Black Sheep

BusinessApril 14, 2021

The only NZ bar in pandemic-ravaged Paris is still standing tall

Black Sheep

With multiple lockdowns and curfews over the past year, the city of lights has been cast into darkness by Covid-19. But how has the one New Zealand-themed bar in Paris fared through the hard times? Kristian Rusten went to find out.

Black Sheep Society is the one, the only, Kiwi bar in Paris. It could easily be the only one in all of France. There’s a cafe near the centre of town, called Matamata, but it’s not really a “Kiwi cafe”, it’s a cafe with a Kiwi name. There’s one in Bordeaux called Piha, but it’s got a similar origin story to Matamata – a French voyager tried the coffee in Aotearoa and had the caffeinated revelation that you don’t actually have to make the small cups of ashy disappointment most-often served over here. They decided to open their own cafe in France, and name it after a place they visited in Aotearoa, in the land of the long flat white. It makes sense.

But Black Sheep Society is the only actual New Zealand establishment I’ve found during four years living in Paris. They’ve got a red and black, almost Tino Rangatiratanga colour scheme, some tasteful art from home, carvings from a friend hung up on the wall. They gave me and my girlfriend their jar of (NZ) Marmite after we mentioned, in casual despair, that we had run out – a typical example of displaced-Kiwi solidarity, if such a thing does indeed exist.

Plus, they make pies. It’s the only place in Paris that makes pies like the ones you get back home – OK, with a hefty French twist, with stuff like Tomme de Savoie (the “Savoie Faire” pie – a little pun they’ve got there, very Kiwi). And yeah, they’ve got steak cooked in a Guinness boeuf bourguignon rather than gelatine. But, still, they’re New Zealand pies. And, plus, the Australians that come in claim they’re Australian pies, which is itself a New Zealand phenomenon and a huge cultural cliché.

Not a typical place

But it’s not just a Kiwi place. It’s “a bit different, an expat bar with a Kiwi theme… a bar de quartier, like a neighbourhood bar,” says co-owner and founder Duncan Paterson who runs the place with his partner Elin Stephen-Kallin. 

“We have respectful international people, and, you know… better class? Not bogans, anyway.”

From Wellington and Stockholm respectively, the couple say if they chose to be too overwhelmingly Aotearoa in their approach, it might not work out. There aren’t that many New Zealanders in Paris, and you can’t rely solely on them as a customer base. So when the Australians come in to culturally annex the pies, Paterson and Stephen-Kallin just nod and smile, and they would do the same for anyone else.

Duncan and Elin (Photo: Kristian Rusten)

“We’re sluts,” they say, with no shaming intended. “We’ll do anything.” They tell me about “kanelbollens dag”, which Elin says is a Swedish tradition involving an entire day devoted to cinnamon rolls. That’s right – Sweden, the high performing, well-off, sophisticated nation – awarder of Nobels and birthplace of Ikea – has an entire day set aside for cinnamon rolls. And Black Sheep Society turned this into a day spent hosting a horde of Swedes, who first gobbled up all the rolls and, then, stayed for pints and rugby. It’s not exactly typical.

In this way they reach out to Paris expatriates and also to the young French anglophones out for a cocktail-cum-language exchange. They are well-liked by the people who live in the apartment blocks above and around the bar. Random people walk in and say hi, for no other reason than the door being open. Half the bar is in the middle of renovation, but that’s not a worry. The line between client and friend at Black Sheep Society seems so thin and blurry as to be irrelevant. I guess that’s what you want in a “neighbourhood bar”, especially if you’re looking for a touch of home.

Black Sheep packed out in its early days (Photo: Supplied)

But of course, that was all before the pandemic, before everything shut down for the better part of the year, reducing traditional hospitality – in a city centred on it – to a novelty. For the past few months, shut up in my shoebox apartment that I share with my partner, I’ve often stared at the mainly-empty jar of Marmite on my shelf and wondered if Black Sheep Society even still existed, after what must have been a particularly devastating year for any Parisian bar. When I contacted Black Sheep Society to find out, I was surprised to learn it’s done OK – but the journey has been far from easy.

Tough timing

They opened in September 2019. The couple scrapped to get the necessaries together to open the bar. Paterson has a wealth of experience, having worked in hospitality for the past decade, and Stephen-Kallin has been working as a nanny, and children, as Dylan Moran says, are basically just drunk adults anyway. Elin also happens to have impressive cooking skills and social media savvy, so, all together, they’re a bit of a dream team. They met in a Parisian expat bar in 2009, and 10 years later they set up their own. It was their passion project.

