“Today, when people travel, they want to feel like they’re taking part in the life of a city. They want to do things that are perceived as being less touristy; they want to be seen as a local, they want to feel like a part of the community that goes on here. I think it’s an idea that applies to any city; being outside, experiencing the landscape of a place, that’s what people are looking for in traveling, and that’s the business model, offering this experience in Paris.”
I sat down last week with Daniel Dawson, one of the founders of Paris Picnic, a company who boasts the title of the city’s first picnic delivery service. We spoke at their store on the Rue Notre Dame de Nazareth in the 3rd arrondissement, a street just off the Place de la République which houses a selection of upscale boutiques, contemporary art galleries, and bars and restaurants frequented by a crowd coming from the surrounding Haut-Marais area of Paris.
Paris Picnic was conceived of by an ex-pat couple, Patrick and Katya Johnson. The idea began a few summers ago, when Patrick and Katya joined with a few friends in the Parc Monceau. With the gathering heading towards a palpable end, the group instead chose to continue on with a picnic, but an idea that seemed at once casual and impromptu turned into a process of determining who would buy what, where was the closest and most convenient place to purchase said picnic components and trying to defy the French tradition of all stores being closed on Sundays.
It’s always the story, the common thought that life would be so much simpler if there was an app to complete menial tasks, but what Katya and Patrick did instead was pair this level of convenience with the resulting joy and pleasure in the aesthetics these seeming-burdens create, providing not only the concrete elements of a picnic, but the less-tangible though still discernible experience as well.
Patrick, Katya and Daniel were joined by Jeremy Attuil in beginning Paris Picnic. Jeremy is a former lawyer-turned restaurateur, starting the famed fish and chips spot The Sunken Chip near the Canal Saint-Martin. “We were three Americans, Patrick, Katya and I, so not exactly the best group of people to attempt navigating through the French bureaucracy. We brought Jeremy in as the fourth partner because while we were all very interested in food, it wasn’t what we had been doing with our lives up until that point.”
Daniel explains how he started off with the company, “It was the summer of 2014 and I started off on the technical side because I was working in London and had experience in that field. I was building the ordering system and the website, just a basic design that said what we did. Katya was in charge of operations. She made the picnics in a very small kitchen space, delivering them entirely by herself.”
“And even though no one really knew about us, we were gaining interest from people seeing us in the parks, so we sent out a press release, getting in contact with a few bloggers and journalists. A few stories were written, but we were still only doing one picnic a day, maybe every two days. It was about halfway through the summer when we had a number of really good reviews on Trip Advisor, with our first 30 or 40 receiving all five-star ratings. And it kept growing like that, until we were suddenly in the top five of Paris’ restaurants on the site. That’s when we took off; it’s not the typical restaurant that you would see on such a list, but maybe that’s why it’s gained interest.”
With this increasing interest in what Paris Picnic offers came the awareness of the need to sustain this growth. “When you’re providing a service to someone and the numbers seem to be growing at an exponential rate, you’re also conscious that you need to keep offering what you’re doing at the same level you were doing before. Again, it’s all about the experience, and if you’re not offering something which meets and then exceeds the expectations of the people you’re giving this to, they’ll lose interest. We’re really looking for sustainable growth rather than growth purely for its own sake. We know that if we do the latter, it’s not going to last.”
Listening to what Daniel’s telling me, I question the means with which Paris Picnic has gained traction, about how it’s developed an audience and a following. As a millennial, I’m accustomed to scrolling through social media sites and reading carefully-curated travel and food blogs when trying to discover new places to go, to try different places to eat. I have little familiarity with the Trip Advisor site, and I realize that it’s a realm of the Internet that few people my age discuss or reference when looking for recommendations. What accounts for this difference in resources? Is it something that’s purely generational, or is there more at play and at stake in how social media attracts us and how we use it as a result?
“We’ve made some attempts at social media; we keep a pretty active Instagram account, but what I’ve found with social media is that different platforms work for different companies based upon their product. Instagram allows us to give a visual of what we offer, our followers can see people enjoying a picnic in an idyllic setting. It gives an image of what we do and oftentimes, it makes the viewer want to have that experience as well. We can’t communicate that same idea through the 100 or so characters Twitter offers you.”
