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How A Former Engineer Brought an Authentic French Cafe to Atlanta

“If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris, then wherever you go for the rest of your life, it stays with you, for Paris is a moveable feast.”

– Ernest Hemingway

Hamid Rouchdi went one step further than Hemingway, bringing a moveable feast of his own to thousands of Atlantans with Cafe Vendome.

Hamid spent decades as an engineer with no prior restaurant experience until he opened his passion project of a French cafe with only the most authentic Parisian fare. It may seem counterintuitive that an engineer who sees the world based on logical inputs and outputs would swap the measuring tapes for macarons, but the more I spoke with him, the clearer the overlap of skill sets became.

It’s easy to get entranced by Hamid’s French-Moroccan accent, which makes everything sound like sophisticated poetry. “Cafe Vendome” dances off his tongue like an Édith Piaf verse. But he quickly shifts into another gear as he’s constantly being greeted by a hodgepodge of matters to address. 

Customers waiting for a cappuccino? He hops behind the counter and pulls the espresso shot and steams the milk himself. A birthday cake order waiting to be fulfilled? He jots down the specifics and thanks the party host for her business (“I posted about this on social media myself.”) Even when a solicitor approached him to donate to some half-baked cause, he quickly identified a number of clues about the man, his appearance, and his business pitch in a matter of moments.

Hamid Rouchdi is not your typical restaurateur. 

Man holding sandwich next to pastry display
Hamid Rouchdi | Cafe Vendome

He and I split a flaky almond croissant and sipped on lattes as we dove deep into his wildly unusual odyssey from engineering to opening Atlanta’s most charming cafe.

(Note: some questions and answers have been edited for clarity and length.)

Tell me about your background.

I was born in Morocco, where I studied until the age of 18, when I moved to Lille, north of France, and got my engineering degree in telecommunication. I worked in Paris, Milano, and Nice and then was transferred here to Atlanta where they needed some engineers. I moved here and worked for international telecom and aerospace corporations where I was involved in large projects with companies like Microsoft, Morgan Stanley, Ernst & Young, Coca-Cola, and United Airlines.

Eventually, I was interested in getting an MBA in the United States, which is known overseas for its MBAs. I did an Executive MBA at Emory Business School from 2005 – 2007. At the time, I did it just because I like to study and be in class, but it ended up being a very good experience for me. My mindset changed from simple and technical engineering to trying to find a business idea based on my background. I lived in four countries and have those four cultures: Moroccan, Italian, French, and American. I speak five languages [Moroccan, French, English, Italian, and Spanish, which he learned from listening to CDs while driving around in his 30s]. So I thought, what can I offer in Atlanta for a community that is missing something?

The first idea I got was a school teaching French, Spanish, and English to little kids. This actually started in entrepreneurship class during my MBA because nobody was taking the idea seriously of teaching kids between 18 months and five years old to learn languages. 

I was lucky to be doing this business because I was laid off in 2008 due to the [Great Recession] here but I got an 11-month severance package. So it was the perfect situation: a recently-finished MBA, 11 months of severance, and a great idea. 

What happened between this endeavor and opening up Cafe Vendome?

So the school went well, but I had to go to work for Airbus in France to finance it. But after two years, the school start doing well and it started making money. And then I resigned from Airbus because my family didn’t want to come to France anymore…everybody was Americanized! So when I came back, I worked another few years for France Telecom Group but was no longer interested in corporations. 

So I started coming up with some other ideas.

The first idea was actually to create more schools, but that didn’t really work well for a variety of reasons so I said my next project would be about the authentic food that I miss and can’t find here. So I was thinking at first about franchising from France but it wasn’t really worth it because those franchises were not known in the United States. But then I had the idea for this concept: Cafe Vendome. 

I was thinking about what I want. In the beginning I knew I wanted want to be able to see through the kitchen. I wanted transparency because it lets me feel like I can eat without thinking about what they are doing in the back. I wanted the customer to see what the employees are doing and for the employees to see how the customer is feeling. 

Customers sitting in Cafe Vendome with mural in background and bakery behind them
Mural and bakery | Cafe Vendome

I also wanted something without preservatives. Nothing bad for my body. Something fresh, homemade, and authentic. Some people said I’d have to adapt to the American taste, but I felt that, if you do something great and healthy, they will like it. You don’t have to adapt. Even with the baguettes, people were telling me I needed to make it softer. But then it wouldn’t be a French baguette!

