owner said. “I had five or six witnesses who were like, ‘Yeah, we heard him. He threatened to kill him.’ And he took me to court, and I lost. That was something I never expected.”
Otherwise, the lack of labor flexibility under the French Code Travail can still be frustrating to Carlson, but thankfully the death threats have ceased—at least until President Emanuel Macron goes full steam ahead with reforming the labor laws, which are in the thousands of pages long and have already resulted in strikes, protests, and the occasional car engulfed in flames.
Yet now that the franchise is flourishing, Carlson has come out with a new book, Pancakes in Paris, a memoir of how he overcame the odds and brought a staple of American cuisine to the left bank before expanding across the river.
A UConn graduate and alumnus of University Southern California’s film school, Carlson had no business expertise other than working as an employee in the food service business himself. Faced with substantial student loan debt and a skeptical set of French bankers, he became adept at fundraising in order to secure enough initial funding to secure a business loan in Paris. While some seemingly-friendly allies nearly pulled the rug out from underneath the fledgling diner—including an electrician in the Latin Quarter/Jussieu location that went AWOL, stalling construction for months—B.I.A. soon became an instant success.
At the heart of each location’s dining experience is the feeling of an American ex-pat culinary oasis, hidden from the love-hate relationship many Parisians have with American culture. Upon walking in, one would hear orders coming in spoken in both French and English to an adept bilingual wait-staff, often with peculiar French pronunciations of “pancakes,” “syrup,” and most notably — given the lack of proper H-sounds and hard-Rs in French — “hashbrowns.”
For Americans living on a more long-term or permanent basis in Paris, especially those who feel better having some sort of protein for breakfast, frequenting Breakfast in America can be a form of maintaining sanity. Misunderstandings on both sides of the ocean can make being an expat in Paris frustrating, especially with the gilded image many Americans hold of the City of Lights (aside from President Donald Trump, of course, and his imaginary friend ‘Jim’).
“There’s a little secret that all of us expats here share, which is that people back there [in the U.S.] especially want to hear the fantasy version of Paris,” Carlson said as I dug into a new item on the menu, CC’s Big Mess, a breakfast scramble with enough assorted meats, veggies, and avocado that a Business Insider reporter may have already attributed it to Millennials killing another labor sector. “They just want to hear, ‘Oh, you have croissants all day and you’re sitting in cafés every day!’ And the minute you just try to talk a little bit [realistically] about what you have to deal with, their face just drops.”
“It’s like finding out Santa isn’t real,” I quipped over too big of a mouthful.
“Exactly,” Carlson said.
He noted that one of the most vexing parts of his book tour has been the befuddled reception on the crowd about the grittier aspects about living in Paris. Now, with the looming reality of terrorism and the French’s hatred of President Trump, expat life can feel even more pinched at the center.
Carlson recounted that between 2015 and 2016, tourism and locals going out at night dropped precipitously, while the number of folks ordering for takeout—previously an embarrassing last resort for Parisians—had skyrocketed. While the food delivery apps are still duking it out for supremacy in each arrondissement, the nightlife of the city is back, he’s happy to report.
Besides the quality of life and the sheer beauty of living in Paris, warts and all, Carlson said that what keeps him perhaps the most engaged with running a restaurant in the city is how curious Parisians are about Americans.
“They always want to know why you’ve taken that jump over here, and I tell them, it’s about the quality of life, the food, and all of that,” he said.
Carlson’s favorite metro line is the 12, he said, because of its unique in-station signage on the arcs of both ends of the tunnel, while his least is the 4 (he was pick pocketed on that line).
While he’s keeping any big announcements for B.I.A close to the vest, Carlson said he is especially looking forward to the upcoming Olympic Games in Paris, eager to see how they will use spaces like the Tuileries Gardens, Versailles, and pre-existing infrastructure to show off the city.
Carlson departed with a theory about why Paris lost-out to London in their previous Olympic bid in a way that perhaps only an expat could deduce.
“At the time, all of the transportation people went on strike the day that the Olympic Committee came to look at the city, and I’m convinced that that is the reason they lost,” he laughed. “They were like, ‘Screw it.’ Think of the logic of that?... I have no proof, but I’m convinced that’s why they lost. But this time, they’ve got it back.”