I like those final words that Daniel uses, the understanding that the purpose of social media is the communication of an idea, the conveying and promotion of a concept with the intention of developing a community around these common interests. Food is no different. Though our impression of our experiences are subjective and though we each seek out something consistent with our individual preferences, we use others’ opinions as reference points to guide our own. Through Instagram, through Trip Advisor, even through the seemingly-antiquated word of mouth.
I think more about the rapidity with which Paris Picnic has gained its following, about how the company advertises itself as eliminating the laborious aspects of picnicking: shopping, preparing the food, and picking a spot. But these are components which the French enjoy just as much as the picnic itself. What does this suggest about the clientele? How does this illustrate the differences in how Americans understand French values and the reality of these practices themselves?
“Our clientele is about 90% expats, people traveling to Paris on vacation. The other 10% is filled in by Parisians looking to do something special for a significant occasion. In our picnics, we offer the entire thing. It’s not only the food, but the blanket, the plates, and the napkins, all of which puts us at a higher price point than a typical Parisian wants to pay for just going to a park and doing a picnic.”
I listen to Daniel and realize that this is where the difference between French and American culture in this realm is defined. The American conception of the French picnic, of French dining, is an event, it’s a process which seems intimidating and which must be reserved for special occasions. For the French, it’s simple. Though the final result may not be as grand, may not be as extravagant, it doesn’t have to be. For the French, a picnic is a chance to be outside, good food and friends, sans soucis.
Daniel continues upon this thought. “It’s certainly a convenience thing as well. If you’re a tourist and you don’t speak the language and you don’t know which shops to go to, running around figuring all of that out isn’t necessarily how you want to spend your vacation in Paris. Having it all done ahead of time gives a guaranteed level of quality and convenience to people who don’t necessarily want to spend an entire day of their vacation hunting down the best products.”
Daniel delves further into the specifics of their products, of their locality and seasonality. “Our wines are picked from a place just a few stores down called Trois Fois Vin. The woman who runs it, Marie-Dominique, only carries wines from the vineyards she’s visited. She has to know the makers and she has to see how they’ve produced the wine. We’ve applied this same focus on seasonality and sustainability to the food as well. We rotate through different fruits and vegetables depending on the season and we get those from distributors at Rungis, the world’s largest wholesale food market which replaced the market at Les Halles in 1969. They have a million different people selling every single food item you could possibly imagine. It’s incredible; it moves about 6 billion euros worth of food each year. And for pâtisserie, we use Broken Biscuits, a bakery in the 11th run by an Irish-English couple, Christine and Chris. The partnership formed before I started with Paris Picnic, but I think it’s the idea that the expat community is small enough that we were able to discover one another.”
The conversation begins to slow, and I ask suddenly about the future of Paris Picnic, wondering what comes next after seeing significant growth and increasing popularity. Though Patrick and Katya have moved on, making a transition from Paris to Singapore, they have plans to come back eventually. Because of this, Daniel is full-time and Jeremy is still working in an administrative capacity, though he’s filled his schedule already with two other projects in addition to the Sunken Chip.
“Right now, we’re looking for a use for the boutique during the day. There’s the possibility of doing lunch or doing something with guest chefs coming in to do events. One of the other things we’ve considered is opening some type of related shop, sort of a spin-off of the idea, maybe a pâtisserie or something. But as of yet, nothing formal has happened.”
I leave the store and turn off to the left. I take a look across the street and notice the company’s yellow, three-wheeled delivery truck, Pepe. It's a perfect name and a perfect vehicle for the company's ideal, concept and design. Pepe is charming, something you'd want to see on a sun-filled afternoon if you're sitting in the Jardin du Luxembourg, hoping to benefit from the soft sunlight coming through the perfectly-cut trees. But even if it's simply chance that brings the encounter, seeing Pepe is a reminder that others are waiting for him. They're waiting to enjoy gorgeous food in the company of friends or family, put together with attention to detail and quality, in a beautiful city. In Paris.