PARIS — This is the busiest season for a coterie of specialty stores that have sprung up in the world's capital of haute cuisine--stores bringing Parisians such American classics as pancake mix, microwave popcorn and macaroni and cheese.
The shops, bearing kitschy Americana names such as "The Real McCoy" and "Thanksgiving," have challenged sticky import regulations and nightmarish shipping logistics to build a clientele of nostalgic expatriate Americans and open-minded French gourmands.
Their shelves are lined with products that don't appear in French "supermarches"--American favorites such as Dr. Pepper, Shredded Wheat and Oreos.
Thanksgiving, not surprisingly, stocks up for the holidays on cranberries, canned pumpkin and sweet potatoes: "All the ingredients," owner Judith Bluysen explained, "that you need to prepare a typical Thanksgiving meal that you can't find here."
It seems that despite their reputation for cultured palates, the French have a special affinity for pancake mix.
"It doesn't exist here," said Bluysen, a New Yorker whose tiny store is near the Bastille. "For Americans, it's a taste of home. For the French, it's a taste of America--very \o7 exotique.\f7 "
French imports of American breakfast cereals and pancake mix have skyrocketed to $11.4 million last year from $36,000 in 1986, according to the U.S. Foreign Agricultural Service, the export arm of the Agriculture Department.
Imports of American snack foods, such as potato chips, candy bars and cookies, also jumped nearly 50% in the first six months of 1991, according to Mike Dwyer, chief of trade and marketing analysis for the Foreign Agricultural Service.
The American food stores in Paris sell only a fraction of the imports, but the figures illustrate the breadth of the growing French interest in American products.
"They think it's chic to have American food in the house," said Michelle Fagans, a New Jersey native who works at The Real McCoy, a product-packed store the size of a one-car garage. "It's considered a luxury item."
Thanksgiving, The Real McCoy and The General Store--the latter has two branches in upscale Parisian neighborhoods--have labored to attract French customers, as well as their built-in American clientele. Store owners say about half their customers are American and half are French.
The French, who have long held rather disparaging views of American food, have been surprisingly willing to try American products, according to Jean-Pierre Bourbeillon, a Frenchman who opened the first General Store in 1985 after spending eight years in Boston.
"There are cliches and preconceived notions--that all American food is hot dogs and burgers," he said. "We had to start slowly."
Indeed, many French traditionalists still have a healthy disrespect for American cuisine, said Bluysen, who opened her store a year ago.
"A lot of older people think it's not a 'cuisine' at all," she said. "But there is a big, big interest in it, especially now that more French women are working and are looking for something quick and easy to prepare."
American food is not cheap in Paris. Import duties--intended in part to protect French farmers and producers--and shipping costs can boost the price of familiar products to splurge range.
At The General Store, a box of Nilla Wafers costs 39 francs (nearly $7). Wheat Thins sell for 59 francs ($10) at The Real McCoy. Ocean Spray Cranberry Juice Cocktail is 68 francs ($12) at Thanksgiving.
"Prices can be a surprise," Bluysen admitted, noting that the NutriGrain cereal she intended to sell for 39 francs is now priced at 65 francs because customs officers assessed it at a higher rate than she expected.
Some customers almost get misty-eyed when they see a product that reminds them of home, Bluysen said.
"People have come in from Ohio," she said, "and screamed when they saw Kraft macaroni and cheese."
Tex Mex food is a big seller at all the stores, thanks to a boom in trendy Mexican restaurants in Paris. But complicated shipping logistics boost the price of a Mexican-style staple--tortilla chips--to $5 a bag.
"Chips are an expensive item to move around the world," Bourbeillon said. "Because they are so light, but take up so much volume, they get penalized tremendously."
At times, American products are simply refused by customs officials.
"We once had to destroy a whole shipment of Celestial Seasonings tea because of some law on the books from the 17th Century about herbs being put together in certain combinations," Bluysen said. Her loss came to $2,000. Now, she added, Celestial Seasonings is available through a French importer.
Thanksgiving also sells American dog and cat food--"a big hit with French people," Bluysen said. "They give it to friends as a joke gift." Most of the French serve their pets European-made pet food.