Cat Beurnier has a sweet life in Paris, quite literally! She is the founder and owner of Sugar Daze, a leading American-style cake and cupcake business in Paris. Well known and savored by both expats and locals since it’s inception in 2008. When I met her and found out she was also an ex-ad girl from New York, with an equally entrepreneurial spirit, I took a liking to her immediately and began to inquire about the hardships of settling into life in Paris. Cat’s story not only inspired me but it filled me with hope that it does get easier and it is possible to create a new path, with great resolve, hard work and dedication to your dreams.
My story begins with a coup de foudre which happened approximately 29 years ago when I first visited Paris with my mother and grandmother. Though I had lived in New York City all my life (a city millions dream of running away to), the charm, the beauty, the history of Paris won me over almost the second our taxi turned off the Peripherique. Paris was a place I would return to time and again — on vacation, for a summer study abroad, for my junior year in university… I never tired of it and each trip left me wanting more. When I graduated from university, I spent a few months looking for work in various French corporations but my leads never panned out – unemployment was high and no one was willing to sponsor me, a recent grad with no real experience to get my work papers. I contemplated moving to France and working as an undeclared server at one of the many bars or restaurants that cater to the Anglo-Saxon crowd (something I had done the summer after my junior year). But in the end, I wasn’t brave enough to make the leap of faith and head down this unknown, unchartered course.
I found a job in a well-known ad agency in New York and fell into daily life as a young, single gal in the Big Apple. I loved my dynamic, fast-paced job. I very slowly started to work my way up the corporate ladder. I even got to travel to Paris a few times to assist on some new business projects. Fortunately, I had an endless supply of friends, and even some boyfriends, who happily agreed to accompany me on the frequent vacation to Paris so I could get my fix!
Fast-forward about 10 years, when I experienced love at first site for the second time in my life. I was at a party with an ex-boyfriend (who yes, I had at some point dragged to Paris!) when I saw this tall, handsome stranger standing with a group of people at the side of the room. I casually walked over, joined in their conversation and fell under the spell of his charm. As the evening went on, I found myself alone with him chatting and sharing stories as if we had known each other for years. At some point talk turned to how we knew the hostess and he told me she dated a friend of his before they both moved to New York. Curious to hear more, I asked where he was from. When he said Paris, my jaw dropped open. I hadn’t detected a hint of an accent in his voice, and yet when I looked closer, I saw that yes indeed, his choice of clothing, his mannerisms, his features, etc. gave away his distinct un-American-ness.
Long story short, over the course of the next five years we dated, moved in together, and married. The funny thing about my husband is that he was just as much a romantic about NYC as I was about Paris! Moving to France was never a consideration for us; I was content with the once a year or so trips we made to visit his family. And then our son was born and it was a total game changer. Cramped into our one-bedroom apartment with our son in a crib at our feet, we started fantasizing about the type of apartment we could have in France, and what neighborhood we would live in. On a whim, we listed our apartment in the Sunday NY Times and I don’t think either of us could really believe it when just a month later, we found ourselves signing it away. Those last few months in NY were surreal — we were new parents and about to set off on a whole new adventure on the other side of the Atlantic! My husband hadn’t lived in France for 10 years and I think he felt the culture shock coming back just as much as I did.
We arrived in Paris at the end of November seven years ago this month. For those of you who know Paris, you’ll probably agree this is one of the worst times to have started our new life here. Months of cold, damp and grey weather as a new mother unaccustomed to life outside the office left me feeling depressed and sullen. My husband’s friends, who had always been so warm and welcoming when we visited, many of them new parents too, were too busy with their day-to-day lives to hold my hand as we settled in. And to complicate matters, our fly by the seat of our pants “planning” meant living at my in-laws until we could find a place of our own. Which actually didn’t take too long as I was totally motivated! It took me a loooonnnngggg time to adjust to my new life in France, but little by little, I started making friends and got the hang of life as a stay-at-home mom.
