Mary Altaffer  /  AP file
A Choux Factory employee fills a cream puff with the mango cream late last month in New York. The pastry had lost popularity in the United States due to the diet craze, gained enormous affection with the Japanese and is now making a resurgence here for a whole new generation of sweet tooths.
updated 8/13/2005 3:12:50 PM ET 2005-08-13T19:12:50

Sure, cream puffs are chock-full of fat and calories and thin is in. But the treats that fell flat among diet-conscious Americans decades ago are making a comeback via Japan.

Dueling cream puff shops — one a Japanese standby, another a U.S. upstart — have popped up on the East Coast, and one plans to expand soon to other parts of the country.

At least one mail-order food company is also reporting a boom in cream puff sales and the Wisconsin State Fair — where they have been sold since 1924 and in recent years gained record popularity — now sells the confection at a rate of one per second.

The majority of the population doesn’t watch their calorie intake, as can be seen with the country’s high obesity rate, said Ron Paul, president of Technomic Inc., a Chicago-based food consulting and research company.

“I think they are a treat,” Paul said. “There are enough consumers who are willing to treat themselves frequently or once in a while.”

The cream puff became popular during the French food mania of the 1960s, said Lynne Olver, a culinary librarian and editor of foodtimeline.org. The fad was reinforced by celebrity chef Julia Child, who broke down recipes for home cooks, and former first lady Jacqueline Kennedy, who served French food in the White House and made it fashionable, she said.

As the government issued warnings about fat and cholesterol in the 1980s, Olver said, Americans moved away from the confections — made with dough called pate a choux and most often filled with custard or whipped cream.

But health concerns seem to be the furthest things from the minds of the people standing in lines on the East Coast at Japan-based Beard Papa’s and Choux Factory, which is New York-based but has Japanese owners.

Cream puff business

The owners of both chains figured the decades-long popularity of the treats in Japan would easily translate to the United States. Both chains opened their first U.S. stores in New York City last year, relying mostly on word of mouth, and have received nonstop inquiries from people wanting to buy a franchise.

Beard Papa’s has six stores in New York and New Jersey and plans to expand to California, Nevada and Hawaii, said Craig Takiguchi, executive vice president of Muginoho USA, Inc., the U.S. division of the chain’s parent company.

Beard Papa’s, which began in Japan in 1997, had about $300 million in revenue in the last fiscal year, more than double from 2003. The chain has 270 franchises in Asia and 70 company-owned shops.

The shops sell cream puffs filled with whipped cream custard in flavors including chocolate, green tea and mocha, at prices that range from $1.25 to $1.65 each. Ice cream-filled cream puffs have sold well in Japan and the company plans to introduce them next summer, Takiguchi said.

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New York-based Choux Factory started opening stores in September 2004 and now has two stores and a mobile vendor in New York. It plans to open two more in New York by September, said Shintaro Abe, the company’s vice president, but there are no plans to go national. Sales increased daily for their first three months and have leveled off at between 300 and 500 daily, he said.

Choux Factory sells cream puffs in chocolate, strawberry, custard, coffee, mango, green tea and banana flavors for $1.75 or $1.95, as well as a low-carb French Cheese Taste Cream Puff. Abe said the shops sell many products, including frozen drinks and coffee, but the cream puffs they call Choux cakes are their most popular item.

Pam Liu, 38, a Beard Papa’s customer in New York, said the cream puffs are a good reason to go off a diet.

“They’re just something special because they are so good and they are kind of new in the area,” she said. “You have to try it.”

Nearly 391,000 people tried cream puffs during the Wisconsin State Fair’s 11-day run last year — 62 per minute — and this year, fair officials are offering $25 coolers with a six-pack of cream puffs, so people can take the desserts home in perfect condition.

Kathleen O’Leary, spokeswoman for the fair, said officials are considering whether to sell the cream puffs year-round. Their puffs, which are filled with heavy whipping cream, are 560 calories and 47 grams of fat, but that doesn’t seem to stop fairgoers.

“They are worth every calorie,” O’Leary said.

For a scaled-down treat, mail-order food company Omaha Steaks offers 1-ounce cream puffs with 80 calories and 5 grams of fat.

The company began offering cream puffs in April 2001 and sales increased 264 percent in 2002 and 106 percent the next year, which is partly due to the usual spike in demand for new products, said spokeswoman Beth Weiss. Sales increased 10 percent in 2004, and the company expects the same for 2005, she said.

Kristine Kidd, food editor at Bon Appetit, said she is seeing cream puffs show up more on restaurant menus and in pastry shops, and bakers are doing new fillings or glazing them with chocolate.

She predicted that cream puff fever would be a fad, but for now their simplicity rules.

“I think people are so overwhelmed now with information and technology and life moving so quickly that a return to simple, comforting things is a nice balance and escape from that,” she said.

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