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Starting A Business In France

Carlie: Hey there, it’s Carlie with the Expat Focus podcast. When you live abroad, there’s always at least one thing from home that you miss, and wish you could have with you. For me, living in Strasbourg, it’s easier access to Vegemite, and that Australian afternoon blend tea. For Craig Carlson, as a student, and again later as a Hollywood screenwriter working in Paris, what he found himself missing the most were proper American pancakes.

So when Craig wanted to make a permanent move from the US to France, he decided that pancakes and other American breakfast foods, were the way to do it.

Craig started the diner chain Breakfast in America, and almost fifteen years later, he’s published his first book, called “Pancakes in Paris”. But as you’ll hear, setting up and running your own business in France, well, it’s a bit more complicated than cooking pancakes.

Now first of all, congratulations on the success of your book, you’ve been named Best Book of 2017 by Expatriates magazine, and it’s a New York Times bestseller, that must be an amazing feeling!

Craig: Yeah, I found out about the New York Times bestseller list from a friend, who emailed me from the east coast, saying “on it, you’re on, you’re on the list!”, and, I just remember just saying wow, you know, this is a writer’s dream, the first book I published and here we are, and it’s something that, you know, goes on your gravestone or whatever, it’s like, New York Times bestselling writer, you know, it’s going to be for life, so, yeah, that’s been a thrill.

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Carlie: As an expat in France myself, I’m seeing your book listed everywhere as essential reading. And again, that must be such an honour to be a go-to book now, for people looking to move to France.

Craig: Yeah, because, you know, I’ve been a [unclear word 00:01:40] for so many years, and I’ve read so many other great books, and to be part of that list is just such an honour. But that said, when I wrote mine I did know the subject matter pretty well, and I thought you know what, I’ve never seen anything really quite on this subject, you know. Often you see the romantic version of Paris, someone going over there because of love, or looking for love, or they’re leaving love, and some bad relationship or something, but I’d never seen one where someone goes over there, wants to start a business in a different culture, you know, and all that, I had to deal with, I’d never read any of that before in a book. The highs and lows of trying to set up your dream in France.

Carlie: Craig, you started your business more than a decade ago of course. The market is so different now, but at the time, bringing American diner food to the culinary capital of the world, it probably seemed a little bit mad! Why were you so convinced your concept would work?

Craig: Yeah, well I think it’s due, partially because I’d studied abroad as a student, years earlier, and I really immersed myself in the French culture and got so many friends, and I learned the language, and all these things, that I felt that I kind of knew, you know, what I’d be getting myself into. And secondly, I’d also seen how the culture was slowly changing.

Part of that was a bunch of friends that I made when I worked on a TV show here in France, a lot of French friends, and they came over to visit me in America afterwards, and when I would take them to breakfast they’d go “Ah, the one meal you Americans do right!” You know, because we have this reputation in France, at the time particularly, that all we did was fast food, Americans can only do fast food, and hamburgers [in French accent], and that’s it, this, you know, crappy food! (laughs) I realised that so many, especially in a city like Paris, how many French people have travelled abroad, they’ve gone at least to New York, if not San Francisco or in LA, and they’ve taken that road trip to the Grand Canyon and they’ve stopped at a coffee shop, and that is the feeling I wanted to create with the diner, that sense of space, that, you know, the road, the never-ending road and possibilities and all that kind of thing.

Lastly, because I worked in film and TV, there are so many diners in movies, or coffee shops in movies, Pulp Fiction, Happy Days, all these things. So you would know, the French, if you just asked them do you know what a diner is, they wouldn’t, but if you mention Pulp Fiction they’d go “oh, yes, that’s a diner, OK!”

Carlie: So how was that education process, when you first opened your diner and you had to show the French that these were breakfast things, and in your book you mentioned you had to explain the word ‘diner’.

