By Julie Anne Russell
The scent of freshly baked pastry floats on the air nearly a block away from the Beard Papa shop, where a window full of cream puff shells entices passersby. Inside the narrow store, a smiling bakery worker quickly fills a pastry shell with a burst of custard cream, sprinkles a bit of powdered sugar on top and voila, the cream puff is ready.
While cream puffs may be French in origin, the store’s bright yellow and orange decor and Santa-like logo character seem more anime than gourmet. In fact, the Beard Papa chain is the latest culinary import from Japan. Its parent company, Muginoho Ltd., has already opened more than 240 stores in Asia in just eight years and plans to execute a similarly rapid expansion in North America. In Manhattan, where the first Beard Papa store outside Asia opened last year, the clientele eat up 5,000 puffs a day on the weekends.
Many customers find that the cream puffs, which are sold individually for $1.25 or in packages of six or 12, quickly become a favorite treat. “They’ll come in and try one piece, and they’ll come back half an hour to an hour later and get another,” said Sono Yi, who owns the second New York store, which opened in September. “Then they go home and come back and get a box to give their family.”
For the country that gave us sushi, any attempt to conquer the American sweet tooth may seem surprising. But Beard Papa has a recipe for success. It’s a top secret recipe, of course, and the Beard Papa pastry shell is even patented in Japan, with patents pending in North America. The company admits that the important thing is using only the best ingredients, like vanilla beans exclusively from Madagascar. Beard Papa puffs, Yi said, “are nothing like the usual cream puff.”
Beard Papa’s pastry shells are beige-colored clouds that neatly fill the palm of the hand. Their special two-layer structure was developed by Muginoho’s founder, Ugyuji Hirota, to have both a soft, inner layer, called the choux, after the French term, and a crispy outer layer. Each shell is filled at the time of purchase from a gleaming silver container of custard cream. The result is a cream puff so fresh that it’s best eaten on the spot.
For those willing to experiment, Beard Papa puffs also come in a variety of cream flavors, like strawberry, chocolate, pumpkin, coffee and the unusual, but delicious, green tea. According to Craig Takiguchi, vice president of development for Muginoho, the company debated bringing flavors like green tea and the forthcoming black sesame, which are extremely popular in Japan, to the United States. Ultimately, they decided that the cultural experience is part of the attraction, he said.
The store’s roots are evident in everything from the name of store, which sounds awkwardly translated, to the staff of mostly Japanese employees, dressed in white chef’s jackets and hats, who are instructed to greet the customers in Japanese. Even the streamlined design of the store--the setup can fit in just 150 square feet--reflects the need to be efficient with space in crowded Japan.
The original Beard Papa stores fed off Japan’s love of French cuisine, Takiguchi said. The standard cream puff recipe was modified to be lighter and milder to appeal to the Japanese palate.
Each cream puff packs in about 250 calories, slightly more than the average Krispy Kreme original glazed doughnut at 200 but less than a glazed cream-filled doughnut at 340.
“They’re good, and very light,” said Frederick Lightbourne, a restaurant owner from Nassau, Bahamas, who was eating his first Beard Papa cream puff in the New York store. His friend, Barbara Bazos, had driven Lightbourne into the city from New Jersey just to try the cream puff.
“They definitely melt in your mouth,” said Bazos, who used to live around the corner from the shop. She said the lines of people, sometimes down the block, first brought her into the store.
Now, said Bazos, “most of my friends are addicted to them.”