Anti-Fast Food in France

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A server at the French fast food restaurant, Cojean.

Arriving on a motorcycle, wearing jeans and a carrying a backpack, Alain Cojean is hardly the image of a Paris restaurant mogul. But then again the 45-year-old with an unassuming but frenetic demeanor hasn't created your typical Paris eatery. On an unusually warm April morning across the street from the Louvre, in a former tea salon in a building built in the mid-19th century, he is inspecting progress on the construction of what will be the newest location of his namesake fast-food restaurant. Five or six weeks from now, the team of workers sanding and drilling will give way to crowds of customers ready to sample the fresh foods served quickly, with a focus on nutrition, in a modern, smoke-free environment that has become the trademark of Cojean. Since opening his first restaurant in 2001, he has expanded his chain to nine locations, mostly clustered in the office-heavy 8th and 9th Arrondissements of the French capital. And he's done it all without any advertising.

The restaurant chain's popularity is proof that in a city famous for its smoky brasseries and aloof, bow-tied waiters serving up artery-clogging dishes, there are citizens hungry for alternatives. Until Cojean, Parisian lunchers who didn't have time for hour-long steak-frites meals were mostly limited to baguette sandwiches on the run or the international fast food chains hardly noted for their selection of nutritional offerings. But now Cojean, with his vegetable-packed toasted sandwiches, chicken curry wraps and salmon and quinoa salads, is the de facto godfather of a near-movement. In the last few years, other like-minded, health-conscious fast food restaurants have sprouted up around town, with easy-to-pronounce, linguistically neutral names like Bioboa, Noon, Jour and the deliciously provocative Eatme. The Belgian chain Exki (motto: "natural, fresh & ready") opened their first location in France last August — also in Paris's financial district. All of these places emphasize fresh products, clearly labeled ingredients and absolutely nothing fried.

Cojean has quickly gained a faithful following of regulars, and for its eponymous founder, his success isn't strictly business. "This may seem silly," he says, "but what motivates me is that I'm really passionate about food and wanted to create something beautiful that had the best quality products and service." Sounds like p.r. boilerplate, but Cojean has the bona fides to back it up — a grand irony that is a little-known secret: he's a 15-year veteran of McDonald's Europe. Literally the day after he resigned as one of the hamburger giant's directors of research & development in 2000 he began writing up the business plan for his hip and healthy restaurant chain. The move was a radical one, even beyond the significant change in cuisine. "In my last job, I was making three times as much money as I'm making now, and I had to move to a smaller apartment," he says, "but I'm very, very happy."

His story is a testament to perseverance almost bordering on naivete: when he sought financing, he had no capital nor a financial advisor, and went to bank after bank for a year and half seeking start-up money. "They kept saying no, but I knew it was just a matter of time, because I had a sound idea. It was the 14th bank that gave me the loan." Now celebrating half a decade, with three openings in 2006 alone, Cojean has been profitable since last year. Not bad for a guy who's never read a marketing book and claims to have no long-term business plan.

He also has no public relations department nor even a business card — just his cellphone and backpack and motorcycle, deciding each morning at which location he'll spend the day. Alain Cojean would be a decidedly unconventional CEO, if ever he cared to take the title. Daily menus and product development is more and more solely in the hands of Fred Maquair, his associate and old friend of almost two decades. After the first few restaurants opened, Cojean bought a large kitchen in an industrial section of the Left Bank, where the food for the day is prepared then delivered to the restaurants. His employees, all young and outfitted in powder blue T-shirts, are hardly the traditional French model of food industry professionals and more like a typical American chain waitstaff: enthusiastically working to put themselves through school or pay the rent while going to auditions.

The growth of the lunchtime crowds at his and others' "anti-fast food" eateries is due in part to change in mindsets toward healthier diets and lifestyles. Indeed, with next February's law that will prohibiting smoking in cafes and restaurants, and even the international fast food chains adding veggie-centric offerings, the proverbial tipping point may have already been reached. All this attention on nutrition and fresh food environments makes Alain Cojean one happy restauranteur. He doesn't even mind the competition. Well, at least not anymore. "It bugged me at first that we kind of served as a laboratory for some of these other ones before they got started," he says, "but in the end, more fresh food around town is obviously a positive development." And he doesn't take his daily diners for granted: "One of my colleagues told me that the best reward is seeing so many pregnant women here," he says with a smile. "It's a beautiful thing." Not only a vote of confidence, it might also mean the promise of a future generation of customers.