West African Customers Get a Taste of Home at La Tropezienne
The customers at La Tropezienne packed in tightly near the counter on a recent Sunday morning, bundled in coats and gently shouting over one another. Babacar Mbaye, 40, gave an assertive “Hello!” in order to be noticed. Originally from Gambia, he said he drove his cab to this little bakery and patisserie in East Harlem mainly for the coffee (but also for three croissants: two chocolate, one cinnamon).
More people crammed inside, escaping the freezing wind. Roberto Ortiz, 58, who lives a few blocks away, said he had visited the cafe since the day it opened.
“This is the nice bakery. The other bakery, I don’t like,” Mr. Ortiz said. “The bread there is not so good.”
Out on First Avenue between 109th and 110th Streets, La Tropezienne is tucked among liquor stores and barber shops, not far from places that sell fresh cactus and Christmas piñatas. New Yorkers from outside the neighborhood, driving past on their way to the new Costco in Harlem, might not realize that the modest establishment is home to some of the best French bread and pastry in New York.
They also might not know that it’s no newcomer to East Harlem. Roger Bransol, a baker from Lyon, France, opened La Tropezienne in 1989. Rent was cheap, and he had a distant relative who happened to be a landlord in the neighborhood. Having trained in the South of France, Mr. Bransol named his cafe for a traditional cake in St.-Tropez. The tropezienne ($3.95) is heart-shaped, cream-filled and fits in your hand.
Over two decades, Mr. Bransol trained his staff in the fickle practice of making baguettes, croissants and pastries. Layered neatly on glass shelves are lemon tarts and napoleons, éclairs and opéras. But it’s the simple tartine — or open-face sandwich — that has sustained this little cafe. A baguette with butter is the favored tartine of West African taxi drivers, who are La Tropezienne’s most loyal customers.
“They make the same bread back home,” said Younoussa Diakite, 41, who is from Guinea. “We were a French colony,” he pointed out.
“If it weren’t for the cabdrivers, we wouldn’t have been here,” said Durinda Underwood, 47. Her official title at La Tropezienne is marketing manager, but she’s more like a longtime friend of the owners, having worked at the bakery for 20 years. “During Ramadan, we will flex our hours just to get them bread for dinner.”
The clientele extends beyond cabdrivers, though. Dottie Harris, 76, in sunglasses and a long fur coat, comes weekly, “usually when I leave Mass.” For Luz Breton, 37, who lives in the Bronx, the pastries hold little appeal. “I drive down just to buy the bread. Once a week, twice maybe.”
Customers, Ms. Underwood said, adored Mr. Bransol. “He was quite the character. A very strong, crazy, lovable man.” He died in 2011. Despite his absence, the cafe has changed only in incremental ways (addition of a red awning, expansion into an adjacent storefront). Ownership remains within Mr. Bransol’s family.
“People complain how they can’t find us,” Ms. Underwood said. “But we like that, that they can’t find us. They have to look for us.”
Lately, she’s encountered food tourists who eat their way through new neighborhoods. It’s flattering, but overwhelming.
“I don’t know if we could handle more business,” she said with an honest worry in her voice. “I don’t know where I would put the people, or the croissants.”