RENNES, France — Finding a croissant in France isn’t difficult, but good luck if you want a bagel.
Until a few months ago, a craving for a sesame seed with cream cheese was nearly impossible to satisfy, but thanks to a New Zealander on a mission, the city of Rennes has been enlightened.
“We want to show French people we do fantastic products of the highest quality,” said Shaynal Patel, owner of Le Tiki café.
But unfortunately, says the 35-year-old entrepreneur from Auckland, the French haven’t seemed to notice.
Le Tiki also serves espresso-based drinks like macchiatos and cappuccinos that are equally uncommon in France. But his goal of serving high-quality Anglo-Saxon food and drink hasn’t captivated French taste buds and the café suffers from empty lunchtime tables.
“On the surface you’d think that cultures would be very very similar but it’s really two distinct different cultures,” he said.
Battling stereotypes of obese, hamburger-gorging Anglo-Saxons, Patel said coaxing the French into trying fare from an English-speaking café isn’t easy.
“People don’t understand the choices in coffees. There are so many options,” he said, explaining the many ways he dresses up a shot of espresso.
“There’s a beautiful café culture in New Zealand, in Australia. Throughout the entire region you’ve got really, really high standards of café culture,” he said.
Eyes gleaming, Patel described New Zealand coffee shops as burgeoning with fair trade ingredients, knowledgeable baristas and friendly atmospheres, three ideas virtually unimportant to French clientele.
The French are equally un-intrigued by take-away drinks. The point of a French coffee is to sit down and drink it.
But whereas New Zealanders might want their cappuccino wrapped in a cardboard sleeve, Patel said they still expect it to be of the highest quality.
“It’s just hard to break into the psychology of letting people know there’s more than just a little espresso out there,” Patel said.
Served in a tiny cup the size of most Americans’ first sip, the dainty shot of caffeine is virtually the same everywhere. The gourmet coffee culture that has Americans choosing their beans, roasts, grinds, flavors, temperatures and milk percentages hasn’t made it to the land of baguettes and brie.
But Patel, whose passion is coffee and customer service, is convinced they’ll like it if they have a go.
“People who tried say ‘super bon.’ They are amazed that Anglo-Saxon food can taste that good,” he said.
After operating a coffee shop in Auckland for three years, Patel, who previously worked in retail, followed his wife back to her hometown of Rennes, the capital of Brittany and home to over 60,000 students.
After what he describes as a nightmare of bureaucratic hurdles – including finding someone in France who knew how to make bagels –Le Tiki opened early this year.
To give coffee-drinkers the New Zealand vibe, he decorated Le Tiki in bright colors, rugby posters, a map of the islands and a clock set to Auckland time.
Patel serves carrot cake, cheese cake, pecan pie, cookies, muffins, granola and doughnuts along with bagels, wraps and salads.
He makes some of the food and the rest comes from other bakeries in France. He calls his customers by name and chats from behind the hissing espresso machine. If someone doesn’t like their drink, he’ll re-make it.
The menu includes macchiatos, cappuccinos, lattés, americanos and the flat white, a Down Under drink similar to a cappuccino but with thicker foam. He also makes frappes, milkshakes and smoothies.
But the drinks are as foreign to the French as goose liver is to Americans, and the French respond with equal hesitation.
“There is a psychological block in Rennes,” Patel said, so he has had to adapt his New Zealand habits to the Français.
He created a three-course prix fixe lunch menu because on their two-hour lunch breaks the French like full meals.
“If they do sit they are absolutely satisfied after,” he said.
Something he will never modify is his cheerful disposition. A French customer once told him he smiled too much.
“I’m just being myself,” said Patel.
Nor will Patel change the quality of his ingredients. As a result, his prices are higher than many other cafés. His drinks range from 1.90€ to 4€ whereas French cafés serve espresso starting at 1€.
“It might cost five cents extra for a sachet of [fair trade] sugar, but it changes peoples’ lives in a third world country,” he said.
Still, he said it’s discouraging to see an empty patio in a line of bustling restaurants.
Whereas Kiwi customers are willing to pay more for higher quality, in France he’s learned price is everything.
“You would think a lot of young people would be willing to try but it doesn’t work like that,” he said.
As a result, most of his current customers are English speakers who find Le Tiki an escape from French life.
“We’ve kept afloat with Anglo-Saxon customers but that’s not the reason we’re here,” he said.
In the five months Le Tiki has been open for business, Patel has met American, English, Irish, Scottish and Australian customers.
“It’s like a little bit of home to come and have a chat,” said Annabelle Strang, 22, of Sydney, Australia, a Le Tiki regular who lives in Rennes.
“In Australia the take-away coffee culture is just such a big thing,” said Strang, who studies French.
And slowly, French customers are trickling in. Many are people who have traveled to New Zealand or Anglophone countries and squeal with delight upon finding foods from their travels, Patel said.
Stefania Targowski, 25, a French language teacher in Rennes, said she especially likes the café because it’s a chance to speak English.
“Each time it’s a little voyage when you enter,” said Targowski, recalling the months she lived in San Francisco.
She was drinking a milkshake on the sunny patio with her friend Salomé Duringer, 24, who is French but lives in England.
“If you don’t like espresso it’s not easy,” Duringer said, explaining the challenge of finding other types of coffee drinks in France.
This French preference for all things French is the force confronting Patel.
In comparison, less than 20 percent of bookings made in the United States through Livebookings.com were made for restaurants serving American cuisine.
As trying as his mission is, Patel said it has taught him a lot about French culture.
“French people are proud of their cultural heritage and their food, which is a good thing, however they’re not open to what the rest of the world has to offer. It’s very closed and very protective of French culture.”
Even more difficult than attracting French customers has been Patel’s endeavors to make friends in Rennes.
He has found many Anglo-Saxons soccer mates, but mingling with the French has proved next to impossible.
“The majority who haven’t traveled are very, very closed and that’s sad,” Patel said.
Despite his frankness, he is optimistic. He said café business increased after a recent review in the local newspaper, and word of mouth continues to be the best publicity.
Long-term, however, he sees himself returning to New Zealand.
“The world is moving forward. It’s a bit scary to see that things aren’t really moving or progressing in France as you think it would,” he said.
Based on his experience in the café, Patel said the French don’t share New Zealanders’ eagerness to experience other cultures, cuisines and people.
“We’re open to French culture but French culture is not open to us,” he said.