So I wanted to keep it authentic and think about my own tastes first. If I don’t like it, I don’t even think about offering it to others. That goes against my values. 

And then you get to the level of how you do it. What are the machines? Where is the location? So you start going step by step. 

I could have bought an oven from here and it would be much cheaper, but am I achieving my goal to match the quality and the taste that you’d get in Paris? No. So I paid a lot of money because if I’m doing it, I’m doing it right. Don’t cut corners or think you can cheat the Americans and tell them, “This is French!” Because so many people do that. I don’t like that. It’s cheating. You have to match the country that you’re representing so I ended up buying a lot of stuff from Europe. 

An employee carrying baguettes out of the kitchen of Cafe Vendome
Baked goods | Cafe Vendome

For the location, I kept getting rejected from different places for different reasons. Nobody wanted to trust me because I was an engineer using my own money who had never had anything to do with a restaurant. So it was hard to get a place.

But this place here in Belle Isle on the backside of the building had been vacant for eight years. They had nothing to lose. So they said, “We will give you nothing to build it. Just do what you want and we’ll see.” And I accepted or else the project would’ve died. So I signed and started working on it. 

How’d you choose the decor of the restaurant?

The tables are French. The [pastry] display is from Italy. We have some French photos hanging in the hallway. We even introduced this Moroccan tile because [his interior designer] Hagi wanted to have this touch of Moroccan, and now we use that tile everywhere. It’s just beautiful.

How was the process of actually opening your doors?

I got lucky because a French woman randomly came by to taste what we were preparing before we opened and wrote on Nextdoor, “If you want something French and authentic, it’s coming.” And then everybody started asking us when we were opening. We were like an Apple store with them waiting for an iPhone! 

We were delayed since we actually failed our inspection because we were cooking before we were allowed to. There’s a lot of things I didn’t know as an engineer. I thought it was logical to practice cooking, but the inspector felt it was not. He wanted me to wait until he gave me the authorization. 

Then when we opened, there was a big line. By 1:00 PM, we ran out of food. On the second day, we ran out by 2:00 PM. Everybody was loving it and telling people to come see it. It was incredible. I had six people on my team who were not even well trained. They almost ran away! Success can be very challenging. It can even be your failure. 

I wasn’t originally going to manage it. I was going to hand it off to a manager and continue doing my job and just come here and enjoy it on the weekend. But the manager I had hired three months before we opened didn’t show. He had other jobs and kept telling me he would come. Well, we opened and he still wasn’t there so I said, “Okay, don’t come. I don’t need you anymore.” 

And I started learning what I needed, learning about POS [point-of-sale], about coffee. I had a consultant who helped me with coffee for a few months. I learned from people and I learned online and I started enjoying it. I don’t need managers if you trust and empower these people to use logic and common sense, they’re able to do everything. It’s incredible.

I started loving people and feeling happy here. I thought, “Why do I have to go back to a corporation?” 

With French cuisine being so broad, how’d you actually land on the specific menu items you have?

First, we have the French classics: the Viennoiserie, which is the croissant family, and the pastries such as the eclair [pastry filled with cream and topped with icing], napoleon [puff pastry layered with cream], opera [cake made of almond sponge cake, soaked in coffee syrup, and layered with ganache and coffee buttercream and covered in a chocolate glaze, named for its resemblance to the levels of an opera house], royal chocolate mousse [dark chocolate mousse cake], fruit tartelettes [miniature tarts], and sweet petit-fours [bite-sized cakes and other desserts], to name a few.

Viennoiserie is the name for all the croissant types of pastries because the first croissant was not made in France, but in actually in Vienna, Austria. It was when the Austrians won [the 1683 Battle of Vienna] against the Ottomans. The Ottomans surrounded Vienna and started digging tunnels underneath the city to lay siege, but who was awake in the early morning to hear the Ottomans coming? The bakers!. They heard everything and that’s why the Austrians won. And to celebrate, they created the croissant, which is “crescent” in French, which was the sign of the Ottoman flag. So everybody think it’s French, but it was created in Austria.

For pastries, I worked with this chef that we brought over from France. We have the classics but also added some creations of our own, which we defined with the chef in the beginning. So we have known French recipes and some chef specialties. 

Then there’s the cafe department. When I spent three years in Milan, I enjoyed real Italian cappuccinos and lattes. I cannot drink anything else. I cannot drink (whispers) Starbucks coffee. The authentic stuff is from Italy so I bought an Italian machine. I selected very good coffee beans, and I buy fresh milk from North Georgia. We trained our team with that consultant I mentioned earlier. And now we’re making amazing drinks straight out of Italy. It’s all about cappuccinos and lattes and macchiatos. It’s exactly what you’ll get if you go to Italy.

