Flavors of France: Native Parisian, student opens crepery at UND
Don't be surprised if you hear people speaking French or catch a whiff of an unusual but enticing scent wafting from a grill in UND's Memorial Union.
It's just a little bit of France on the Northern Plains.
Warren Sai recently opened French Taste in the Union's lower level, with the hope that people here will love crepes as much as he does. The crepery is open from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday through Friday.
"I go back to France once a year," said Sai, 21, a UND student and native of France. "When I went home last Christmas, the first thing I wanted to do was eat crepes."
His mom made the famously French pastry for him as a boy growing up in suburban Paris, but he's developed his own recipe for the thin pancake, enhanced with sweet or savory fillings and rolled up.
"You can always make it a bit better," he said. "I've twisted it a little bit to the American taste, but it stays French at the same time."
In the compact kitchen and counter space in the Union, customers watch as their orders are prepared.
Sai serves up the crepes with a side of friendly banter.
"I love to meet people and learn from them," he said. "I don't feel like it's work for me."
He's intent on "spreading awareness of French culture," he said.
His sweet crepes feature varying combinations of strawberries, bananas, Nutella and sugar.
Savory versions are filled with smoked chicken, turkey or salmon, coupled with cheese, tomato and sour cream.
Sai, who opened French Taste on Jan. 14, is planning to add coffee, hot chocolate, juice and smoothies to his menu, and he's working on a smoothie with strawberries and bananas "that's killer," he said.
Earlier this week, Mason Fuchs, a UND student, stopped in to try a smoked chicken crepe.
"I never had a crepe before in my life," said the senior from Hawley, Minn.
"It's cool having different types of cuisine—there's sushi, pizza, burgers upstairs (at the Union) and, with French Taste, now there's more diversity of cuisine," he said.
"I enjoy trying new foods. It's interesting."
After his first few bites, Fuchs said, "It's really good."
Another customer, Mobarak Al Saad, a UND sophomore from Saudi Arabia, said he first sampled the food when, at the Union, he ran into a friend who shared his crepe.
After tasting it, Al Saad said, "I resisted running downstairs" to Sai's shop.
He likes that the crepe "is simple," he said. "It tastes good. It's close to the pastry we make back home; it has the same consistency as the bread we make."
Al Saad also admires Sai's entrepreneurial spirit.
"He inspires other students to think about starting a business. Warren is paving the way."
Over the counter, Sai sends each customer off with a cheerey "Have a crepe day!"
'A long journey'
Getting the business off the ground has been "a long journey," said Sai, who came to UND four years ago to study petroleum engineering, but soon discovered the field was not for him.
"My heart wasn't in it," he said. "My head wasn't in it."
He's inspired, though, by his own background.
"When you're from a place, you have a culture—you enjoy eating with family and friends," he said.
At UND, he found food options such as Japanese, Mexican and Italian, but nothing French.
"I have a thing for crepes," he said, "and for the atmosphere and culture of France."
As a UND student, he learned to make crepes—and that led to making them for friends.
Encouraged by Virgil Benoit, a UND languages professor, Sai made and served crepes at the annual "French of the North Festival," a French-Canadian and Metis celebration at Huot, Minn., in summer 2017.
It was his first experience in food service for customers, he said. "The first time I made crepes, I did it on a lefse grill."
The entrepreneurial seed was sown.
"After that, it was always in my mind," he said.
In spring 2018, Sai was awarded $3,000 for placing third in the Red River Business Plan Competition at UND. He also participated in the Shark Tank competition, sponsored by the local Chamber of Commerce.
He rented the New Flavors food truck and, from it, sold crepes on the UND campus and at the Farmers Market in downtown Grand Forks.
At Bully Brew Coffee House in East Grand Forks this month, he's offering crepes from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Sundays.
Sandi Luck, owner of the coffee house chain and UND business faculty member, said of the arrangement, "It's pretty great. We've had him at several locations. He does a good job."
"He's a student of mine, and a very motivated kid," Luck said. "I'm excited to help him out and help him become a success."
These days Sai is balancing the demands of running a business with student life, he said. His goal is to graduate next year with a bachelor's degree in marketing.
He is planning a grand opening Thursday and, all next week, will hand out 250 free crepes, he said.
Of his culinary business adventure, "it's a journey," he said with a wide smile.
"I'm not a chef. I'm the 'crepe guy'—that's what they call me."