Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Shopping for American Groceries in France

When I first moved to Paris, I scoffed at the notion of even being within sniffing distance of American food.  Bah!  Truth be told, it took a long while before I even deigned to go out for sushi or Italian food.  I was in PARIS, for cripe's sake. I was there for the cuisine.   I couldn't believe the tales of Americans flocking to McDo's for a Big Mac fix, or heading to The Real McCoy on rue de Grenelle in Paris to buy a bottle of maple syrup. 

But then, after a year or so, life kind of... normalized. I disovered the occasional joys of hamburgers in Paradise:  Paris.  The best I've ever had.

I travelled to the States often enough to bring back suitcases filled with Red Rose tea, Clif bars,  and various and sundry American food-craving fare for those cold autumn evenings when nothing else would do.  Unlike some of my ex-pat friends, there were some food items that I never missed, though.  Peanut butter, for example.  Toll house cookies.

Recently I discovered a site which is a boon to residents of France who, in between feasting on foie gras or poulet fermier, simply have to have their PB&J or Tex-Mex chili or pumpkin pie:  My American Market, an online grocery store for American food in France.  So important this time of year, too, when you just gotta have that candy corn or cranberry sauce!

When I first heard about it, I assumed it was a start-up by some enterprising American expats in France.  Mais non!  It was launched a few months ago by Anne-Claire Bocage, a French woman who had spent a few years in the U.S.  Upon returning to France, she had a few cravings of her own, and  --voila! -- a business was born.

Intrigued, I contacted Anne-Claire to ask a few questions. 

(Full disclosure: no goods, services or funds were paid for this article.  I'm now living in the land of  Kroger and Food Lion, so I've got all the American food I can handle...)
1. How did you come up with the idea? Was it just inspiration? Frustration?

My American Market’s adventure all started because of a ranch dressing craving (big things can happen because of cravings, so don’t rebuff them!).

Back living in France after several years in the States, I was dealing with a lot of cravings. Besides, I wanted to share with my entourage some American recipes with the right ingredients. I tried different options to get my favorite American treats and none were completely satisfying to me. Therefore I came up with this idea of a service that could satisfy most common US food cravings at anytime of the day or night.

2. Where do you get your ideas for products to offer? Do you have a suggestion box for Americans who are craving certain products?

I did an extensive market study before launching;  I looked at what other European stores were offering. I also polled potential customers through an online survey. I am very grateful over 300 people took the time to respond. Now that the website is up and running, I am getting a better feel of what is popular. I also get a lot of product suggestions that I take into account for expanding my selection.

3.  What are your most popular items?

Here are my top 10 bestsellers after operating for three months:

1. Kraft Macaroni & Cheese
2. Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups
3. Pepperidge Farm Cheddar Goldfish
4. A&W Root Beer
5. Little Becky’s Marshmallows
6. Aunt Jemima’s Cornbread Mix
7. Dr Pepper
8. Reese’s Pieces
9. Aunt Jemima Pancake Syrup
10. Jif Peanut Butter

4.  Do you have many French customers, or are they mostly American? Other nationalities?

Well, I don’t check IDs when customers are placing an order! But I am getting a sense that I am mostly serving Americans, or French people who have lived in the States for several years. Sometimes when promoting my service, it has been a challenge to deal with negative stereotypes French people carry about American food and cuisine. But I consider this is one of my missions as an “épicerie américaine!” Read more about it on my blog.

5.  What is the reaction of French people when you tell them about your business?

I often hear "Why on earth would you want to sell unhealthy American food when you live in a country with such sophisticated and savory cuisine?"

Well, don’t get me wrong: I love living in France and I am not complaining about the eating part either! Yet, I really enjoy American food for several main reasons:

- It reminds me of my “American home”
- I like the taste of it! Nothing can beat beef jerky as a snack to me. I know some of you would travel very far for a peanut butter cup. There are no substitutes here in grocery stores for cooking a decent pumpkin pie or spicing up your homemade chili.
- I love spreading American tastes. It makes me feel like I am contributing to fighting stereotypes or short-mindedness.

6.  Are there any other services like yours in France?

Yes. There are a couple of stores in Paris that carry an equivalent selection of American food products. Yet, My American Market’s way of doing business is dramatically different.

First, it’s an online store. Not everyone in France lives in Paris!  And even in Paris, it can be a hassle to get stuck in traffic, fight for a parking spot, carry heavy grocery bags around. It was important to me to offer a fast and convenient service for anyone to shop whenever the cravings get them and to have the products be delivered right to their door, wherever that front door might be located!

Second, I am building a business that is more than just a regular “Epicerie Américaine.”  It is a place with a sense of community, the American way! I use Web 2.0 tools and create a platform with many possibilities to communicate, exchange, network, cooperate, play and have fun with other members of the American community and friends. I’d like everyone to take part in the process if they wish, so My American Market becomes everyone’s contribution. If anyone would like to get a better feel of what I am doing, please become fan of My American Market on Facebook.