France is a country where families are king. And the benefits families receive to ensure their kids are looked after as they return to work are nothing short of amazing. Because I had never worked legitimately in France, many of those benefits were not available to me, and my husband encouraged me to return to work before we thought about expanding our family. I had become very involved in an English-speaking parents group called MESSAGE, and took on the role of VP, Public Relations but it was pro-bono work and so no benefits to speak of. As I started to think about a return to corporate life, I realized that the long hours, the stress, the travel – it just wasn’t worth trading my time with my son. I found myself at the age of 35 taking a long hard look at my life as I tried to figure out what I “wanted to be when I grew up.” I decided on a radical change and began investigating the possibility of my own business.
One of my childhood dreams was to be a pastry chef. In fact, my closest elementary school friend, Suzanne, and I used to “host” a cooking show called “Snacks Delight” where every weekend we would whip up a different dessert in front of our “live studio audience” (usually comprised of her little sister or our Barbie dolls). As an adult, I studied pastry at a culinary school during a period of unemployment and worked for several restaurants and a caterer in the US. It’s physically hard work but something I enjoy enormously. I’ve never considered myself overly creative but when I bake, I have the sense of accomplishing something made with my own hands. Our last apartment in New York was just around the corner from the famous Magnolia Bakery and since I love cupcakes, I was inspired to import this traditional American dessert to my new adopted “hometown.” But just as this idea was taking shape, I found out I was pregnant again. I had to put my project on the back burner and there it stayed until late 2008. I had kind of given up hope on ever having my own store as I was just so busy with 2 children and dealing with everyday family life, which in a foreign country can sometimes be complicated. But I always found time to bake on the weekends, for friends, etc. and one day I found myself agreeing to make cupcakes for a friend of a friend for a party she was having. And thus my company, Sugar Daze (formerly Little Miss Cupcake), was born.
Around that time, I read an article in an entrepreneur’s magazine that advised that if you have a dream, and you don’t have the money or the support or the time to realize it, you don’t have to scrap your dream entirely. Instead, take a step back and figure out how to make this dream a reality on a smaller scale. And that is exactly what I have done by creating a small, custom order cupcake business. Things just took off after that first order; I started a blog to document my baking adventures which got my name out there, and through the grapevine, people came to hear about me and my cupcakes. Baking and making cupcakes is one of my greatest passions and knowing how happy they make people is a reward in and of itself. But it isn’t always a cakewalk. Most mornings, I am up and at my kitchen by 5 to bake the day’s orders fresh from scratch. I am back home by 8 to get my kids up, dressed and out the door for school. My daughter is only 3 and spends her afternoons with me. And so after a full day of shuttling my kids around and taking care of household chores (and my husband!), I often find myself working late into the night once everyone has gone to sleep to catch up on paperwork or to hand-craft the decorations that top my cupcakes. I am the sole employee of Sugar Daze and so this means that my responsibilities include answering all inquiries, shopping for supplies, baking and decorating all the cupcakes, doing my own accounting, creating marketing materials, making deliveries, etc. (and most of this is done in a language that is not my mother tongue!). I feel like a lot of my days are some wild juggling act where at any minute the whole thing is going to come crashing down but I’m doing something I absolutely love and that makes the difference.
I believe that many times in life, your destiny is shaped by being in the right place at the right time. Some may say this happened on the night I met my husband, and looking back, I realize how fortunate I was to start up my business just as the cupcake craze took hold in Paris. It’s taken a lot of work to get where I am today and without a storefront, it’s sometimes hard to compete with the growing number of cupcake stores. But I believe in my products and am constantly experimenting and improving my offerings to ensure they are the best American-style cupcakes you’ll find in Paris! Life continues to be a challenge but I am living proof that you can have your cake and eat it too!
To indulge in Cat’s dream life of cupcakes, take a look at all the sweet possibilities on her menu. I recommend La Vie en Rose or perhaps a Black Coffee in Bed? And let’s not forget the NYC classic Empire State of Mind. I could go on… Thank you Cat, for making life in Paris a little sweeter!
Update: In June 2012, Cat opened her Sugar Daze Bake Shop in the dynamic South Pigalle area of Paris. Sugar Daze serves an array of cupcakes – sweet and savory – cheesecakes, brownies and other American baked goods with a rotating daily menu, available for eat-in or take-out. Custom orders and cupcake classes are also available. The Bake Shop is open Wednesday-Sunday (see www.sugardazecupcakes.com for more details). 20 rue Henry Monnier, 75009, 09.83.04.41.77