Soufiane Bouharkat, Owner of Le Crepe Café, on the Difference Between Racism in France and America
And how he responds to comments such as “I’m sorry France is invaded by Africans.”
This is part of a series on perspectives from Black food-business owners in Hawai‘i.
Photo: Martha Cheng
HONOLULU Magazine: How did you get into the restaurant business?
Soufiane Bouharkat: I originally studied in law school and then international business. But growing up in France, I always worked while a student in restaurants and was also surrounded by a lot of cooks among my friends and family. So I was always interested in the food industry, and actually quit my job—a nice office job in France—to open a small café. But France is not a good place to have your own business because there are so many advantages to workers, like minimum five weeks vacation days. It was a lot of tax for small business in France. I was young, I was very young, 24, and I kept working in the restaurant because most of my friends are in the industry.
I used to come visit a friend who moved to Hawai‘i and I just loved it, so I moved here in 2007. I realized there’s no crepe shops, so I started Le Crepe Café with my ex-wife. We had a small trailer and started to do farmers markets all over the island. It was a lot of education because most people didn’t know about crepes—they didn’t know it could be something savory. We opened a shop in Mānoa, and then downtown. In 2015, I sold everything, but not the brand, because I moved to LA—my younger brother moved from France to LA to open a soccer center and he wanted me to do the food. Then I realized I was crazy—life in Los Angeles is very different, people are always chasing something.
HM: What is your ethnicity?
SB: So I’m 100% North African—Algeria, and my dad’s side is from the Sahara, from the desert.
HM: Have you dealt with racism in the food business?
SB: In Hawai‘i I would say it's interesting because I get sometimes customers who make some remarks. Somebody said, “Do you speak French?” And I said, “yeah I’m French.” She told me, “I’m sorry for you guys, you have a lot of immigrants coming from Africa.” And I’m like, “I’m actually born in Africa and only became French after.” But then I talked to her and she was embarrassed, but in the end, she was very open about her misconception. I told her the story that the French colonized so many countries in Africa and actually needed the immigrants to build up the country, you know.
There’s a lot of differences between immigration in America and France. In France, school is free, medical is free, so right away, when people immigrate, even though they don’t have any money, you know—my parents really struggled because it was eight of us and we had two cousins who stayed with us, so it was 10 of us in the house, probably 700 square feet, one bathroom. For me, the bathroom was a traumatizing thing because I had to wait so long. It was a challenge but we had everything we needed. School was free. Everybody has a degree in my family.
So when immigrants become French, the kids have access to knowledge. And the French language of the country is so strong that it can only be French. So like, for example, you say I’m French African, you don’t say African French. You’re French first.
But here, it takes time to get access to education. Not everybody has, especially Black, Hispanic. But the French mentality makes it very closed, they’re not very open to differences. Whereas here there’s more acceptance.
In France, discrimination is part of the culture. I get probably pulled over by the police in France for no reason, at least 300 times. And I thought it was normal to me. I used to drive a motorcycle and I’d get pulled over all the time, every day. Once I was buying a suit by the Champs-Élysées, I get police with guns, they put me on the car with my hands up, and I’m like, are you arresting me because I have a bad choice of suit, I have bad taste? And then after 30 seconds, they’re like, oh, wrong guy, and just left. My friend was traumatized. I told him I’m used to it.
I can speak super proper, clean French, no accent. I spoke French, English, Spanish, Italian a little bit, and I'm very eloquent in French. So I make people cry, but in a good way. So I would talk on the phone [for an interview] and then we meet in person and they hesitate.
In one job, I remember there were 55 executives, and I was the only nonwhite one, and then you go down to the people who answer the phones, and there were the Blacks. And I worked in a company and they asked me to change my name—people with African names they used to ask to change their name.
HM: Did you?
SB: I did, to get the job. To Ryan. Might as well I get something American!
HM: Do you think a lot about racism here?
SB: No. People sometimes don’t like white people—I hear that a lot. But I think it’s actually better to be dark skinned here.
HM: What do you want changed in the industry?
SB: There’s a lot of poverty in Hawai‘i, and I want to do something about it. Last year, in the Pālolo Valley low-income housing, I was doing once-a-month free crepes and teaching them a little French and talking about my experience because I can really relate to them—their parents are struggling. t’s mostly kids from Micronesia, I realize they don’t really have access to a lot of things, you know. I was just talking to them about my story and how my parents immigrated and especially I feel like everything’s possible in the U.S. I really want to give back because this country and Hawai‘i give me so much.
I want to stay small business. I don’t want to expand anymore. I’ve done it. I was going that direction. But I have experience that I want to share. And I noticed in Hawai‘i, like in the West Side for example, there’s no option for healthy foods—it’s KFC, McDonald’s. It’s even worse on the Mainland for Black communities. So I’m working on something because my business plan is very easy to reproduce, you know. I’d like to share my knowledge for free—it’s a very easy business model to produce a crepe shop, and [the shop] is actually certified by Blue Zones.
HM: I noticed you have a Little Prince poster in the corner. What does it say?
SB: It says: “On ne voit bien qu’avec le cœur. L’essentiel est invisible pour les yeux.” It is only with the heart that one can see what is essential. When I was in middle school in France, I read [Little Prince author Antoine de] Saint-Exupéry and he said, “Your differences don’t take away from me, you make me richer, you make me stronger,” you know. So I really believed in it. As a kid I really believed our differences make us stronger. I still believe in it.
2752 Woodlawn Drive, # 6-101, lecrepecafe.com