When Petit Noir becomes Caramel Macchiato

More than 300 years after Café Procope — a haunt for petit noir — opened in Paris, France faces an invasion by the McDos of the coffee world   – leaving pause café-cigarette connoisseurs asking where is José Bové? 

Cafe Procope – oldest coffee shop in Paris (Credit Wikipedia/Flickr Jon and Megan)

It was a young Armenian, Pasqua Rosée, who reputedly established the first coffeehouse in Paris a decade or so before Procopio Cutò but today it is the American Starbucks that is making the play — at least among young Parisians. And it will shortly be followed by Costa Coffee, a UK brewery-owned brand that started out life in London in 1971 when two homesick Italian emigrants Sergio and Bruno Costa decided to show locals their vision of what café life is for.

The French of course have known what cafes are for, for hundreds of years — strong black coffee, cigarettes (Gauloises in the last century), gambling, smoke-fuelled plots, conspiracy and, in earlier times, revolution. 

Famous cartoon of a (revolutionary) Paris Cafe Discussion. Will milky lattes stir similar passions? (Credit: Wikipedia)

As Colette Gilles-Mouton writes in a short history of some of Paris’ most famous cafes, published on the Grand Vefour website LA SAGA DU GRAND VEFOUR“The Cafes of the Palais Royal became places of conspiracy and the Café de Chartres the headquarters of the ultras who, after Thermidor, organised their battles against any Jacobins that dared to poke their nose into the place. By political vocation the Café de Chartres was always a place of opposition: it even earned the nickname Café des Canonniers or Gunners Café! The French Empire and later the (Napoleonic War) Allies made the Palais Royal their ” Capoue de la France ” their palace of immediate gratification: in 1815, the Palais boasted 15  galleries, restaurants, 20 cafes, 18 gambling houses — where the Allies (the combined Prusso-Russian Army of Silesia under Field Marshal Blücher ) cheerfully refunded the war indemnities paid by the French – Blücher lost 15,000 francs in one night! — 11 monts-de-piété which gave succour to less fortunate gamblers and many houses of prostitution. Café de Chartres took great benefit from all this prosperity and became a veritable gourmet’s paradise with such famous figures as Murat, the duc de Berry, Rostopchine, and other gastronomes parading through its rooms (…) Café de Chartres was well known to travellers as it featured in 1785 in the Palais Royal Almanac: “A large and good company meet in this large room to read English and German papers,” following a fashion that has been brought from across the Channel. “Business people dine and play checkers and chess, distinguished foreigners install themselves to see and be seen. This is a chic café as is reflected in its prices, higher than its famous neighbour, the Café du Caveau where you pay six cents for a cup of what is called mocha. You can have a great cup of café for just five cents at Cafe du Pont-Saint-Michel … but then we are at the Palais Royal”, quipped Mayeur de Saint-Paul in his Tableau du Nouveau Palais-Royal, published in 1788. “It is fashionable to be seen here and the habitués talk a lot of politics: the Palais Royal was a centre of ferment for all the ideas that led to the French Revolution. Paris of course had no shortage of other cafés, as Sébastien Mercier, columnist of the end of the Ancien Regime noted: “there are no fewer than 600 cafes in the capital, but those of the Palais Royal are the top rated and attract the wealthiest clientele.”

But now according to Corinne Scemama writing recently in L’Express a new revolution is taking root among the café class and their haunts in France. “First came Starbucks, now Coffee Columbus, Illy, and the British-owned Costa Coffee firm are all moving into the land of the “petit noir”and all have big ambitions” she reports.

“A contemporary black wooden counter, gleaming machines serving traditional coffee, a display case housing muffins, apple pies and cheesecakes, the first Costa Coffee in Paris opened on December 12, 2012, and now is preparing for the competition. For the land of the ‘petit noir‘ is ‘one of the more promising coffee markets around,’ according to Jean-François Camarty, assistant general manager of Elior Concessions, which holds the master franchise for Costa in France. And appetites are sharpening. Following the arrival of the two American brands Starbucks and Coffee Columbus, Italy’s Illy, the UK’s Costa, Belgium’s Leonidas and France’s Louis Le Duff (la Brioche dorée) have all joined in and are set to make France a coffee consumer battleground.

Logo for Costa CoffeeRedesigned logo used from 2011-present.

