The Korean chain Paris Baguette brings a neon-lit, hectic world of pastries to Palo Alto
Paris Baguette doesn't look much like Paris and, at least on one recent afternoon, baguettes were missing from its lavish collection of breads and pastries.
Not that the crowd seemed to mind. Dozens of patrons lolled around the pastry buffet with trays and tongs while others filled the benches and upholstered seats in the bakery's expansive interior to sip coffee, munch on tiny hot dogs and type away on their laptops. The atmosphere was a blur of action.
Located in the eclectic, caffeine-guzzling world of Palo Alto's University Avenue, Paris Baguette both reinforces downtown's fast-paced vibe and stands out from the other coffee shops. With its blue neon lights, a spacious patio and prime location at the prominent corner of University and Waverley Street, the newest addition to the coffee scene practically screams out for attention.
Though Paris Baguette opened less than two months ago, the company's logo — an Eiffel Tower featuring the initials P and B on either side — is a common sight in Korea. The company was founded in 1986 by a Korean pastry chef who received his training in France. Ted Kim, who manages the Palo Alto store along with Toby Yi, credited the chain for transforming the Korean pastry industry — and palates — by introducing the population to creamy buns, buttered croissants and other previously unheard-of French staples.
"Pastries didn't really exist in Korea until then," Kim said. "It was revolutionary in a sense that there was nothing like it there. Koreans didn't really eat pastries — they'd eat more whole grain, barley and things of that nature. The new bakery started introducing different creams and fruit."
Over the past two-and-a-half decades, Paris Baguette has blossomed into one of Korea's most visible chains, with about 2,900 locations (it has another 50 in China and 17 in the United States). Even so, the Palo Alto bakery presents a major leap forward for the company. Unlike its other outlets in Korea and elsewhere, which cater mostly to Asian patrons, the Palo Alto shop is targeting a much wider and more diverse base, Kim said.
Paris Baguette made its Bay Area debut in 2008, when Kim opened a shop in Santa Clara. But that store, like its predecessors, continues to focus on Asian customers, who make up about 75 percent of its clientele. That location also looks far more quaint and traditional than the glassy, neon-lit shop on University Avenue.
Kim called the Palo Alto location a "benchmark" store for the company and a "brand new redesign of the traditional Paris Baguette store." With its modern, eye-catching decor — glass walls, mirrored ceiling, a mural featuring two lovebirds on a bicycle, and blue neon signs — the Palo Alto shop bears about as much resemblance to the familiar Parisian bakery as University Avenue does to the empty, cobblestoned French street featured on the company's website. The Palo Alto location also features a more spacious seating area, a larger menu and stronger coffee than the chain's other outlets.
"The owner is particularly interested in the Palo Alto store because it's probably the first store catering to non-Asians," Kim said. "It's a more ethnically diverse customer base in Palo Alto."
Kim acknowledged that bringing a Paris Baguette to Palo Alto was a bit intimidating. The city's downtown artery, University Avenue, is already awash in coffee shops. Within a two-block stretch, a caffeine-craving student has a sea of options to choose from, including the familiar Peet's and Starbucks, and Euro-themed bistros such as Cafe Epi and Cafe Venetia.
"There's a lot of prestige that comes with being on University Avenue," Kim said. "We were very excited but it was a little daunting."
The most significant difference between the other Paris Baguette locations and the Palo Alto one, he said, is the coffee. Asian customers, Kim said, prefer their coffee more watered down. Other Paris Baguette locations use Boyd's Coffee, which Kim said isn't particularly strong. For the Palo Alto shop, the company hooked up with Ritual Coffee, a San Francisco-based roaster with a stronger blend.
Staff members are taking their coffee-making duties seriously. The bakery's baristas and managers were required to take six-week training courses to understand the different types of coffee and learn the craft of brewing, Kim said.
The menu is also expanding to accommodate local tastes and appetites. The Palo Alto shop has recently added made-to-order hot sandwiches and pizzas to its long list of offerings.
"We can try a lot of new things here that aren't in a lot of different stores," Kim said.
But if Palo Alto is a new venture for Paris Baguette, the reverse is also true. Other coffee shops may come with their distinct flavors, specialties and soundtracks, but each offers a comfortingly familiar experience: You walk in, you place an order, you wait. If you're lucky, you find a seat, open your laptop and enjoy a latte or a cappuccino to the sound of alternative rock, trip-hop or ballads sung in Romance languages.
Paris Baguette is a different universe. To step inside the brightly lit bakery is to enter a busy, hectic world of conch pies, flaky feuilletines, sweet-rice donuts, walnut-raisin baguettes, cellophane-covered loaves of "milk bread," jars of jam, brightly colored fruit pastries and cakes topped with elaborate arrangements of kiwis, strawberries, blueberries and creamy swirls. Workers wearing blue-and-white striped shirts and black berets restock the bakery's bountiful shelves while patrons amble around a buffet holding trays loaded with sesame-coated buns, sweet-rice donuts and garlic-coated mini-croissants.
To the uninitiated, even a positive experience can feel a bit overwhelming. "I'll need to come here every day for a year to try everything," one seemingly satisfied customer told the cashier on a recent afternoon. It's a feeling that the restaurant's bright art displays only reinforce. Then there's the self-serving system, which requires customers to load their trays and deliver them to the cashier who then places them into a cardboard box.
"The self-serve system is very new to people and we have to educate them," Kim said. "There's also the fact that we have over 200 different items that we sell in the store, including 80 or 90 that we make fresh every day."
Paris Baguette is still a work in progress, but Kim said early results have been encouraging. Customers in Palo Alto, he observed, like to give their opinions. For some, it's an adjustment, but most people have been offering positive reviews, he said. On one recent late afternoon, every seat was filled. Saturdays and Sundays are even more hectic, Kim said.
"We weren't sure how people would respond to our product or our design because it's so different," Kim said. "We took a gamble and the reception has been great so far."
383 University Ave., Palo Alto
Hours: Sun.-Thurs. 7 a.m.-10 p.m. Fri.-Sat. 7 a.m.-11 p.m.