Craig: Mmm, exactly, yes, because the word ‘diner’, diner in French, which means ‘dinner’, or ‘to dine’, and so our name is Breakfast in America so people wouldn’t say Breakfast in America diner, I’m confused! You know, what are you serving here, you know! Because breakfast itself is something that at first they didn’t really understand, right? You know, the French don’t eat breakfast, so, you know except maybe a croissant, or a pain au chocolat, or as many of my French friends, they just had a café un cloque [?? – 00:04:42], which is sang for a coffee and a cigarette (laughs), and that’s their breakfast, and then they start their day, right?

Carlie: So healthy! (laughs)

Craig: Yeah, so healthy! They confused it with the word ‘brunch’ all the time, and at the time there were starting to be brunches in Paris, it’s probably become, you know, a la mode, but that would consist of, you know, a little poached egg, a wee meserie [00:05:00], you know like the small little pain au chocolat, or whatever, some yoghurts, some charcuterie like some cold cuts, and maybe a bit of their fruit, that would be 22-25 Euros, you know. I said, OK, this is another thing that I’ll do, is I’ll make sure it’s affordable, and that they’re full when they’re done, you know! I would leave a brunch and go [unclear word 00:05:18] into a crepe, (laughs) because I was still hungry!

So in the very beginning, I was just serving breakfast only, and the French would come in and they were like, especially at lunchtime, and they’d say, well you know, but breakfast, is it not just brunch? Isn’t that just something on the weekend? I had to teach them that breakfast is good at any time of the day, you can even have it at night! And at first again, that was a challenge, the French would only come in on Sunday, maybe a Saturday and have some brunch. And then they’d come during the week, and I was like well that’s nice, you’re coming in the morning, then they’d have it for lunch, and then finally after about a year we were open, my first French customer is at 10 at night, he was “How, can I order some pancakes now, and some eggs, and bacon?”, and I was like “Of course!” And they were like, “Wow!”, you know!

Carlie: Jackpot! (laughs)

Craig: Yeah, yeah. And that was so satisfying to see that evolution happen.

Carlie: Craig, I understand you were already pretty fluent in French before you embarked on your Breakfast in America dream. How important was that when it came to becoming a business owner in France?

Craig: Yeah, you know I’ve met someone who had, an American who had opened a bar in Rouen, in Normandy, and he didn’t speak any, any French, and I was really surprised, he’d been here maybe 6-7 years. I thought wow, you know, thank God I spoke French when I came here because, and I don’t know the circumstances that, you know, how he opened his place, but me, I had to get a loan, first of all, a bank loan.

One of the hardest parts was raising the money. After I had my wonderful idea, and I’m all excited, and I’m gonna make it work, oh, reality hit, I had to raise $100,000 as seed money to get a bank loan of over $200,000. And, I’m convinced that if I didn’t speak French, I never would have gotten a loan, because here I am, I’ve never had, you know, I don’t have a business degree, I never had my own business, and I’m, introducing a concept that they have no idea, they maybe can’t even pronounce it! (laughs) You know, they’ve gotta work here or not. And they went ahead, and it was hard, I had to go to ten different banks, but I finally hit one bank, the French helped so much.

Getting my location, if I didn’t speak French, which is like a great dream location here in the Latin quarter, my first restaurant, it was an old, an old French couple that were retiring, after 35 years, and I didn’t find out till after I got the keys that they had people coming in almost on a daily basis asking if it was for sale. And they just, nope, nope, nope, and one time I asked “why me?” There were two reasons, Monsieur Marin, the husband, said that he liked the concept because it reminded him of his bistro, where other people wanted to come in and change it to a shoe store or something completely different, and the other was that he found me very nice. And so certainly, speaking French helped with that. Otherwise I’m convinced I would not have gotten that location. So yeah, language is pivotal.

Carlie: Of course not everyone’s in the position to have already acquired a second language or be well on their way to fluency before they make a move to France. Do you think it’s still possible to start up a business in France and be successful if you are more of a beginner with your French?

