There once was a time when there was no good coffee to be found in Paris.
Those days are, thankfully, over. But now that Parisians have found a soft spot for specialty coffee and the cafes that serve it, a new problem has arisen: the desire to plug into a trend, regardless of whether or not you understand what sparked that trend.
In the last year, there has been a move towards cafes with a certain look and a certain vibe. But this “copy and paste” attitude of what it takes to launch a hip cafe doesn’t always mean there’s quality behind it. I have seen plenty of cute looking spaces that end up serving industrial quality coffee made on a dirty, not-so-loved machine. There’s always a flip side to growth; when a market is created, develops, and then flourishes, copycats emerge.
So when a new cafe opens in Paris, I am always interested to see if it’s simply taking part in this trend, or if there’s something more genuine behind it. I was happy to discover that the Belleville neighborhood’s new cafe, CREAM, is definitely part of the latter.
Launched by two former 10 Belles baristas, CREAM owners Max Armand and Joe Elliott have created a space that’s poised to become a neighborhood hub. At CREAM, the space definitely has that quintessential “cafe feel” but upon walking in, you get the sense that it’s actually authentic. The cafe doesn’t fall into the trap of the Parisian coffee scene, where shops are often criticized for being “too Brooklyn” or “too Portland” or “too [insert any other coffee capital in the world]”—meaning that they have simply imported an interior.
Armand tells me that they did all of the renovations themselves, with the help of friends and family. One friend built the tables and chairs and another painted all the upcycled window shutters that are used around the interior to create a funky and relaxed vibe. For example, the tiling on the floor was discovered just a week before opening, when Armand and his counterparts decided to rip up a section of the floor and realized that beautiful vintage tiles were underneath. On the back wall behind the coffee bar hangs a huge mirror—this also came with the space when they bought it—that is now used to feature the coffee menu.
I asked why Armand and his business partner Elliott had chosen the Belleville neighborhood. Don’t let the fact that the Belleville roastery is just a stone’s throw away mislead you—this is a neighborhood of Chinese restaurants and kebab shops, not specialty coffee. “For us it’s a challenge,” says Armand, speaking of the fact that when it comes to serving good coffee, often you have to get a crowd to understand why it’s worth paying a little more for a quality product. “There’s a lot of work to be done here… that makes for a greater feeling of success.”
Armand points out that they wanted to stay far away from Canal Saint Martin, a hip neighborhood fairly close by that’s now synonymous with trendy cafes. “It’s starting to be saturated over there,” says Armand. For him, Belleville is a quartier génial. A great neighborhood, both because of the people, the diversity, and the fact that he feels challenged in his work.
On one wall sits a shelf full of Belleville Brûlerie beans for sale. Next to it is a record player. When I was there, Fleetwood Mac was playing. “We invested only in analog machines,” says Armand. You won’t find an mp3 player anywhere, but you will find the usual gamut of high-end coffee equipment. Doing the renovation themselves and using materials available to them instead of buying new allowed the pair to save money for quality machinery.
Throughout the day you can buy homemade baked goods, and at lunch there is a selection of sandwiches and soups, all made in house. You could say that Armand is an advocate for slow food, coffee, and life in general. “We love doing things that take a little more time, but that you have to do well,” says Armand, speaking about making coffee. “People have to learn to wait a little bit more time for something that’s really good.”
While we spoke, CREAM recieved its daily delivery of eggs and fresh produce, and a man, obviously a local from the neighborhood, came in on his way to work.
“Espresso?” Armand asked, with an intonation that clearly indicates that he knows the man’s usual order.
“Yes, but takeaway today,” the man responded, looking at his watch.
It might seem like a trendy choice to take the time to make specialty coffee and bake pastries in house, but at CREAM it’s easy to see that those choices are just about being an integral part of the local neighborhood, making a product and making it well, and creating a space that’s inviting and that people feel comfortable going to.
“Not too pretentious,” Armand says, referring to the people that are starting to make CREAM a regular spot on their list of hangouts. Pretentious it is definitely not, and as the Paris scene continues to grow, we can only hope for more places like this.