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The two sides of a crêpe

By 13 June 2009 One Comment
Photo by Liang Shi

Filling a gap: Chef Cai Wenbo creates the utlimate Western pancake | Photo by Liang Shi

At the intersection of Di’anmen East Street and Di’anmen Inner Street stands a small crêperie no bigger than your average walk-in closet. Crammed inside, is a multinational and multicultural conglomerate owned by two people who couldn’t be more different.

Harbin native Cai Wenbo, 23, is an aspiring musician who made a living traveling around China wherever he could find work. His most recent job ended after a disagreement with his boss, which lead him to vow to never work to please someone else again.

“For those words, the following two months were very painful,” Cai said. “I walked through Beijing every day, back and forth, wanting to open a store.” Eventually, he stumbled upon a small stall that was available for rent.

Drawing inspiration from his father’s fermented tofu business back in his hometown, Cai decided to follow the same footsteps and open shop up in Beijing. The store lasted only six days before the owner of the stall told Cai to get out. The trademark scent of “stinky tofu” was bothering the customers of nearby establishments.

By chance, a stranger by the name of Bernel Thomas walked by on the last day and started a conversation with Cai. He invited the American into the stall to talk and explained his predicament. After a while, Thomas proposed the idea of opening a new trade: a crepe business, which he claims was Beijing’s first.

Bernel, currently a high school English teacher in Beijing, was no stranger to entrepreneurship. He previously owned a donut shop, Mr. Mini Donuts, in Japan and is also the owner and president of OnboardGlobal.com.

Thomas decided on crêpes because he saw the opportunity of diversifying the streets of Beijing with something different, he said. After preparing for two months, Mr. Crepe opened its doors, or rather, its windows on June 1 with Cai and Thomas working together as partners.

The greatest adversity Mr. Crepe faces while introducing this relatively new food to a Chinese audience is customers mistaking the crêpes for “jian bing,” a famous breakfast snack in Beijing that is physically similar to crêpes, but the taste is nowhere close.

“Jian bing is so popular in China, it’s everywhere!” Thomas said. ”It’s not a refined food. My thought [for] a food concept was to take something local and change it up.”

Instead of the fried egg, cilantro, green onion and chili sauce usually found in jian bing, Mr. Crêpe’s selections offer a variety of fruits and spreads, as well as more American-style fillings such as chicken Caesar salad, grilled chicken fajita, and more.

Thomas believes the key to the crêperie’s success is to keep his menu unique and authentic to its original culture. “I don’t believe in changing flavors [to appeal to a Chinese audience],” Thomas said. “You give up a lot of authenticity when you start adjusting your taste. Here, many restaurants are cultural cuisines and they do just fine without adjusting.“

Cai has a unique background of his own as a singer, songwriter and composer, formerly studying under Liu Yijun who is known to be one of China’s pioneering metal-rock guitarists. His Mr. Crepe day job allows him to have a steady income while pursuing his music career.

So far, business has climbed steadily and the goal is to open four more storefronts in Beijing within the next year, Thomas said. And the reaction of the customers?

“’Hao chi!’ is the usual reaction,” Thomas said. “Tastes so good!”

Photo by Liang Shi

A family affair: Bernel Williams and son cavort outside Beijing creperie | Photo by Liang Shi

One Comment »

  • China through new eyes said:

    [...] wrote an article about this particular food stand and it was regrettable that I discovered them only days before I [...]

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