Craig: I do think so, because especially how things have changed. You know, I opened fifteen years ago, January it will be fifteen years, and there’ve already been so many more changes. Just even a little, customers coming in, the French customers, they want more than ever before I’ve seen, they want to speak English, you know, they want to practice their English. When I first opened, and I’d say “Hello! Welcome!”, they would look at me with fear in their eyes, you know! (laughs) And almost walk out the door, and then I’d go “No, bonjour, bonjour!”, you know, bring ‘em in and sit ‘em down and speak in French. And now, yesterday I was there and somebody, my French customer just wanted to speak English. So there is a much larger embrace of that, and I think a business person coming over here definitely does not have to speak French.

But, that said, I think it’s just courtesy when you’re coming to a host country, it’s to at least learn some basics, you know, learn a joke or two in French or something, just to sort of break the ice, and to get a real satisfying experience in my opinion.

Carlie: Once you made it to France, suddenly you had this bureaucratic minefield to navigate. What were some of the obstacles that you came up against?

Craig: Well yes, one example is when I was looking for investors, in America I had to open an LLC, a small company, and it was so fast, you know, we just wrote up the rules, got it registered, and boom, within a couple of weeks it was all done. Here it took me months and months and months to set up what was the equivalent of the French business, and part of it was getting my commercial visa, which I couldn’t be the president of a company without having a commercial visa, but I couldn’t get a commercial visa without having a business or being employed here. So it became a bit of a Catch-22. And so basically I had to get a French person to stand in for me as the president of the company until I got my visa, and I could switch back over to me.

That kind of bureaucracy was nothing compared to once I’d actually opened and had to start dealing now with the labour laws and the Code du Travail which has now become a big buzzword in the press, because Macron can, talking about trying to change it, that’s three thousand and plus pages of rules, often contradictory, often confusing. And so when I hired my first, very first employee, my accountant said, you know you have to have an account, a contract. Perhaps I do, for a part-time student? Because I had worked at Disney, in marketing, in a nice position, and I didn’t have a contract.

But I soon learned that every single employee had to have a contract, and on top of that there is only so long you could have them being on a trial period and after that if the [unclear word 00:10:53] permanent contracts, which meant they were virtually, it was impossible to let them go. But I didn’t know that. And so, my very very first employee, who was doing OK for the first three months until his trial period ended, and then his behaviour started changing, it became more erratic, and when I called him on it he threatened to kill me, in front of all my customers. So at the end of his shift, I took him aside, I said…

I said, “You’re fired”. And, boy did I not know what I was getting myself into! He quickly went and filed a lawsuit with the Labour Courts. It went on for almost two years, and he won! (laughs) And …

Carlie: Even though he threatened your life?

Craig: Even though he threatened my life, and this is where you can see it’s a little absurd, because I’m, so that’s my [unclear word 00:11:35], I have six witnesses who were in the diner, they wrote testimonials saying that they heard this guy threaten my life. He said, well, you know, he would have had to threaten your life in three different ways! (laughs) You know, that’s kind of the French law. So that was one of the reasons, you know. The other was that I didn’t follow all the bureaucratic steps that was required to eventually let someone go. But they, always, almost always take you to court. I mean that’s just a given. And they almost always win. I asked my lawyer how many have you won, and she’s like “well, you know, the important thing is…”, and she just changed the subject, you know! (laughs)

Carlie: The important thing is that we try!

Craig: Yeah, the point is to keep the damages as low as possible. Seriously, that’s pretty much all she said. Boy, was that an eye-opener!

Carlie: Reading your book, Craig, I got so stressed and frustrated for you, especially during the period where you had problem after employee problem and they just kept coming up, and I just really wanted to run in and tell everyone to back off, you know, this is not, this guy’s dream, and all he wanted to do was eat pancakes! What kept you from packing it in at that really low point?

Craig: Yeah, as you mention in the book I do reach a very low point, literally life and death low point, and I found myself, you know going “I’ve just gotta get out of here, I’ve gotta get out of this place!” And I stopped and I paused and I said wait a minute, this is, I’ve wanted to live in this country for so long, I love this place so much, you know, take a breath and this kind of thing, and let’s see what we can do, but I really had to reach my limit and I really have to give credit to my French husband, because he really saw what I was going through and he, I mean he decided he was going to help me out, so he quit his job and he came on board, and, what was so funny is as a French person, all the things I hated doing, which is like sending the registered warning letters, you know, by registered mail, and you know, highlighting every single thing that that, you know to make your case, to build your dossier, and all this, he loves doing that, you know! (laughs) Like oh, I’m going to send you a warning letter now, whoah, you know!

