September 2009

The French Connect in Potrero

By Sarah Marloff

The American Industrial Center (AIC), located on Illinois Street, is home to more than 300 small businesses and nonprofit organizations, at least seven of which are owned or operated by people from France.  “It’s like a village in here, a micro-society,” said Ruben Donze, General Manager of Bouvet, which specializes in decorative hardware products.

Donze’s wife, Adeline Bertrix – also from France – serves as marketing manager for Blue Orange Games, which creates board games for children and adults.  Blue Orange’s president, Julien Mayot, started the company in 2000 after driving across the United States with 300 Goblet, Blue Orange’s first product:  a memory game, similar to Tic Tac Toe, where the goal is to get four pieces in a row.  Mayot distributed all 300 games before planting his stake in San Francisco.  Blue Orange Games now employs five French employees.  Every year the game purveyor hires two interns from France to travel the country visiting customers and setting up new accounts.

“We try to hire French youth who’ve just finished their studies to give them the chance to discover a new country, a new culture, and a new way of doing business.” Betrix said.  Betrix herself originally interned for the company in 2004 and “hasn’t left since.”  “All our games are created in house and the designs have a very French touch,” said Betrix.  Blue Orange is an eco-friendly company, planting two trees for every tree they use to produce their wooden games. “We have won the first Dr. Toy Green Company Award,” said Betrix.  Blue Orange Games can be found at specialty toy stores throughout the City, and will be featured at Barnes and Nobles and Whole Foods this December.

Another of AIC’s French tenants is Alter Eco, which sells fair trade food products, including chocolates, rice, and quinoa. Alter Eco’s Dogpatch office was opened in 2004 by co-founders Mathieu Senard and Edouard Rollet, but the company’s Paris headquarters’ has been around since 1998.  The company has three full time French employees and two Americans, though they’d like to expand their American workforce.   “It’s just easier,” said Senard, about local hiring, “They don’t have to struggle with visas, and besides to be successful in the U.S. we need people who know the U.S.” Alter Eco’s products can be found at Whole Foods and Rainbow Grocery.

Mathieu Ramage is the media and editorial manager of L’Atelier, another of AIC’s French business.  L’Atelier, a technology consulting company, opened its doors almost three years ago.  The firm has two French, two American, and a Spanish employee.  Like other French companies, L’Atelier brings interns from France. “Our interns work for six months in France to learn the trade and then come here for another six months for language or American business skills,” said Ramage.

According to Donze there are at least four other French-operated businesses located at AIC, including Prime, a French company that’s assisting an American firm establish a branch in Paris; Palma VFX, a 3D animation and visual effects company; La Colombe Torrefaction, which produces fine coffee; and a new startup geared towards soccer statistics analysis.  “I think it’s simply coincidence that there are so many French businesses in Potrero,” said Donze.  Senard, a Potrero Hill resident, hypothesized that French people came to Potrero because it’s “fog proof.  French people often leave France to run away from the cold and rain, so we look for sunny places to live in.” Senard’s favorite French restaurants in San Francisco include Chez Papa, Plouf, and Garcon, while Donze recommends Le Charme for a good deal and Cote Sud for a nice atmosphere.

 “A lot of personal friendships have been formed in the building. We eat lunch together almost every day,” said Donze.  He and his wife visit their families in France at least once a year, but would like to go more often.  “Sometimes, when I go back I feel like I am seeing it as a tourist would. I’m starting to feel a bit like a stranger,” Donze shrugged.  However, both are happy living in Cole Valley, and treasure their American friends, giving them credit for teaching them English. “I love San Francisco, my job and my wonderful circle of friends,” exclaimed Betrix.

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