7. Do you have an estimate of how many American expat households there are in France? [I know there are official numbers, and some unofficial numbers.] Or semi-American, i.e. an American/French couple.

It is very hard to know how many Americans are currently living in France. I estimate there are 100,000+ citizens: 50% in Paris and its suburb, 50% in the rest of France.

8. Any good customer quotes?

Here is a small selection of client testimonials that I have received:

"I just love My American Market! Since I can't go to the States that often, I now have a super solution for getting my Reese’s candies, non-Canadian pancake syrup, Pam cooking spray and whatever else I feel like at the moment. American airport customs love to tear apart suitcases for pancake syrup, so now I don't have to worry about whether they can get my suitcase closed again or not. So when I do go to the States, I can just concentrate on leaving room in my suitcases for things that won't melt, leak or get smashed. With such excellent service and fast delivery, I'm thrilled!" Jenny from Merville (31)

"I am an American (originally from the Colorado area) currently living in Marseille with my (French) wife and our 4 year old son. We moved here last summer. I am often in search of products here and have to keep asking my mom to send them, so this is great!" Sean from Nice (06)

"I am married to a French man and have been living in the French culture for 25 years. But it is still important for me to celebrate American holidays. Now I know where to shop for next Thanksgiving." Susan from Neuilly sur Seine (92)

9.  Of course, this time of year is big for Americans and their food cravings. Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas. Do you stock special seasonal items for the American holidays?
I'm thinking candy corn, cranberry sauce, canned pumpkin pie, mint jelly, candy canes, etc.

Of course, we do carry seasonal products and the Holiday season should be our busiest time of the year. Our Thanksgiving and Christmas products can be found in the seasonal products category.


Anne said...

There was a store in Antibes that sold English and American foods...and for the life of me, I can't remember the name at the moment. It was incredible what folks would go there to get...Hellman's mayonnaise was popular (I immediately preferred aioli once I'd found it). I confess that I really missed canned pumpkin as I love pumpkin pie and pumpkin bread. Also certain spices were hard to come up with. So, I wish this new venture luck!!

All good wishes!!

Paris Poodle said...

This sounds like a great site! Since I've been in Paris I have definately heard a lot of food snobbery about American and British food and its not necessary! I will be telling all my US friends about this site - I know they have all been having food cravings of their own! As a Brit I can easily enough go home to restock on marmite and supernoodles and crumpets and dairy milk chocolate but it would be great to have a UK version too- just to make it that bit easier! I may have to blog about my Paris food adventures so far! Great site Polly!

shakesrear said...

Anne, it's called Geoffrey's. There's another British store in Valbonne called Britain's.

I'm an American who has been in France for over 8 years and I rarely crave any American food. I've learned to make stuff from scratch and I wouldn't go back. Now I know how to make the best pancakes in the world. The pure maple syrup here is so much better than that corn-syrup-filled American stuff. You can easily make your own peanut butter cups. You can find normal industrialized peanut butter in just about any supermarket and I get brown sugar from Galeries Lafayette.

The only things I really have a hard time finding are: black beans, organic peanut butter, baking powder (I hate the little packets they sell here), cornmeal, and Cambell's tomato soup.

but thanks for the post. I'll take a browse through the website.

Anonymous said...

what a wonderful attitude this woman has! my heart is officially warmed.

Omid said...

Kraft? Reese's? Aunt Jemima's?

These things only reinforce negative stereotypes about American food - that it's highly processed, tasteless and industrial. Not that the French aren't overly reliant on canned green beans and bagged pommes frites, but food like this isn't exactly going to raise the profile of American food amongst the French.

I'm not knocking the store. My American Market and brick-and-mortar outlets are great for expats who want to scratch a particular sentimental itch every so often. I, for one, am glad to be able to find graham crackers and root beer, as I often don't have the time to bake/brew my own.

But let's not delude ourselves. Stores selling these long shelflife products and mediocre "American" restaurants like Joe Allen, Mickey's Deli and Breakfast in America only further the gross misconception that food from the States is generally bad.

On that note, if one is going to sell processed/boxed/canned/jarred products as "alimentation typique," tastier, quasi-healthy mass-market brands like Newman's Own, Annie's Organic, or Kemper sodas would be much better American ambassadors to France.

Whatever reason we may have had for leaving the United States, we are duty-bound to accentuate the positive things of our old home. Blue-box mac & cheese ain't gonna do that.

Non Je Ne Regrette Rien said...

I wanted to like this idea. I have visited a few times, looking for spices and ingredients that I would use to create more authentic versions of American recipes... but alas, all I've found are processed and manufactured boxed foods or candies that I didn't eat in the U.S. ... and don't crave here either.