And he writes it up and sends it off, and thank God, because I get close to my employees, I, maybe there are some of them more that are like family, I, over the years I’ve gone to their weddings and I’ve gone to their baby showers and you know, it’s just sad when you have someone who starts off really really, a good employee, and they start changing, and things start getting worse, and I have a real hard time dealing with that. Where he’s able to keep a distance, and he can understand and not be intimidated by the contradictory French laws, you know. And even though my lawyer for the Labour Codes sometimes just says, you know, I just, there are contradictory things, and she’ll say “you know what? We just have to go with one or the other and take your chances”, he’s OK with that, you know. So yeah, if it weren’t for him, I don’t know what would have happened.

Carlie: What do you wish you had known and could go back and do differently? Obviously you had so many obstacles. Reading your book it sounded like you were a little bit ignorant coming in to Paris and starting your business, to exactly what you were up against.

Craig: They say ignorance is bliss, right? And I have to say when, when I was, had the idea back in 2000, 2001, Anthony Bourdain, who wrote “Kitchen Confidential” and now is on CNN, very famous chef, wrote his book “Kitchen Confidential”, and my friends at the time said “oh, you’re opening a restaurant, you’ve got to read this book! Oh my God, you know, behind the scenes, it’s so ugly, you’ll never want to open a restaurant!” (laughs) And I thought, why would I want to read a book like that before I go start a restaurant? So I avoided it, I put it aside, and then when I was writing my book I went back and looked at it, and it’s pretty true, it was, I don’t know if I would have had the same energy, the same enthusiasm to open a restaurant after reading that book, and so I’m glad I did it afterwards.

But that said, I still could have been more prepared and I wish, I wish I had learned a little bit more about how the labour laws are, especially the whole thing with the contracts, just that alone. If I’d known a little bit more about that I wouldn’t have gotten myself in trouble as much in the beginning, and later on I think, it’s just kind of keeping that distance, the minute someone starts doing something that’s, a little odd behaviour or something, or not professional, you have to write a letter right away, and you have to send it right away. Those kind of things. If I’d known that, if I’d gotten in the habit of doing that on, early, I think that would have helped run the business a lot easier. But I’m glad I didn’t know everything! (laughs) To tell you the truth.

Carlie: You did give an interview to the Bonjour Paris website recently, where you talk about the often overlooked advantages for entrepreneurs setting up in France. And there is so much focus obviously on the difficulties of doing business, you know, for good reason, but how can running a business in France do you think be advantageous or positive?

Craig: Yeah, that’s, that’s interesting, and in my book I actually don’t talk about that, and, because like you said the other things overshadow it so much. That’s what, all you read about in the newspaper, it’s all people talk about. But there are some real advantages, and I think the number 1 is, in America, even at this moment it’s been going on for years and years, is, health care as a right or a privilege? And most, so many people in America think that it’s a privilege, it’s not a right. But here of course it is a right. And so small business, I don’t have to directly pay for the health insurance of my employees. All I have to do is pay a supplemental insurance, because we have a two-tiered system, I have 14 Euros a month per employee.

Now when you talk to my small business owner friends in the States, they just say it’s just crushing that, the amounts for health insurance that they have to pay for employees, it’s in the hundreds of dollars per employee, per month. And so, you know that’s a huge advantage here. And another one is, is liability insurance. My friend just opened a small Korean restaurant in LA, and she said the liability insurance is crippling her, it’s just so expensive, and that’s mainly because of lawsuits in the States which, you know, go up into the millions of the [unclear word 00:17:28] to work, so it becomes very expensive. But here it’s covered by the system, so that’s a huge expense that we don’t have to incur.