“We opened in time for the rugby world cup, which was always the goal,” Paterson says. This brought in a rush of people and they made a connection with the New Zealand association over here, which gave them some publicity. They then worked seven days a week to grow the budding community that has developed around them. Based in Bastille, they found more of a following than many of the decades-old neighbours.

Black Sheep Society at its opening, Sept 2019 (Photo: Supplied)

A few months later came the pandemic, and the end of anything which involves breathing in the vicinity of strangers. But even before Covid-19, France had its issues.

Paris, and France as a whole, has seen recent bouts of large protests dispersed by tear gas, flash bangs, and rushes of riot police stretching back to the Gilets Jaunes in 2018. Bastille is often a point of concentration for protests. Republique, about 10 minutes further north, is probably the most protest-frequent place in the country.

The Gilets Jaunes never actually stopped, not completely, and December 2019 found all of that movement’s angst reignited in response to retirement reform. Protests (and the police) went back to their early ferocity, and we got some of the largest transport strikes France has ever seen. 

“No one could get to the bar for the best part of, at least a couple of months,” Paterson says. “We had to make detours due to the police blockades. We were affected by smoke bombs and pepper spray, we ducked into shops to shield ourselves from charging protesters and police running down our street.”

“For a while it truly felt like a war zone. No exaggeration.”

Violence in Paris during the Jan 2021 protests (Photo: Jerome Gilles/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

A different kind of problem

The situation was “complex” in this way until about mid-February 2020. Then, in March, it became an entirely different “complex”. “We heard about this thing called ‘Covid’ coming along,” Paterson says. “It can’t be worse than the strikes, we thought.”

It was worse. Black Sheep Society closed for most of the last year. March 13 2020 brought down the shutters for all bars. They reopened in Paris on June 14, then they were forced to close again in October. They haven’t been fully open since. They’ve had brief periods of serving terraced pints in mostly inclement weather, but otherwise, nothing.

Paterson and Stephen-Kallin tell me about the night they first got word of the restrictions. I figured they probably had access to some kind of shadowy network of bar-rumour mongers, all eventually linking back to a rugged, old-world-France bartender who has been serving the sitting president’s pints in some smoke-filled room in le palais de l’Elysée since the ’50s. But, no. “They didn’t give us any warning,” they say. “We found out on the news, like everyone else. Eight o’clock they announced it: ‘OK, all bars have to close at midnight,’” Paterson recalls.

The punters stayed on as long as they could that night, to help them sell as much as possible. Most bars went until 2am. They had no idea whether they’d get financial support, or what any hypothetical support would look like, or whether it would be enough to make ends meet.

A rare opening with brave Black Sheep fans in an outdoor only part of winter Photo: Supplied)

“They gave us 1,500 euro a month. Which is something, but it doesn’t cover half the rent,” Paterson says, with that tone of voice one employs when remembering really rough times. With their bar still in infancy, they weren’t paying themselves anything at that time and were just focused on getting the thing started.

On top of that, they had a litany of other costs, just to keep the bar operating. In much the same spirit as the closure, they were in the dark as to when they’d be able to open again, and the stated lockdown period started at a few weeks and just kept getting extended, so they had to keep paying for everything, lest they be caught unprepared. They also had to pay the rent on their apartment, the bills, and, of course, feeding themselves. They also had a fire, they say, casually.

For a period they had friends staying with them, which helped keep things afloat. Stephen-Kallin went back to nannying when she could, and with a few other things trickling down, they made it until June. The second they could open again, they went back to work.

“The other bars closed, but we were closed during lockdown anyway, we didn’t need to be closed again,” says Stephen-Kallin. “We were busy all summer. Any day we could stay open, we stayed open.”

The summer holidays are sacred in France – a time when most people leave town to enjoy the sun. While many of the bars around them closed through large parts of July and August, Paterson and Stephen-Kallin kept doing as much as they could, and they ended up doing good business. This turned out to be yet another sound decision.

The second confinement came, and bars shut down again. “We had no idea what was going to happen,” Stephen-Kallin says. Yet again, they were in the dark. “We were worried we weren’t going to get any money. We thought, this could be it, you know, we needed to get every penny before we were shut.”

