Laurent Vrignaud came to the U.S. from France for the first time in 1984 – at age 18 – to surf. “My dad had a job in Silicon Valley, and asked my brother and I to come visit him,” he says. “I was passionate about the ocean at the time.”
He ended up staying 33 years. He learned English, became an entrepreneur, started a family, and built a successful business employing dozens. Now Vrignaud is on to his next phase, a life-long dream as French bistro owner.
Early on, Vrignaud started working at a surf shop during the day and as a waiter at night. Moreover, he learned English and became a citizen by age 25. Living the surf-centric life led friends to ask what he’d do when he grew up. Even then he said he wanted to open a French café.
One day a young guy drove up to the surf shop in a Porsche 911. “I asked, ‘What does this guy do?'” Vrignaud said. The man was an independent sales rep selling windsurfing equipment on commission.” Vrignaud decided right then to become an independent sales rep.
Some companies took a chance on him. However he only made money if he sold, so he started knocking on doors up and down the state. “It was wonderful,” Vrignaud said of working in the mornings and surfing in the afternoons. In 1989, he tagged along with friends heading to an outdoor sports industry show in Las Vegas.
Snowboarding was new and a small Vermont company, Burton, was already a name. Vrignaud met founder Jake Burton, who was learning French and suggested a cup of coffee for a chance to practice. Burton asked Vrignaud what he did.
“I was like, do you have sales reps?” Vrignaud said. “He said, ‘No, I don’t have any.’ I said, ‘It’s very simple. I go knock on doors. If I sell, you pay me a commission.'” By the next day, Vrignaud had signed Burton for Northern California territory.
Business grew; he started hiring people. Burton asked him to take on additional territory. By 2007, when his daughter was five, Vrignaud had 40 employees.
Still, the action sports business began to slow. In 2009, he gave his clients and employees a one-year warning and left the business in 2010, on his daughter’s birthday. He traveled with his family, rediscovered long-distance running, and began to train seriously. In 2013, he ran the Boston Marathon, finished, and was in a restaurant when the bombing took place. The year before, both his wife and daughter were at the finish line.
“I realized, all of a sudden everything can be taken away,” Vrignaud said. Shaken, he called his wife and said he would open that café, because “if I don’t do it, I might not ever.”
His brother, a 35-year restaurant veteran, warned him against it. But Vrignaud was determined to create an experience like the cafés of his original home in the Montmartre section of Paris, where Picasso, Monet, Dali, and Toulouse-Lautrec once had studios. He had collected chairs, tables, metal signs, and other decorations for decades and put them to use.
But the business was hard. “You have to be physically strong and mentally strong to enter the food business,” Vrignaud said. “If not, you’ll be taken out.”
He brought chefs from France to help make the restaurant authentic and true to what his grandparents would have sold in their Parisian store. Starting with a large Newport Beach location open from 6AM to 9PM, he welcomed people to stay as long as they wanted, whether they spent $20 on a meal or $2 for coffee.
“Here I force people to slow down,” Vrignaud said. Some dishes aren’t available to take out because they won’t travel well.
Vrignaud handles such difficulties with humor and has developed a loyal following, which led to a second location in Laguna Beach about a year ago. He calls the undertaking “a combination of a French heart with an American mind.”
“A guy like me with zero experience can reinvent himself,” Vrignaud said. “You can be anything you want to be, any time. It only requires one thing: hard work.”