On a personal level, as a business owner it’s really wonderful for me to know that my employees can live on the single wage that I pay them, it’s not, I can’t pay them a lot, but the system in France is such that you can get by, a family can get by with one job, and just as an example, some of my cooks just had children in the last few years, couple of babies, and they can go to the creche, the day care, and that’s covered, and transportation, I pay for transportation to get to work, half of it, so they get to, they don’t have to have a car, and insurance, and sometimes some of them get some supplemental money for their rental, and this kind of, you know, their apartments.

So there’s many things so I know that I have peace of mind, knowing that my employees can live well. Unlike in the States, where many of my own family had to take on two or three jobs just to get by. And they’re exhausted, they don’t take any vacations, and it just adds up over time, you can just see the burnout rate, and you don’t have that here.

Carlie: So even on a low wage, a hospitality wage, in France you can still have a good quality of life?

Craig: Absolutely. Yeah, I see it with my employees, I’ve gone to their weddings, their baby showers, they just live well, or as well as, friends of mine who have like very very decent jobs in the States.

Carlie: We’ve got French President Emmanuel Macron, who is of course determined to drive through labour market reforms. How would they impact you as a business owner in France, and are you supportive of his plans?

Craig: I am supportive of his plans, Julien, my French husband and I have talked about it quite a bit. And I’ve talked with my accountant and my lawyer about it, because I’m trying to get the details. They say in broad strokes what they’re going to try to do. One of them, as I mentioned this labour lawsuit that I had in the very beginning, is to try and to cap the amount that employees, especially new employees who haven’t been working very long at a company, they go to Labour Court, there is a certain cap on the amount which is so, so important because that first employee, that took me to court after I fired him, you know could have put us out of business. So that’s something I’m really behind.

And the other ones are a little less clear, there’s things that concern larger companies, for example letting the company internally decide some of the rules of the employees instead of going to a larger panel or Labour Board as it is now. They say certain employee targets are going to be a little reduced, so that’ll be great. But I think anyone, rational-logical person looks at what’s presented, it is so small, so the reaction of course is so big from the people on, the French going on strike and protesting, you’d think “oh my God there must be some major reforms”, but they really aren’t at this moment. There’s more flexibility in the way we can schedule people, the way we can up their hours if we need them, someone goes on vacation and someone wants to work extra overtime and this kind of thing. This is so so so hard to do right now.

Carlie: Yeah. So they might be small changes but anything is good?

Craig: Anything is good at this moment, yes. You sort of take what you can get.

Carlie: Craig, what’s the best piece of advice that you could offer anyone wanting to fulfil their own business dream in France?

Craig: Yeah, that’s a really interesting question. I think for, first, I think it’s really important to love the country, because of some of the obstacles we talked about earlier, you have to really appreciate the quality of life here, and all that it has to offer, you know. And we mentioned a little bit earlier how I’ve known people, American’s who’ve lived here for years and years and years and they don’t even speak the language, you know, at all, I mean not even that they can have a conversation. And, and I can’t help but think well they’re going to miss so much, of the culture.

So on a personal level I think that my recommendation is just be ready to just immerse yourself in the culture, and that will help you in the business sense too, because one other positive thing which ties into this question is it does force you to sort of chill out a little bit, because you know when you want everything to be clear and follow the rules and do things in the right way, it can drive you crazy here, because it just can take so long, right, for everything. And so, by immersing yourself in the culture you start to realise, oh you know what, something that seems so important to me, you know, as an American, it is important to the French but not as important as a vacation, for example (laughs). So…

Carlie: That’s so true!

Craig: You know, and as a business owner of course you don’t have that luxury, because you do have to put in the hours that are needed, you don’t necessarily get the same amount of vacations, at least not in the first few years (laughs) until your business is up and running, right?

Carlie: Of course!

Craig: Till you have people that can watch the business while you’re gone, that you can trust. Those kinds of things happen, and like oh my goodness, we have to get this paperwork done by this, this, this and this, and you call up and the person’s not there, they’re on vacation, and, but you’re actually covered by that, you can just say well you know what, the person wasn’t there, I couldn’t do it, you know. It kind of eases all that part of the business that can be frustrating for an American. The hassles of, you know, the bureaucracy, is more than made up by the quality of life here. So, my advice would just be to embrace that.