Eventually, Paterson and Stephen-Kallin found out the government had switched to offering assistance based on the previous year’s earnings. This was roughly 13 months after opening, and, as unstable those 13 months of business were, it meant that they could get the bills covered and take the opportunity to do some renovations.

“It was perfect timing,” says Paterson.

Black Sheep Society and One of their Makeshift, Temporary Terraces (Photo: Supplied)

In the end, the long hours, the solid outreach, their loyal customer base, their experience, the pies, the point of difference – all of that earned them the right to continue, the right to survive, the right to stand proudly as the lone Kiwi in a city of cocks. That’s not an insult, the French actually do just have a thing for cocks. They’ve got cocks on their football crests, they’re a symbol here. Roosters – another word for “cock” is “rooster”.

Loss of trust

As much as the couple appreciate the help they’re getting now, frustrations remain. Which is totally reasonable. We’re all a bit frustrated. We’re all a bit exhausted. France is slowly lurching, section by section, into another, stricter and stricter confinement; it’s only natural that we start to do a bit of the Captain Hindsight thing.

The lack of communication from the government is a sore point. We can wonder whether a more inclusive, open decision-making process might have avoided some of the restriction-fatigue; might have helped bring people along. Captain Hindsight, maybe. But it might have avoided some of what is starting to look like a catastrophic loss of trust, in regards to French government and institutions.

“Work, Disinfect, Struggle – Health?” (Photo: Supplied)

The couple also bemoan an arbitrary separation between restaurants and bars, which was exploited when the former were allowed to stay open as food providers while the latter were forced to close. Stephen-Kallin says brasseries would “put out little bowls of chips and stuff so that it looked like they were about to eat something,”but, continues Paterson,”during happy hour they were packed and not one person had food on the table, and you just go, well, these are potentially our clients, who are just going around the corner.” 

We compare the 6pm curfew we had for large parts of winter to the six o’clock swill from New Zealand’s past. During those three months from late 2020, the Paris curfew would see hordes of people rushing to get home, and huge queues at supermarkets, all over the city. Meanwhile, the nine-to-five grind continued on, untouchable, while more and more of private life hit the chopping block. As cases rose, bars, restaurants, theatres, cinemas, museums, galleries all shut, while stores, offices, schools were kept open. The disaffection here, the sense of being stripped to the bluntest commercial utility, is palpable.

The empty Luxembourg garden and the senate in Paris on November 03, 2020 in Paris, France. (Photo: Frédéric Soltan/Corbis via Getty Images)

And, at all moments, there’s the rotting corpse of the elephant in the room; the almost 100,000 dead. The grim statistical milestone will splash over the news but mostly, people just seem to be living in an extended shrug now. It’s an odd atmosphere.

It’s been a long winter. I feel nostalgic for that first confinement. I, like many people, was wracked by the anxiety of impending death, sure. But in some ways it was nice. There was some sort of catharsis, a sense of solidarity. Confinement now is barely confinement at all, such is the apathy and the fatigue.

Covid resignation

Of New Zealand, Duncan says: “In some ways it puts more pressure on, because one person [in New Zealand] catches Covid, and there tends to be a huge reaction to it, because you can actually stop it before it kicks off. Which we can’t. It’s already here. Here, you can’t avoid it.”

We’ve got Covid resignation. Meanwhile, Aotearoa gets one case and you guys seem to be a cheeky doxxing away from guillotining a gym-bunny because he didn’t obey the rules. It’s at once encouraging, and immensely disturbing.

France, like many places, is too far gone. We’ve masks strapped on whenever we step outside, unless you’re too cool, unless you want to have a drink or a smoke. We’re watching death tick up day by day, not that concerned, yet still traumatised enough to start yelling at the spaced-out dude in the supermarket because he’s standing too close. It is the tension of the utterly exhausted, only kicking in when we find the energy for it, and when it actually does, it’s fiery, but fleeting.

Paterson, Stephen-Kallin and Black Sheep Society are a bit of a morale booster. I was up for writing a sad-sack article about struggling young entrepreneurs on the brink of launching a GoFundMe campaign, but they’re actually doing OK.  

Meanwhile, it’s spring, and with it the promise of renewal and brighter days ahead; more than 10 million people have had their first shots of the vaccine. Still, returning to normal after the pandemic will not be easy, because in France – as in so many other countries – the lasting damage extends far beyond death tolls.

Keep going!