When Braden Perkins and Laura Adrian went to Paris in 2007, the couple thought they were taking a three-month business research trip.
Perkins had an English lit degree and experience cooking at Seattle restaurants. Adrian, just out of college, had a psychology job that didn't suit her. So they sold their belongings and left for the City of Light. Not as tourists, exactly, but more like entrepreneurs-without-portfolio. They calculated that their money would last about 90 days. They'd scout around, eat some good meals and probably return home with a long-term plan.
"It's five years later," Adrian said when I saw her recently behind the bar at Verjus, their wildly successful restaurant off the Palais Royal."We're still here."
"The more time we spent here, the less we wanted to leave. So we had to find something."--Braden Perkins, Verjus
How a young couple with no business experience came to own and run one of the hottest restaurants in the city that cares about eating perhaps more than any other is a tale of talent, persistence and serendipity. But it begins with the idea of following your heart, something all great entrepreneurs seem to have in common."We chose Paris first, before we had any idea what we wanted to do," Perkins says."The more time we spent here, the less we wanted to leave. So we had to find something."
More Americans than you might think have followed their hearts to Paris, where these days they're into everything from cookies to software. The dollar doesn't go nearly as far as it did when Gertrude Stein, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway lived the expat life in the 1920s, or when James Baldwin, Richard Wright and Peter Mattheissen did the same after World War II. That doesn't dampen the city's allure. It just means there's a need to arrive with some gumption and ambition, if not an actual strategy.
As a fledgling chef, Perkins loved how important food is to Parisians.
If he couldn't cook in the city, he figured, he could at least eat. Soon after arriving, he and Adrian started an informal supper club out of the apartment they'd leased, mostly to meet people, but also to dip into the local food scene."It became way more wildly popular than we ever could have imagined," Adrian says.
That led to a gig writing recipes for Williams-Sonoma, which helped sustain the couple until they opened a self-financed wine bar last fall, followed by the restaurant upstairs from it in December. They didn't try to raise capital, because Adrian's father, who has a food distribution business in the Midwest, advised them not to.
"He said that if you do it yourself with your first business and succeed, you can control the terms the next time," Perkins says. Some meager months followed, but today they're beholden to nobody.
Thanks to glowing articles in food magazines, Verjus has become a must-visit for Americans traveling to Paris, who typically make their dinner reservations soon after buying plane tickets. That leaves little room for locals--those discriminating diners Perkins was excited to cook for in the first place.
But if that's the price of success, he'll take it."Parisians don't book in advance," he says with a shrug."Everyone else does."
France holds unique challenges for business-minded foreigners
Paris, Braden Perkins believes, may be one of the most difficult places in the world for an American to successfully start a business."The headline of our first review from a major French publication read, 'Central Paris is under attack by the Americans, danger!'" he says."The bias isn't specifically against Americans; it's against all foreigners trying to set up shop here. A French friend said to us right as we were about to open, 'French people are going to be skeptical of you from the start. And they are going to seriously hate you if you actually succeed.'"
The official impediments? If anything, they're even more intimidating. Says Perkins,"Real-estate agents won't even show you a space if you don't have a degree or significant work experience in the same field. We'd walk in and say, 'We want to buy a restaurant, and we're paying 100 percent cash,' and the response would be 'What did you go to college for?'" If the agents didn't like the restaurant concept Perkins and partner Laura Adrian were proposing--what the average check price might be, even specific items that would appear on the menu--they'd refuse.
Additionally, the couple had to convince a French friend to hold a license in his name without being involved in the restaurant, since a native company officer is compulsory. At press time, they had yet to acquire work visas (for most foreigners working in Paris, that process is often facilitated by their employers), so they've been unable to pay themselves even a modest salary since Verjus opened.
"We're not legally allowed to be employed by a French company, even though we own the French company," Adrian says with a wry smile. The cost if they're found sneaking their own money to themselves under the table? The equivalent of a $60,000 fine.