Mai Ogasawara moves baked pastries into a box to cool in the demonstration area at Shirokiya at Ala Moana Center.

Puff Daddy

A cream puff from Japan
is packing in the crowds

Imagine a reward worth standing in line for two hours. Free $100 bills come to mind. Or free kisses from Johnny Depp.

Or a ball of dough wrapped around a wad of custard?

What manner of cream puff, exactly, would be worth such depth of devotion, such a meandering use of time?

Beard Papa, it's called, and it has a status in Japan equivalent to, say, Krispy Kreme here -- a bit of mystical, magical specialness that you can have for a buck and a half.

And nothing about its gets lost in translation. A visit to Shirokiya in Ala Moana Center this week will prove the point.

On the second floor, where they sell the bentos and the packaged sushi, the line snakes through the aisles, at the end of it a $7.25 carton of five cream puffs, injected with filling and sprinkled with sugar just before they're gently boxed.

If you're lucky you'll wait just 15 minutes for the one box you're allowed to buy, but the lines can grown impressively -- they peaked at two hours long the last time Beard Papa came to Shirokiya, in November.

The cream puffs are walking out of the store at the rate of up to 6,000 a day. That's about 11 every minute of a nine-hour sales day.

Beard Papa is a Japanese collective of bakeries -- more than 200 strong throughout Japan, Korea, China, Taiwan and Singapore. Last March, the first of three cafˇs opened in New York (even in that cuisine-rich capital the lines stretched out the doors). More will open this year on the West Coast, beginning in Los Angeles.

The Beard Papa character is meant to recollect Santa Claus. At Shirokiya, he looms over the lines of the cream-puff faithful.

The Osaka-based parent company, Muginoho, introduced the cream puff just in 1999, so expansion has been rapid.

Beard Papa takes an all-natural approach -- no preservatives added -- but the public appeal is more likely the unique pastry. It's a double crust incorporating a traditional choux (cream puff shell) and a pie crust-type dough. The combination produces both softness and a degree of crunch.

"The hard shell is European, the soft shell is Japanese and it's combined in two layers," explains Mayu Honda, who oversees the opening of foreign franchises for Muginoho.

Honda has been at Shirokiya since last week for 12 days of cream-puff sales centered on Girls' Day tomorrow. She and her team will only be in town until Sunday.

The store has temporarily imported five bakers and three ovens -- up from the November visit, when three bakers and two ovens could barely keep pace with the crowds.

It's hard to say what fueled demand, although by now it's self-perpetuating. Advertising has been minimal on Japanese radio and in Shirokiya's newspaper ads, but word has gotten around, stoked by media coverage, which itself was stoked by the long lines.

Last Wednesday, Day 1 of sales this time around, 60 people were in line before the store even opened.

Mai Ogasawara arranges frozen dough onto a sheet for baking. She and the four others who came from Japan have so far seen only the inside of Shirokiya, and the parking lot leading to their rooms at the Ala Moana Hotel.

The puffs are made right in the middle of the store, so you can see the whole process.

The filling is churned in a custard-maker that heats and mixes milk and eggs, then chills it. Vanilla beans, freshly scraped from their pods, also are added. Once the custard is made -- a two-hour process -- cream is whipped in.

Honda says the exact formula varies among locations, because of the quality of milk in each area. In Hawaii, she says, half-and-half is added to match the richness of the whole milk available in Japan. "Everywhere we go, when we have a new franchise, we make a new recipe."

The pastry dough, on the other hand, is standard, mixed in central plants -- two Japanese and one Chinese -- then frozen and shipped to Beard Papas everywhere.

The 2-inch balls are popped into tall, multi-shelved ovens and after 20 or 30 minutes emerge as light, fist-sized puffs. They are slightly cooled, then filled by way of a long, metal nozzle inserted into each puff. The nozzle is attached to a small tank of custard cream. With a pump of the handle, each puff is filled.

For prime enjoyment, Honda says, the puff needs to be eaten right away, before the hard part of the shell can soften. "You need to taste the two layers."

Key to the mystique is that the customer sees the final assembly -- that "pumping" of the filling. "The start of all freshness is the way we prepare it right in front of you, as you order."

Performance art, in a way. In Japan, Beard Papa employees are trained to keep up the chatter, calling out orders and such. Showmanship -- "the spirit of Beard Papa," as Honda puts it -- is part of the job description.

"Instead of you just buy it from the store -- boring. You stand in line, you make friends, you see the performance. You see it, hear it smell it."

At Shirokiya, however, the language barrier forces the process into a sedate affair, the bakers very serious of expression, relentlessly baking, injecting, selling.

This matters not a whit to the pastry-primed customers in line. Many are repeat, or three-peat, buyers, or more.

John Taeko and his wife, Kaaialii, first sampled Beard Papa in November. They were early and 10th in line. Their second visit, though, was a 45-minute wait. "The line was out the door," he says. And the third time -- "my brother wanted some."

They were back in line last week, memories fresh, how they'd buy two boxes per trip, for a share of five puffs each. "She ate the rest that night and the next morning. I ate mine right away. In the car."

Heidi I. (she didn't want to give her whole last name -- protection against cream-puff thieves, perhaps) first tasted Beard Papa in while vacationing with her mother in Japan. Mom went out for one every day, she says.

She was in line at Shirokiya on the first day of sales last week, then was back the next day. "I had to come back today because we ate all ours. All 10."

Shirokiya hopes to bring a Beard Papa team back once more this year, but anyone with more permanent intentions might consider purchasing Hawaii's first franchise.

The company Web site details the opportunity: "All applicants must possess or have access to capital sufficient to fund the cafˇ in the market of interest. The estimated initial investment required ranges from $185,000 to $326,000 for each cafˇ. This sum does not include real estate acquisition, building improvements or rent for the premises."

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