Examples ... I'm from the west coast and love my mexican style dishes...If I found Maseca on offer, or canned jalapenos, chipotles, tomatillos and pinto beans ... maybe. If I found real corn meal to make my own cornbread, sure.

Nestle's choco chips for cookies?

Pickling spices to make homemade sweet or bread & butter pickles, okay good. or to make dill pickles.

well, you get my drift. I keep checking back, hoping to see a drift towards unprocessed, non-prepackaged foods and ingredients for cooking from scratch. we'll see.

Omid said...

@non je ne regrette rien

In defense of My American Market, as much Mexican food as we eat in the US, it *is* an American store ;)

But for times when Indiana Café won't do (which is pretty much always) you can, providing you're in Paris, pick up canned mexican goods at Al Sol de Mexico in the 3rd. I don't know if they have maseca, but some of the South American shops have a slightly finer version which makes for good homemade tortillas.

In fact - again providing that you're in Paris - you can find real, non-premade ingredients to make authentic American and other ethnic food from scratch (or close to it) with only a little running around.

Naturally, not everyone's a cook nor has the time to be making things from scratch, so there's a definite demand for the stuff currently on offer. But if we, as consumers, start to demand better product instead of settling for industrial waste, we might start to see the supply. Simple economics ;)

Puzzles to Print said...

Well I looked at the site and it is really very well done. Prices looked reasonable compared with what I pay for example for peanut butter in the grocery store here east of Paris.

However, i do agree with most of the comments already made. Why buy these prepared foods in the first place? Better to dine simply if you haven't the time to prepare foods where ever you are living in the world.

The cost to our health and to the environment is perpetuating these products is not insignificant.

Thanks for posting this interview as I really did find it quite interesting!

Meg said...

Interesting post, Polly!

I think we Americans have a tendency to get our feathers a little ruffled when it's suggested that we are all living off of over-processed foods and lack a sophisticated palette.

But honestly, in the 'specialty' French markets here in the states you'll find similar items - sweets, sweets and more sweets, cheese and wine, maybe some jams and jellies. Things that have a longer shelf life.

I personally live an organic, healthy lifestyle, as most people do these days. But I gotta give it to Anne-Claire...even here in the states, when I've had a particularly bad day and I miss my mommy, a little peanut butter soothes the soul. Magnify that by 3,000 miles and I'd need more than a little. And who wants to make peanut butter cups from scratch, anyway? You're only gonna eat one...

Starman said...

€4.19 for a BUTTERFINGER? I can live without it.

megan said...

I'm very thankful for My American Market, as it allows my often homesick children a taste of their old life. That's not to say it's all they eat-they love French food, and all kinds of fruits and veggies. But every so often, if my kids want a Pop Tart or some Goldfish crackers, is that really so bad?

Christine in Wash, DC said...

Clearly we needn't worry about French perceptions when there are so many American snobs in France! Good heavens...I distinctly remember paying an arm and a leg for Oreos (something I never even eat here) when I was studying abroad. It cured my particular breed of homesickness that day. I doubt this proprietor would suggest people get all their food from her shelves...but everyone likes a treat. I for one love nestle tollhouse cookies (even when there are "better" options available. Sure, a soul food restaurant might do more to change perceptions, but I doubt it would be as marketable, because right or wrong, people like their junk food every once in awhile!

Non Je Ne Regrette Rien said...

C in W, DC-give me a break ... not liking processed foods doesn't make one a snob in any country or language. and I'd love to bake some toll house cookies, it is too bad myam doesn't sell toll house chips. many americans living in france would like to find ingredients that support american recipes in order to make them ... I think that would be a welcome addition to the myam site. I see no reason to buy food items here that I didn't buy in the states, just because they are American and so am I.

I agree that the site is well organized and the pricing is what you'll pay if you find these items in a shop in Paris or elsewhere. I also have to agree with Omid ... if shelf life is the issue, I'd still like to see some healthier options offered. After all, not all American expats are students or kids ... and a few products aimed toward a more mature palate would be appreciated. Over time, I'm sure the site will evolve based on the clientele's demands.

Anne in Oxfordshire said...

Reminds me of my trip to Oxford UK on Saturday..we have a small deli in the covered market, and they have America food items, also in the window display was Canned Pumpkin :-)

crunchycon said...

I spent part of my childhood in the sixties as an expat in Great Britain - until a Safeway supermarket was built a few years into our stay, my mother, who had three all-American kids to feed, had to rely my grandmother to send care packages of peanut butter to us (no worries, being in British public schools, we kids did get acclimated to British food pretty fast). Coming back to the States, though, shopping in a supermarket with its aisles of breakfast cereals and produce was something she had to get used to once again.

philippine groceries said...

This is so great i like it so much,keep posting!


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