Paris is a city of neighborhoods. That is to say, that while people may work in another part of town, all the essential day-to-day Parisian routines—buying a baguette, getting vegetables, finding a good slab of funky smelling cheese—happen close to home. Certainly, people venture far beyond their doorstep to try new restaurants, go to art exhibitions, and take advantage of all the other wonderful things that Paris has to offer, but there is a certain attachment to one’s neighborhood that makes the big city a collection of smaller villages.
Until now, the specialty coffee scene has been concentrated in a very small area of town, specifically the 10th or the 11th arrondissement. In this part of Paris it seems like there's a new coffee shop on every single block. That exciting coffee scene dovetails with some of the city's hottest restaurants and cocktail bars. It's undeniable, really; the 10th & 11th are the epicenter of Paris’ younger culinary scene, for which good coffee is happily, ineffably, very much a part.
While it’s nice to have this hub, it does come with its critics. Too hip, too many expats, too many single-speeds that are too sleek and shiny. Have they ever even been ridden?
This is all to say that if the coffee scene is going to truly change in Paris, then it’s going to take more than just a handful of cool specialty coffee shops in the hip parts of town. Until the neighborhood cafe is serving good coffee, then specialty coffee will remain mostly a fringe activity. And that’s exactly what makes the opening of the new cafe Hexagone, a project three years in the making, so very exciting indeed.
Located on the Left Bank in the 14th arrondissement—not far from the Montparnasse train station—on a quiet street, the joint venture of David Lahoz, Sébastien Racineux, Chung-Leng Tran, and Stéphane Cataldi is an embrace of specialty coffee culture à la francaise. The wooden counter was made by local MadinPariss, and the pastries are made by Yohan Kim. On the wall next to the coffee counter there is a selection of Hexagone beans, coffee essentials like Hario kettles and Chemexes, and a variety of artisanal French products, like limonade and salted butter caramels. And with Cataldi behind the roasting process, the cafe will serve exclusively Hexagone beans, all specifically selected by the four business partners.
“We wanted to distinguish Hexagone from other Parisian coffee shops,” Lahoz told me, “by giving it a more ‘Frenchie' touch, and pulling us away from names and pastries that are more Anglo-Saxon.” Even the cafe name is a nod in this direction; because of its geometric shape, France is often referred to as l'hexagone.
What’s surprising for most coffee lovers in Paris is the choice of location. The 14th is no man’s land when it comes to specialty coffee culture. But for the team behind Hexagone, choosing this area was intentional, and it means opportunity.
“We have a role as an ambassador, and it’s more interesting to surprise, to break down misconceptions, and provide new emotions rather than do business with people already convinced [about specialty coffee],” says Racineux, who runs the French coffee site Espressologie. “It will certainly be hard in the beginning, but if it’s not passionate artisans that do it, who will?”
Even without knowing what they were up to, it was clear before the opening that the locals were intrigued and excited. “At the end of the construction, residents from the area came to say hi to us, welcome us to the neighborhood. The space was empty for at least a year, and people seemed happy to see a business open up here again,” says Tran, adding that this makes the neighborhood “a little bit like a village.”
It’s that village spirit that the team behind Hexagone is betting will work in their favor. “We are aware of the challenge, but it doesn’t scare us, even if we know that we’re in an arrondissement with less tourism and therefore fewer potential clients who are knowledgeable,” says Lahoz. “We bet on the family side of the neighborhood, as well as office employees, business owners, and artisans around Hexagone.”
A comment about the specialty cafe culture in Paris that you tend to hear, specifically in regards to the cafe goers, is that it’s one filled with outsiders, that you have a higher likelihood of hearing English in a coffeeshop than French. I’ve heard this comment many times, and occasionally would be forced to agree, but it is an oversimplification in my (admittedly outsider) opinion. Go to any specialty coffee event in France and you quickly see that at its core, the Parisian coffee scene is full of natives passionate about a good product and sharing that with others.
Specialty coffee in France—indeed throughout continental Europe—has been influenced by other countries who came to specialty coffee a bit earlier, but as the scene in France grows, it is most certainly learning how to define and distinguish itself from its early influencers. These passionate individuals are now starting to spread out beyond the well-known coffee hubs, where the initial coffeeshops have worked hard to change the local culture. This is where the future of the French specialty coffee scene lies. It is an enormously exciting transition to watch, and it's happening right this very moment in the streets of Paris.
“We all discovered specialty coffee at some point, and we never turned back,” says Stéphane Cataldi, himself very much a native Frenchman pushing coffee's boundaries in l'hexagone. “I don’t see why it couldn’t be the same in this part of Paris.”
Anna Brones is a Sprudge.com staff writer based in Paris, the founder of Foodie Underground, and the co-author of Fika: The Art Of The Swedish Coffee Break, available now from Ten Speed Press. Read more Anna Brones on Sprudge.