What it’s really like to start a restaurant in Paris

Where there are idealizations, there is disillusionment—and Paris is one of the most idealized cities in the world.

That seems to be a theme of the Parisian memoirs I’ve read lately: in Paris, My Sweet, Amy Thomas becomes disillusioned by her inability to penetrate French social circles. For Lisa Anselmo, the trouble is more bureaucratic: She’s dragged through the legal system for 18 months to decide who’s responsible for fixing a leak that’s damaging her apartment.

Pancakes in Paris
Pancakes in Paris: Living the American Dream in France (Sourcebooks, 2016, 322 pages)

For Craig Carlson, author of Pancakes in Paris: Living the American Dream in France, his disillusionment is also of the red-tape variety. In his memoir, he recounts his long and rocky journey founding the Breakfast in America (BIA) restaurant chain in Paris, complete with overwork, employee lawsuits, and a half-day in prison.

His entrepreneurial career starts with a vision: to bring the charming American diner experience to Paris, to enchant tourists who miss their pancakes and America-curious Parisians alike. At the same time, what Carlson (the son of a “deadbeat dad” and a bipolar mother) really yearns for is a family: a warmhearted circle of employees and customers who will gather together in a friendly, homey environment. 

But from the start, things don’t go according to plan. A famous restaurateur that Carlson partners with hides the fact that he filed for bankruptcy in the past, which means all their bank loan requests get rejected. Once the money is secured—from the crédit brasseur, a kind of informal, Mafia-like network of breweries that loan you money in exchange for only selling their beer—Carlson has to wrestle with a temperamental designer and a disappearing electrician to get the place up and running.

After Breakfast in America opens for business, things only get more complicated. Carlson fires his first employee for behaving erratically and scaring customers—which results in a lawsuit for wrongful termination and court-ordered damages of €7,000. The police bust a party thrown by one of his waiters after-hours, and they discover that this employee is an illegal immigrant—an offense that lands Carlson in jail for an afternoon. At one point, BIA is facing three lawsuits at the same time and Carlson frequently has the urge to lock himself in his office lest he hear more bad news.

Everything comes to a head when Carlson collapses during a run along the Seine. Though the doctors eventually rule out a heart attack, the scare is enough to make him change his workaholic ways.

It turns out there’s actually a name for the disillusionment that Carlson and others experience in Paris, and it’s the title of his chapter 21: Paris syndrome. According to Wikipedia, Paris syndrome is a “transient mental disorder” identified in 1986 by a Japanese psychiatrist, common among Japanese tourists. Faced with a Paris that is dirtier, noisier, and less romantic than they imagined, they experience symptoms including shortness of breath, anxiety, and feelings of persecution.

Carlson eventually goes on to open two more restaurants, marry a Frenchman, and find his Parisian happiness—but he proves that the Japanese aren’t the only ones at risk of Paris syndrome.

One night when I was having drinks with friends in Paris, I told them it was my favorite city and I’d love to live there. They were shocked. “It’s nice to visit, but not so much to live in,” they assured me. I didn’t believe them—one of the first symptoms of the disease.

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