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Beard Papa on Broadway

NEW YORK (TR) – As a line trickles out of this tiny shop onto Broadway’s sidewalk, a customer’s order is called out from the register: “Ni ko hairimasu!” Two cream puffs, “pipin’ hot,” as the Beard Papa motto reads, are then plucked out of a nearby box by a female Japanese staff member and tossed into a paper bag. The other chef-hat-wearing employees behind the counter continue their tasks of dispensing the custard and retrieving baked shells from the oven.

“The customer can watch the making and baking. That is very attractive,” says Koji Tsuda, general manager in the international division of Muginoho Co., Ltd., the Osaka-based restaurant company that created the Beard Papa brand. A feeling that the puffs are being made “just for you,” the customer, as opposed to any faceless person is the intention, he emphasizes.

The brand’s policy is to ensure high quality ingredients are served at the peak of freshness. Even though the staff are Japanese, the company is not about is not pushing its origin. Rather, it’s entirely about pushing cream puffs, and since its opening in March, Beard Papa’s new shop in New York has had tens of thousands of cream puffs exit its doors as a part of the latest New York food fad.

The cream puffs are unique in composition. The shell is double-layered, including an outer piecrust and an inner choux pastry. Custard, made from handpicked vanilla beans, is mixed with whipped cream to form the filling. A dash of powdered sugar tops it off.

“The concept is high quality at a low price,” beams public relations representative Eiko Takada of the $1.25 price and Beard Papa’s insistence on using only natural ingredients.

Ensuring high quality at all times is vital yet not simple. For example, even though the price of vanilla beans, which Beard Papa culls from Madagascar, has quintupled in the past five years, Beard Papa has refused to make compromises. Competitors, however, apparently do. “Some competitors use the less expensive outer skin of the vanilla bean – instead of the inside – to impart vanilla smell,” scoffs Tsuda of these misleading tactics. “The taste is totally different.”

Shell quality posed a problem in the early days. “We wasted so many shells; they kept collapsing,” says Tsuda, cupping his hands together in the shape of a sphere and then simulating an implosion. Not wanting to add artificial ingredients for shell support, slight modifications to oven temperature and the dough’s water content were made to result in the rivuleted and round pastries of today.

This concept is different from many of the Japanese pastry business models, which often utilize a brand name to justify a price much higher than that of Beard Papa’s. Sweets Forest, a pastry park in Tokyo’s Jiyugaoka district, has twelve famous pastry shops from all around Japan, many of which offer their wares at four times that of Beard Papa.

Positioning stores near areas of high foot traffic, like train stations, is seen as highly desirable in attracting office workers and people out shopping, according to Muginoho’s 2003 Outline and Strategy report. Tsuda says that for the New York store 5,000 puffs on average were sold each day during March and April — sales figures which roughly coincide with Beard Papa’s very popular store outside Tokyo’s Shibuya Station.

Beard Papa’s scruffy, fatherly logo, complete with watchman’s cap and pipe, acts as a greeter, silently encouraging customers strolling past the shops to pay a visit. “The cap, pipe, and whiskers are supposed to remind one of Santa Claus,” relates Tsuda. “He is loved by everybody. We want our stores to be loved in the same way.”

Competition from new and unique sweet creations, such as Krispy Kreme’s dense donuts, does not worry Tsuda, nor does being a flash-in-the-pan. “These new items are new and not usual,” he explains. “But cream puffs have existed for a long history. It is not going to fade out. We want New Yorkers to know that we have the best taste. After they know that, then we are going to bring a new menu.”

That menu will include some mango desserts later this month. Other items, not even included on the Japanese menu, are also being considered for later this year.

Since the opening of its first store five years ago, expansion has been swift. By the time Beard Papa opens its first shop on the West Coast in August or September — as Tsuda expects — the total in existence will number around 300, an admirable amount considering only 170 existed in 2002.

Expanding into the American market at a time when the average American’s waist is expanding is not a deterrent for Beard Papa.

Tsuda, who boasts having eaten five puffs during his first Beard Papa experience, samples at least one puff per day. His job requires him to travel to various stores around Japan and the rest of Asia as a means of quality control. “But look,” he exclaims, reaching under his coat and patting both sides of his stomach, “I am still slim.”

Note: This article originally appeared in June 2004 on the Sake-Drenched Postcards Web page.