And do you know what? There are hugely successful business here in France. We have a third restaurant that just opened, and if I probably had a business background, there would probably be many many more restaurants because I have requests, especially the first three or four years, from people all across Europe, saying you know, would you be interested in franchising it out, we’d love to open one in Rome, we’d love to open one in Morocco, I mean I had, just all over.

Carlie: And are there plans for that Craig? Your business is now thriving of course, you’ve got three Breakfast in America diners in Paris, so what’s next? What can you share with me?

Craig: Well, it’s interesting because I, and during my book tour it sort of brought up a whole other level to the business itself and where I am in the business. And I spoke at an international business school, and I realised afterwards oh, this was a great resource I could have used because it was interesting, they had me on a panel with, there were three of us, on both sides of me were people that had started these billion-dollar companies (laughs), and here I am in the middle, we’re talking about my restaurant.

Carlie: Not intimidating at all!

Craig: Yeah, and that was one of the reasons they brought me, because they wanted the contrast, to see that the same passion, the same energy is required, you know no matter what kind of business you do. But what I wish I had said at that point is to say you know what, I want to expand, I want to go to other countries, but I need [unclear word 00:23:50], I need someone behind the company that can help us take it to the next level, and the next time I speak at a business school that’s something I’m definitely going to do, or any kind of forum like that, because I think it would be great if a group came in and wanted to invest in the company to make it bigger, you know.

Carlie: I have to say, and you know, obviously it’s like a bit of a “Durr Frederick” moment, I’m reading this book, I’m thinking “This would make an amazing movie!” Of course it would, you were a screenwriter, you know! (laughs) So are there any plans to bring Pancakes in Paris to the big screen?

Craig: Well yes actually, there’s a production company in Hollywood that optioned the rights to the book, and originally they wanted to do it as a film. And they sent it out a little bit, to get some feedback, and it kept coming back saying you know what, there’s so much material here, it would be great as a series. A limited series, you know, a Netflix series, amazon…

Carlie: Oh that would be so exciting!

Craig: Yeah, and so I was back in September, I had two meetings with the company, they introduced me to some writers, you know, sitcom writers, that kind of thing. So right now they’re trying to find what’s called a show runner, it’s more of a producer, comes along, it’s like OK this is how we’re gonna approach the series, and this is how we’re going to cast it. And they just go from there. So, I’m, over on this end of the ocean now, just, you know, holding my breath, hoping they find a show runner and that we can you know go from there. So, it would be really really exciting, and then what’s great is the production company I optioned the book for would have me involved with writing and the consulting.

Carlie: Again, such a natural fit that, my gosh you’ll be busy! (laughs) If you’re doing that as well!

Craig: Yes exactly, but [unclear word 00:25:22] stand to, you know, a billion, things like this, for the restaurant that I’m working in on a [unclear word 00:25:27] (laughs). But it certainly woulda become more appealing to expand as well.

Carlie: It’s been such an amazing story, and it sounds like it’s only just beginning on so many fronts Craig. Congratulations on everything you’ve achieved so far, and really looking forward to seeing where Breakfast in America diners are going to pop up next. And, logging onto my Netflix sometime soon and seeing Pancakes in Paris, a series!

Craig: Yeah, and then you’ll see Bradley Cooper starring as me, going “Wait a minute, that’s not much like Craig!” That’s alright! (laughs)

Carlie: (laughs) That’s exactly what you look like! What are, who are you kidding?

Craig: That’s who I’d like to play me! (laughs) Thank you!

Carlie: Well that’s it for today. If you want to discuss this episode, ask questions, or share your own experiences of running a business in France, head over to expatfocus.com, follow the links to our forums and Facebook groups. You can find more podcast episodes at expatfocus.com/podcasts, they’re also on iTunes, and I’ll catch you next time.

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