Now that the sign was up on a new cafe at Selby and Dale in St. Paul, news was spreading fast. Marc Heu Pâtisserie Paris would be relocating from Frogtown to this busy corner among a string of businesses dealing in plants, hair, home goods and women's apparel.
Owners Marc and Gaosong Heu couldn't stand under the sign for five minutes without passersby stopping to share their excitement over impeccable French pastries joining the mix.
"Are you moving from University?" asked a neighbor on her way to the Mississippi Market co-op across the street.
"We are!" Gaosong Heu chirped, expecting the usual pleasantries.
"Yuppifying — I hate it," said the shopper. "Bummer."
Gaosong pivoted into her talking points about why the move from the bakery's original home, where it opened in 2019, made sense for the business. About Frogtown being special to them, but the much larger new space allowing them to "engage with customers in a more meaningful way" when it opens May 20.
The woman then turned to the slender man in a Gucci jacket, as if she'd only just noticed he was there. "Are you Marc?" she asked. He said he was.
"Amazing," she said. "Your passion fruit tarts are unbelievable."
As Marc's newest fan crossed the street, the Heus traded meaningful looks. They'd heard these sentiments before, and have had a lot to unpack about the role a French pâtisserie plays in gentrification.
"When it comes to French food, generally it's seen as very elitist and uppity, and that's something that we can't really escape because that comes from thousands and thousands of years of tradition and classism — and racism," Gaosong said. "Of course, I think us having a business, being who we are — an immigrant, first generation to the U.S., a woman — is a very bold statement in itself. But I understand people have a lot of feelings, and I always respect that."
"We don't try to do anything pretentious," Marc added. "I mean, I love food, and if I share something that I love, I want to make sure it's the best presentation of what we can do. It's very genuine."
'Just make it yourself'
Striving to be the best at what he does has always been a strength and weakness for Marc, 33.
"I'm never satisfied," he said. "It's just something that my dad taught me, like, never settle with what you have. Not in the sense that my life sucks, I want more. But you always want to go further, make sure that you do better than yesterday."
Born in St. Remy, France, Marc moved when he was 3 to French Guiana, a department of France on South America's Atlantic coast. His Hmong parents, tropical fruit farmers, arrived as refugees from Laos after the Vietnam War, just as many Hmong did in Minnesota.
He grew up poor, "in the jungle, barefoot," and felt beholden to his parents' dream that he become a doctor after their many sacrifices to raise him in that fertile place, surrounded by the Amazon. He went to France to study medicine.
One summer break when he was in his early 20s, he traveled to St. Paul to visit relatives, and was introduced to then-19-year-old Gaosong. The young couple married and Marc stayed in Minnesota.
With Gaosong studying full time at the U, and Marc's academic career stalled in the U.S., Marc paid the bills by delivering medical supplies. And "he was constantly complaining about the food," Gaosong remembers. "He was like, 'Ugh, no good croissants, I'm so hungry.' "
Gaosong grew up near St. Paul's legendary Trung Nam French Bakery; she knew a good croissant. "But he still wanted more, and finally I just got so annoyed with him that I was like, 'If you want good French food, just make it yourself.' And one day I came home from school and on the counter there was this perfect little tray of croissants."
She thought they were incredible. He, not so much. He began baking whenever he had free time and significantly raised his croissant game, but he never gave a career in pastry serious thought.
"There wasn't someone that looked like me," Marc said. French pastry is "something that's not typically known to be made by Asian people. I can't make a living out of it," he thought.
In 2017, he decided to grant his parents their wish and go back to medical school. But the night before his first day of classes, he turned to Gaosong in bed. "I don't think I can do it," he said. "It's not what I want to do. I want to be a pastry chef."
Gaosong, who was studying art, understood Marc's passion for his craft. "Then do it," she told him. "You have to follow your dreams."
A game-changer for St. Paul
Just shy of four years in business, Marc Heu has become one of the most revered names in the bakery-rich Twin Cities. It helps that the name is the brand — a risk for any burgeoning business owner, but one that demonstrates Marc's steadfast confidence.
After that bedtime conversation, the couple made plans to go to Paris. But first French Guiana, where Marc worked on his parents' farm to save enough money for culinary school.
"They grow guava and dragon fruit and pineapple and bananas and limes, and everything is so fresh. Having lived there, it was so incredible having Marc make cakes from those raw ingredients, going out and picking it ourselves," Gaosong said.
In summer 2018, Marc started at Lenôtre, Paris' prestigious culinary institute. "It was the best time of my life," he said. He graduated in three months and took a series of internships with some of Paris' top pastry talent, landing a job at Stohrer, the city's oldest pastry shop.
Gaosong, meanwhile, had started graduate school at Columbia University in New York City. When Marc moved there to be with her, he got a job at a trendy bakery in SoHo, but the commute from their Bronx apartment was wearying, and Marc grew impatient. There was another bedtime conversation.
"It was Christmas Eve, and he was like, 'If you wake up tomorrow and I'm here, it means I quit my job,' " Gaosong said. "I wake up in the morning and he's at the table scribbling down all these notes and recipes and ideas for his business. And I just took a deep breath and was like, 'OK, we're starting. It's happening now.' "
They sketched out a business plan, knowing it would be a reach with only $200 in the bank. Back in Minnesota, Marc started selling cakes he baked in the basement of Gaosong's parents' home. There were more orders than time in the day, so he stayed up all night baking. He needed a commercial kitchen.
Tong Thao was working at the Asian Economic Development Association in St. Paul when he first became aware of Marc and Gaosong. The organization helped them find their first location on the corner of University and Western avenues. "I saw Marc's talents for pastries and knew that his style, brand and taste would change the game in St. Paul," said Thao, now a relationship manager with the St. Paul Area Chamber of Commerce.
At first, the space functioned purely as a kitchen where customers could pick up preorders. But after running a sold-out pop-up one weekend from the storefront, more customers started showing up expecting to buy pastries. Marc and Gaosong decided "on a whim" to carve out a portion of the kitchen and turn it into a brick-and-mortar pastry shop.
The pâtisserie opened Aug. 1, 2019, and you'll still find lines out the door for glistening éclairs and shiny fruit tarts, flaky croissants and, on weekends, cronuts — cream-filled croissant doughnuts.
"Yeah, I guess we just make really big decisions overnight," Gaosong laughed.
Rewriting their story
Making the move to Selby and Dale is bittersweet for the Heus.
"I might not look like an emotional guy, but it's gonna be pretty emotional because that's where everything started," Marc said.
"It's one of those moments when you know that you're growing, when you have to say goodbye to something really precious," Gaosong said. "But that's part of our journey and our story."
It's a story the young couple are still writing — and, when it comes to preconceived notions about French food, rewriting.
"It's really beautiful, if you just look at our demographic, the people that come. People always think it's the soccer mom that lives in Wayzata. No, it's all types of people from all types of backgrounds," Marc said. "You don't have to be part of a certain society or social rank to eat a good croissant."
Finally, Marc can sleep at night knowing he is in the right place.
"If I were a doctor, the people that come to see me are sick people. But the people that come see me [at the bakery] are only the happy people. And they leave happier."
Marc Heu Pâtisserie Paris
Opening soon: The new cafe (156 N. Dale St., St. Paul) opens May 20 at 9 a.m. and will be open daily until 3 p.m. marcheuparis.com
What's new: The cafe will seat 19, with a 30-seat patio in front. Expect sandwiches and savory brunch food, high tea, and eventually a liquor license with evening hours.
Last call: The Frogtown location (383 W. University Av., St. Paul), is closing May 14.