Eye On Taiwan
Date: May 24, 2016
By: David Wang
Would the French presidents, many of whom graduated from Sciences Po, approve of their alum Pierre Guyon, 27, setting up Le Panier, a modest business selling French crepe, galettes (salty crepes) and flan au caramel (a pudding that is a popular dessert in France) in Taipei, Taiwan of all places?
But the relatively more high-profile French personalities can’t fault Pierre for adventurous spirit and entrepreneurship as he follows his heart to pursue a passion that has been taught by a friend.
Obviously not a believer in convention, Pierre did not choose to enroll in a haughty cordon bleu course in patisserie back home to leverage the potential in cachet. His progressive tendency also shows in his attitude towards tying the knot, which he says is a mere contract that gets in the way of a relationship.
But still a stickler for certain traditions of patisserie or pastry making, Pierre takes the trouble to import from France professional-grade cream. buckwheat flour, and emmental cheese in bulk to retain high quality and minimize cost as he complaint of the exorbitant price of such cheese in Taipei.
A native of Lyons, Pierre says the city is less developed, crowded relative to Paris but is more suitable for raising a family, as well as being famous for its football team and pork sausages. The city was also the former French capital and a key trading hub linking Switzerland and Paris.
Without hesitation to promote the French advantage, Pierre has on his business card not only the drawn motif of the Eiffel Tower and Arc de Triomphe but also le panier, which he says is literally “basket” in French but also suggests a container to hold takeout food. Underneath Le Panier de Paris in orange is written The New French Food Style In Taipei on the card to also suggest a tad awkwardness in coming up with a concise, witty promotional slogan by the non-native English speaker.
After working in South Korea for a major French firm and unable to bear the robotic lifestyle of an office worker in shirt-and-tie, Pierre packed up and headed for Taipei, where he also once interned for a French firm, with some US$15,400 in start-up capital to first set up in April 2014 a miniscule stand near the Sun Yat-sen Memorial Park selling French desserts, without facilities to make crepe, which he says are considerably more troublesome. As smooth as the circular grill on which the crepe batter is deftly spread and heated, Pierre says that, as many foreigners tend to do diplomatically when asked why they choose Taipei to set up business, he likes the local culture and has made some friends over the years.
Still not totally certain of the prospects of Le Panier due to being in a foreign culture and the sometimes perplexing issue of turning more Taiwanese on to French crepes, Pierre, whose small business venture has been so-far-so-good, has opened a second, larger outlet at the former Flora Expo site at the corner of Minzu and Zhongshan Rds., where he now proudly prepares French crepes, which he says differ from the Taiwanese and Japanese varieties in being softer.
Instead of serving crepes on a plate that has to be eaten with a knife and fork in a diner that is more expensive and may put off Taiwanese, Pierre believes his way of folding crepes, available with fillings as honey, walnuts and Nutella, inside a paper cone is more convenient and localized.
The young French entrepreneur also deserves a pat on the back, besides only equipped with survival Mandarin without the ability to read Chinese characters, for braving the small business scene in Taipei, which can be cut-throat as a locally-branded franchisee selling soya pudding and cereal porridge only a few minutes from Le Panier has gone under in less than a year.
There are a few rivals in Taipei competing in the same niche but are set up in brick-and-mortar diners that target a different clientele, says Pierre, who admits that he is only basically breaking even and could use a local partner, which is difficult to find, willing to invest some US$250,000 to enable expansion into the other cities in the south. French banks won’t offer financing outside of France and Taiwanese banks won’t lend to foreigners like him, says Pierre.
One other niggling problem, as experienced by many Taiwanese-run small businesses, is finding and retaining staff, which Pierre says are not very motivated.
While obviously impressed by the French speaking skills shown by some of his Taiwanese friends who study the language in university, Pierre does not display nearly the same admiration for the range of pastries sold by Paul in Taipei, which is promoted as a high-end French brand as presumptuously snooty as women brandishing Louis Vuitton purses. Pierre says Paul, despite being also famous in France, is a mass producer of pastries with many outlets, and that the French do not go to a patisserie to sample baguette, croissants and mille-feuille with Bordeau in regal setting, as Paul in Taipei would have local consumers believe, suggesting that enjoying pastries in France being an earthy experience.
While firmly setting sights on the long-term for Le Panier, Pierre can’t see bringing onboard a non-investment partner in the form of a girlfriend as he said business and pleasure don’t mix, as he found out once. And obviously the tasty fillings added to the crepes may be sufficient to attract customers but not fondness of Taiwanese women, Pierre confesses that the combination of French status and chef de patisserie does not actually help much with his social life.
Nonetheless, Pierre may show the essential trait of a successful entrepreneur: unwavering personality. When told that some Taiwanese women judge a man by his possessions as name-brand watches, Pierre nonchalantly points to his boy-sized, black Casio to add that he owns another in white as well as a good-looking Pierre Cardin watch, and that his shopping habits won’t be influenced by a woman.
Bonne chance as they say in France.