Food Culture: global nomads
A Doorway to Paris: Cultivating Community Coffee and Cycling
LE PELOTON CAFÉ
Interviewed & written by CW Nolen
Coffee culture — flat whites, flavored lattes and cookies — has come to Paris slowly over the past decade. Before, coffee was an espresso (un café) drank after a meal, or a café crème while sitting outside, people watching — like at the iconic Les Deux Magots frequented by the likes of James Baldwin, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Simone de Beauvoir.
Now, instead of overpriced machine coffee at one of the brasseries or cafés that line Parisian streets, coffee lovers will seek out one of the relatively few cafés offering specialty coffee. In order to attract clients still unsure of dirty chai lattes, these cafés might feature photography, architecture and design objects, or read-and-sip used books. One of the most centrally located of these, just across the Seine from Notre Dame cathedral, is Le Peloton Café which offers authentic New Zealander flat whites, distinct cycling paraphernalia as decor, activity and a sense of community for French and English speakers in Paris. Despite the stereotypes, most food service workers speak English, but at Le Peloton Café not only can you order in English, but in doing so, you’re likely to strike up a conversation with someone sitting at the counter nursing their coffee and make a lifelong friend; returning time and time again for that sense of belonging. That is, until the COVID-19 crisis interrupted leisurely seated pause café.
With rising COVID-19 case numbers, even outdoor sit-down dining became too risky and businesses had to adapt to take-out or delivery only, no seating allowed. This has been a dramatic shift for the Parisian food culture. Unlike New York or London, you rarely see a Parisian carrying a coffee cup while walking. Food is meant to be savored with company. Cafés like Le Peloton have lost the space their regulars and new customers would use to forge friendships over a carefully hand-poured flat white.
Now, when you go to Le Peloton Café, you’ll see a small podium set up in their doorway for taking orders while a dedicated community congregates outside, standing in the bitter cold and rain, refusing to give up the space that has brought together immigrants, Parisians, cyclists, and social justice activists alike.
At the intersection of these seemingly disparate groups is Danielle Barron, who juggles raising three young children, running two businesses with her husband Paul and another couple, Christian and Nadine, homeschooling her youngest, and being an activist for Black Lives Matters and racial injustice in a city where talking about race is considered taboo. In the summer of 2020 as protests for racial justice swept the world, Danielle decided to bring this combat to the front of her business, literally, with a large mural of George Floyd and the names of victims of police violence painted on the storefront window. Such displays are rare for French businesses which generally prefer to be neutral. Instead of conforming to local norms at the expense of her own values, Danielle finds a balance in order to address sustainability, social justice and build community all at once at Le Peloton Café.
Tell me about your journey, how did you end up in Paris? Danielle: I grew up in the suburbs of Detroit, but there was always this call to the city. My mother worked as a psychiatric nurse and I found [her work] incredibly inspiring. When I turned 16, I met a family whose niece had a severe case of autism. So when I went off to university in New York City, I had both this child in mind and inspiration from my mom. I wanted to do something to empower individuals like her. I ended up studying English literature, and that ended up being a bridge to Paris.
I started working in schools for children with autism here. But there were a lot of drawbacks. My American work ethic clashed in the French environment. So through my supervisor I ended up taking on private clients.
How did you go from working with autistic children to running a café? Danielle: It happened slowly. There wasn’t one day when I woke up and said, I’m going to build this community and café. It just started to make sense as a young family juggling two businesses that I started to focus more on the café than the tutoring work I was doing. The café was successful within the first two years, so I made sacrifices with my other career in order to give it my all.
In the early days how did you manage juggling all of your businesses? Danielle: At the time Paul was building his business, Bike About Tours, with his business partner, Christian. When you’re in the family you’re always a part of it — but it was their thing. In 2015 when we opened the café, everything changed.
This was two families working together and an additional company. On top of that, you’re in an environment where you’re really going against the grain if you’re not doing the typical 35-hour permanent job contract. It required all of us getting invested in it. In the beginning I was still working in therapy, but the more the company started to grow, we needed everyone to really give it everything. I quickly got sucked in because I really bought into what we were creating.
We have set out from the very beginning to share with people. We say that regulars become friends. This is a family that none of us actually have here in the city. We’re two families from abroad. So to see our extended family grow as well, that’s more motivation to see how far we could take it.
You bring up the commonality of so many immigrant stories and blended or constructed families. It sounds to me that making your own space is central to your concept. Danielle: I think it enables us to fully identify as who we are. Christian is also American, and when we go back home, we don’t feel American anymore, but we also know we’re not French either. Having spent 18 years here, I’m still so American in the ways I approach life, my expectations, my behavior. We wanted to create a space where everyone can just be — without having to adapt to anything. We’re not asking you to hide part of your identity. It’s basically, “Come as you are, and feel welcomed, feel like you belong”. And I think that there is room to create space for these second, third culture, people. That’s why we’ve seen such an incredibly diverse crowd locked to this café. The French people that come, those who hang out here the most are those who’ve travelled.
