Eat + Drink

How Fondation Cafe is Changing the Rules of Sipping Coffee in the City of Lights

Fondation cafe is challenging the way Parisians think of cafes in Paris. (Illustration: Kemi Mai; Photos: William Lounsbury)

Strolling up the Rue Dupetit Thouars in Paris’ 3rd arrondissement on a freezing day at the end of February, Fondation Cafe appears like a beacon of light and hope, its white-painted frame standing out against the somber tones of the street and its glass facade offering a preview of warmth and comfort within. Granny smith-green cups sit in stacks atop the espresso machine. Potted plants are tucked between bags of locally roasted coffee on simple shelves. Large copper tiles cover the wall behind the counter, bathing the interior in a soft, reflected light.

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True, there’s not a lot of interior to bathe: The entire indoor space measures 14 square metres, which makes a lot of Parisians wonder about the name (in French, Fondation refers specifically to a large-scale institution). According to founder Chris Nielson, people often walk in puzzled, asking, “C’est une fondation pour quoi?”

But though it’s tiny, the cafe is part of a much larger movement that is re-writing the rules on dining, drinking, and sipping coffee in the world’s most-visited city. Nielson is one of a group of young, international entrepreneurs who are challenging the protectionist bureaucracy that has frozen so many Parisian establishments in a state of tourist-facing mediocrity, ushering in a new wave of quirky, quality-focused destinations.

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A short list of these would include Holybelly, the cheery Canal Saint-Martin hangout whose owners have lived in Vancouver and Melbourne; Flesh, the new chic/minimalist BBQ joint a stone’s throw from the Moulin Rouge whose chef grew up in Southern California; Chez Bouboule, which has induced even the most proper young Parisians to shed their inhibitions and play indoor pétanque of an evening; Glass, the glowing late-night dive that has made Pigalle a destination for cocktail connoisseurs; and Broken Biscuits, the bakeshop which supplies Fondation Cafe with its inventive tarts (mango caramel, strawberry and basil compote with white chocolate mousse) and is run by a pastry chef couple from Dublin.

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Nielson is emblematic of this new generation. He came to Paris from Australia, spent some time in Stockholm while his wife Emily finished her architectural studies, then moved back here, where he worked at vanguard cafe Ten Belles. The couple had always craved the challenge of setting up their own shop—Emily designed the space—and Fondation was just a case, he says, of “finding the right people with the right sensibilities.”

He’s storming another bureaucratic barricade with the “Fondatruck,” a Citroen van his team found in a barn and which they’ve painted the same green as their crockery. The Mairie de Paris does not (yet) allow food trucks to roam the city, but the Fondatruck has been providing third-wave coffee to private events like trade shows and university track meets.

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Are tactics like the Fondatruck becoming more important, as a way to stand out in an increasingly crowded, hyper-caffeinated field? Nielson says he’s not worried about competition; he’s more interested in community, which is one of the reasons he decided to settle here.

“Every place that opens just serves to strengthen the message of what we’re trying to do,” he explains. Every new cafe is another place he can visit on his day off. “Realistically, there’s not that many of us,” he adds. “We’re still relatively small. So every single time someone opens a shop, we all celebrate.”

This story first appeared on Medium.com as part of Gone – a collection of smart, surprising and compulsively readable travel stories, launched in partnership with the Marriott portfolio of brands.