“This sudden craze is no coincidence. Long time lovers of coffee and cafés, the French are gradually changing consumption patterns. The old café du coin has outlived its stay. The new generation of ‘coffee addicts’ have no qualms about trying out the latte and other beverages such as caramel flavoured coffee offered by Starbucks and even more unusual for France, has no problem drinking its takeaway coffee in the street. In the past decade, the hot drink takeaway market has increased from just 1% to 27%! It is on the back of this new ‘nomadic’ trend that the Anglo-Saxon chains are surfing.

“This is a phenomenon that Starbucks both anticipated and has accelerated. The Seattle giant was the first to open a salon in Paris in 2004. At first, despite looking like a classic brasserie – gilded ceiling, chandeliers and velvet armchairs – the chain struggled to impose its large rather expensive cups (3 to 5 euros) on the market. Only the younger generation quickly adopted the distinctly American style. ‘We have revamped and expanded the target market. During the late 1990s, students had stopped going to cafes. We have brought them back,’ says Olivier Mendez, CEO of Starbucks France, proud to have won over a customer base aged between 15 and 25 years.

“But the real brand take-off is much more recent. Until early 2012, the French Starbucks subsidiary was not profitable, despite 69 outlets, 13 franchises in railway stations and airports, and 72 million euros turnover, sales were flat. The French found Starbucks roasted coffee had a slightly funny burnt taste so the brand switched to offering a sweeter expresso coffee option. Latte or viennois café, not to your liking? Starbucks serves a Frapuccino, and frozen coffee –based beverages. Products too expensive? Starbucks offers a loyalty card that means the tenth drink purchased is free. These changes have finally made an impact and as a result attracted competitors.

“All rival brands are accelerating their expansion. Illy Café, the minnow of premium expresso sales, is preparing to open a 15th Espressamente at Place de l’Odeon in Paris. McCafe (McDonald’s) continues its expansion with 160 outlets; Columbus Coffee has gone into high gear in Paris and the provinces. But it is Costa, owned by the Whitbread group, which will attempt to anchor its operation more firmly in France and outdo Starbucks, its natural competitor. Determined to break Starbucks near monopoly in Paris and Ile-de-France, Costa has to move fast. Elior Concessions will in 2013, open five new franchises, including one at Nice airport and another at Montparnasse railway station. Pleased with its pilot experience at Gare de Lyon, it plans to open five further outlets this year.

“In the midst of all this hype, traditional bistrots are not just lying down and dying. Over the last two or three years, many of them have begun updating their merchandise. Marcel Bénézet, representative of the hotel, restaurant, café and catering union says his members are now offering happy hours, coffee at one euro a cup at the counter and Wi-Fi access – in cafés in the trendy quartiers of the capital — bistros are resisting and reviving. The traditionalist bistros are, admits Olivier Mendez, ‘our real competitors’. But says Marcel Bénézet:’I fear Starbucks and Costa less than I fear the crisis’ (the Great Financial Crisis now in its sixth year) . Of the 35,000 registered establishments in Paris, 1,000 are closing down each year, he says blaming the recession and austerity”, concludes Corinne Scemama.

So where in all this frantic McDo-style coffee change is José Bové — member of the anti-globalization movement, spokesman for Via Campesina and elected on a ticket for Europe Écologie, a coalition of French environmentalist political parties, to the EU parliament. Bové’s most famous anti-globalist exploit was to lead a protest that saw the dismantling of a McDonald’s franchise being built at the time at the Millau Bridge in the Aveyron in 1999. He is widely regarded as the main protagonist on the French left opposed to multinationals turning France into an homogenised copy of the US.  So far he has been silent about Starbucks but perhaps he’s too busy with the widely-contested new airport at Notre-Dame-des-Landes.

Just as the taxi driver in the famous film below has long since gone are the French about to see the disappearance or at least the milky dilution of their petit noir ?

Monsieur Taxi, avec Michel Simon, Jean Carmet, Pauline Carton

Story: Ken Pottinger

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2 Responses to When Petit Noir becomes Caramel Macchiato

  1. Tony PERLA May 21, 2013 at 8:54 am

    And it is a Frenchman, with an Italian family name (Pascal Rigo), who sold his bread/pastry shop to Starbucks in San Francisco – which will establish such outlets in its stores stateside. Pascal is $100M richer for the deal.

    Read all about it here: http://www.sfgate.com/business/article/Bay-Area-s-La-Boulange-bakery-sold-to-Starbucks-3608539.php

  2. admin May 21, 2013 at 9:04 am

    Thank you Tony. Great news for Pascal, amazing how profitable a humble croissant can be!

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