In Parisian summer, staying in your shoebox-sized studio during waves of warm weather is unbearable. In most places air conditioning is not really an option, unless you’re a pricey brasserie or a place catering to tourists. Although tourism increases in the summer months, Paris’ local population takes a definitive dive with some neighborhoods becoming complete ghost towns. In mid-August even finding a doctor can be a trying task.
For so many locals, the solution to battling the heat is to sit in the open air, having picnics along the water. The tradition of river lazing is so popular in summer, the city of Paris sets up a faux beach along the Seine in the heart of downtown for the hottest weeks of the year. But anytime the weather is good you’ll find packs of crowds along small bodies of water, drinking wine, eating rich, soft cheese, smoking hand-rolled cigarettes and doing general French things.
Where most restaurants see their customers fleeing, the Pink Flamingo found their niche. Located two blocks from the St. Martin Canal, a popular picnic spot, this pizzeria specializes in canal-side pizza delivery. Customers: go to the store, order a pizza, pay, get a pink balloon which will help the delivery person locate them on the canal, find a spot on the water and kick back and wait!
The pizza in the video is the Poulidor and it’s just one of many signature pizzas on the menu. Other pizzas come topped with such innovative toppings like green curried coconut milk, paella, pineapple chutney.
Perhaps AS exciting as the pizza is getting a hot pink balloon right after placing your order. It’s an immediate reward that Pavlov would be proud of. I pay money and I get a balloon! My inner child comes alive and I’m happy to carry around the balloon the rest of the evening which is appropriately branded with their flamingo logo.
The hot pink balloons aren’t the only thing flashy about the Pink Flamingo. Their interior decor screams vintage, punk and rebellion. Plastic flamingos, colored lights and vintage objects decorate the stores. They truly live up to their slogan, “pas come les autres” or “not like any other.”
I sat down with co-owner Jamie Young, a native of Boston who came to France 15 years ago with his French wife and business partner Marie Ravel. Young invited me to meet him at his recently opened American gastropub called Floyd’s. A stuffed bear head hung on the wall as we talked about his first business venture Pink Flamingo, now 6 stores strong in 3 different countries: France, Spain and the Netherlands.
Young began his career in pizza making with he was just 18 years old and like riding a bike, he kept his skills with him when he moved to France and began working in a kitchen which served pizza in a full scale restaurant. “About 10 years ago, the quality of pizza in Paris was really low. There was maybe 1 or 2 places for a decent pizza and that was it.”
While his focus wasn’t initially geared toward pizza, Young discovered that pizza was entirely versatile and became the subject of his culinary experiments. At the end of the day in the restaurant, he began gathering the leftovers from the plat du jour or daily special and putting it on the next day’s pizza. Pizzas with nontraditional ingredients like cuban pork and boeuf bourguignon became a reality.
In Paris, where food has its strict rituals and boundaries, this kind of pizza had never been seen before. Parisians were horrified and intrigued at having their favorite meals sold on a pizza. Soon Young was having customers asking about the daily special so that they could come back the next day and have it on a pizza. Before long Young realized that within Paris’ food dictatorship, there was a market for something fresh and innovative, something rock n’ roll, which they named Pink Flamingo.
Top 5 challenges from the start
Young and his wife were plagued with challenges the first two years they were open. Keeping faith in their brand, they witnessed a growing following and have since been approached by a few dozen people wanting to open a franchise. Below are some of their biggest obstacles they faced.
Challenge 1: No money for advertising
It’s a familiar problem for pizzerias. There is very little money for advertising so what do you put it into? 10 years ago social media wasn’t developed yet and mainstream advertising in radio or TV would be impossible in the competitive Parisian market with so many restaurants. Their biggest campaign was printing stickers and using guerrilla marketing to spread them around Paris. They also delivered menus in mailboxes. Perhaps most importantly, their logo was visible on all of the hot pink balloons that picnickers would take to the canal. I personally kept my balloon long after we left the canal.
Challenge 2: What do non-Italians know about pizza?
Even today the French will often equate a very good pizza with a very Italian pizza. The idea in their minds is frequently that pizza has always been and always must be a traditional food from Italy. Young was forced to face harsh skepticism from the French which stereotype American food as being greasy, fried and completely unhealthy. With this store he was able to show that fresh and organic ingredients were important to his brand. Any criticism toward his food quality were always resolved after the customer actually tried the pizza, states Young.
Challenge 3: Pizza was not held in high esteem
Pink Flamingo offers a gourmet pizza experience which was completely new for the people of Paris. Young explained that when he told people he had opened a pizzeria the response was not enthusiastic. He was frequently met with a sighing, “what else is new type attitude.” This problem was also resolved by insisting that people TRY the pizza.
Challenge 4: Picnicking wasn’t really popular yet
The area of Canal Saint Martin is packed full of eager picnickers today during the summer months but when Pink Flamingo opened its humble doors in 2005 people did not have the habit of idling by the water with food and drinks. Young and Ravel chose their location near the canal with the idea of delivering canal-side from the start but it took some pressuring customers at the beginning to get things moving. Young states that they would force the balloon into their hand and tell them “TRUST ME, go sit on the canal. Just GO!” Customers seemed unsure, but would hesitantly head over to wait for their pizza. In time you could see several balloons waving along the canal, a testament to their popularity.
Challenge 5: Never compromise
Pink Flamingo prides itself on selling unique pizzas and ONLY selling unique pizzas. When customers would request classic toppings like merguez sausage or mushrooms, employees had to be trained to never apologize. Especially as stores were opened in more locations and other countries, franchisees had suggestions for how to tweak the recipes to appeal to their neighborhood or country. Young and Ravel stuck to their guns and continue to remind franchisees that their recipes are not up for changes.
Future for the Flamingo
Young notes that although the figurative Parisian nut has been cracked into enjoying far out pizza, by far his most enthusiastic customers are British and Americans who are much more open to trying pizza which is “unlike any other.” Many Brits and Americans discover Pink Flamingo through the Lonely Planet guidebook which lists Pink Flamingo as one of their restaurant picks in Paris.
Young says him and his wife are considering opening their next store on the American West coast since it’s so popular with the American crowd. Also, after 15 years in rainy Paris, a little California sunshine wouldn’t hurt.