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A cream puff from Japan
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.
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."