You just got French citizenship! Congratulations! This changes things. Not being a citizen or permanent resident creates a sense of precarity. Has learning to embrace that helped you to take risks? Danielle: When you quickly move to another country, and on top of that, don’t speak the language — you have to fight, you have to fight for so much every step of the way. I think that gave me extra motivation to go out and create something on my own. I can decide the culture of my business, I can decide exactly what I’m going to bring to the table in terms of cultural work ethic, but then also integrating certain practices and customs of this new culture that I’ve adopted. For years, we’ve battled with this whole visa situation. At one point, my visa was rejected just before we got married and I was looking at potentially having to leave and abandon a life that I had built. So receiving citizenship has lifted a massive burden. It feels like a reward for the blood, sweat and tears, all of the red tape, all the work — so much that we have had to fight for.
Let’s talk about the challenges of entrepreneurship — and also COVID-19. Danielle: I think for us the struggle with COVID-19 is the disconnect and the way it has interrupted the sense of community we’ve been building — through the coffeeshop and through some of the social justice initiatives we’ve all been involved in, like Sojourners. I’ve grieved the loss of communion with the members of our community who share their aspirations, their difficulties or just a couple of laughs with us. I’ve wept over it.
Of course, there are the financial impacts of tourism now being nonexistent in Paris — the bike tours basically haven’t existed. It’s put more of a burden on the café. With restrictions on the number of people, or take-away-only — we have a curfew as well — it has definitely been hard to stay motivated. But we’ve had such an outpouring of support from our community and that’s the reason why we’re still open. It gives us purpose, the few conversations that you can have, it might only be for a few minutes, but at least there’s human connection.
How did your company continue to cultivate community during the pandemic? Danielle: We’ve been building community during the pandemic by just sticking with it. By staying open no matter what. Being there for our community even when it might not make the most sense. Over the summer we worked with other businesses to host events to get people together. Zoreil (creole cuisine) started selling sandwiches for lunch through us and had an ice cream social night at the café over the summer. We hosted tapas nights with Une Cuisine à Paris (Parisian cuisine), and Sojourners (an activist group) hosted events like the candlelight vigil with the café community as well. Community support is a two-way street. By being committed to staying open no matter what, and sticking with it, we show we know how much it matters. In return our community has done so much for us, by coming here still. They have also sent food, flowers, chocolate and reached out to see if we’re doing okay. All that matters so much and helps.
By focusing on community, social equality, and sustainability you’re setting an example for other businesses in Paris by taking a public stance on human rights. Danielle: That is the hope, we would like to see a movement. And in order to empower every single human being on this planet it means us having to step back from the privilege we have had — being silent is privilege. By putting George Floyd’s face on the front of our shop and all the names of people who have been victims of racism — that’s what’s really behind this police brutality — we’re asking other businesses to put themselves at risk too. I hope that others will see that, and it takes courage.
Entrepreneurship and social justice both require intense dedication. Can you talk about what parts are hard for you? Danielle: Well I would say one thing that is extremely difficult is that it doesn’t stop. There’s no recipe, you’re not doing nine to five. You don’t go home and forget. We’ve built a community so even if we’re not worried about the numbers or what to prepare for tomorrow, we’re still communicating with people. I’m in charge of social media. I’m messaging people throughout the day — all day long, and it’s tiring. We have to learn how to build in time to regroup.
Also nothing is ever guaranteed, right? You know you could have a really great day and then the next day things might be slow. When you are in the human services industry, at times you receive more criticism than you perhaps would in other areas. I have had people write on Instagram that they think Black Lives Matters is complete and utter BS and that they’ll never come to our café again because we’ve taken a stance. People don’t realize they’re not just criticizing a name, there are people, lives and stories behind this. So that’s hard.
It sounds like you have your business/family being criticized for not being something superficial or a mere product. Danielle: Yeah, we have had our moments where it’s been harder to swallow. Yes, this is a family run business in the sense that we have to put food on the table for our kids, but we’re more than that. We are a legacy, I guess. We’re building something that’s more than just the walls. But I found by taking this stance, it has empowered me as a Black-American woman. I know that it is empowering our children. We’re building allies for our kids and we are teaching them what matters. We are also enabling people in our community to take a stance themselves. And we’ve seen incredible growth in that respect as well. In Latin, the word “peloton” means fearless. So there’s this idea that by coming together, you can actually get further. It’s about everybody in it together, lifting each other up.
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