Coffee equipment behind the counter at Cafe Vendome
Coffee equipment | Cafe Vendome

Then in the back we have the sandwiches. If you’re going to do baguettes, don’t do store bought. They have a lot of sugar and sit out for three days. Our baguettes are only out for one. They’re crispy and light. When you can eat one baguette, you hardly feel anything. These baguettes have helped me make some very good sandwiches. Like the Jambon Beurre [one of the most popular French sandwiches, a sliced baguette topped with salted European butter, ham, and French Comté cheese], the salmon sandwich, the chicken sandwich, or even the veggie sandwich if you don’t eat meat. But then you can also open a croissant and put on the same toppings: salmon, chicken, cheese.

Basket of baguettes
Fresh, homemade baguettes | Cafe Vendome

You can do a lot of things with a croissant and baguette. We don’t have to depend on anyone and they’re so fresh and tasty. We control the chain of food from A to Z so we control the quality. That’s one of the sources of our success. Of course, it’s a lot of labor and time. If you want a delicious French meal right when you walk in, it will not be realistic. But if you have time to wait a few minutes, you can get something fresh, authentic, homemade, and without preservatives. This will be your place!

What’s your leadership style when it comes to managing your team?

Something that I use here lot, which comes from my engineering and mathematics background, is problem solving. This is all I have. When you do this kind of business, you have so many problems to solve and so many challenges. You have to be calm and emotionally intelligent and able to solve problems. You will never hear a bad word in Cafe Vendome and you will never see me screaming at anyone.

You understand and relate to your team and expect the best from them. You expect them to love people and to care. And you expect some kind of intelligence, autonomy, and proactiveness. And that’s it. The rest they can learn. You cannot teach them how to be nice or to love people or to be smart or to care. But you can teach them everything else. That’s my hiring philosophy. Just show me you have these characteristic and I can show you the rest. And it’s working so far. 

If it’s somebody’s first time coming to Cafe Vendome, what are a few things they need to get?

If they want to eat something hot for a meal, I recommend the quiche. It’s homemade and amazing. I would also recommend you try some sandwiches like the salmon sandwich on either a baguette or croissant. And of course the croissant on its own. One croissant and one pastry…we have so many that it’s almost hard to recommend. Some people like the croque monsieur [a hot ham and cheese sandwich topped with melted cheese]. Maybe a peach or Swiss chocolate tartelette.


As a food-focused individual, I couldn’t just take Hamid’s word for it.  I obviously had to try a few of these heavy hitters myself. 

Ham, cheese, and butter sandwich on baguette
Jambon-Buerre | Cafe Vendome


This sandwich of just ham, cheese, and European butter on fresh baguette is an absolute masterclass in simplicity. When you have the best homemade baguette in the city, the richest butter, and fresh ingredients, the final product is predictably delicious but even so it exceeds your expectations.

Hamid wasn’t exaggerating about the French baguette not being soft. There’s a “splash zone” of crumbs each bite you take because the bread is just so hearty and crunchy. 

Everything combines into a perfect bite each time, but toward the end, I took the sandwich apart and started enjoying different combinations of ingredients because when they’re that good, you want to appreciate them.

Almond Croissant

Each croissant at Cafe Vendome is crunchy yet buttery to the point of melting in your mouth. The almond flavor is always present but doesn’t steal the show from the rest of the croissant goodness.

Blue and pink macarons from Cafe Vendome
Macarons | Cafe Vendome


I’m no stranger to this macaron, one of Atlanta’s finest cookies, but every time I eat one, it feels like the first time. It’s just sweet enough, whether you get one of the flavors or the plain vanilla variation, and the delicate, cloudlike texture is a clear result of expert craftsmanship and technique.

Alright, back to Hamid!

What would you say are the best occasions for somebody to visit Cafe Vendome?

If you want to experience that Parisian feeling. If you want to relax and listen to music. When people eat here, they don’t feel they’re in the United States. They are transported.

Then there are the meetings. If somebody wants to impress someone and show them something they didn’t know. You can meet here and they’ll say, “Oh my God. I never knew this place existed.” And then you have the dates. We see lots of first dates. 

Families too. When they have visitors from other states or other countries, they bring them here. I see mothers pregnant, then I see their babies, then I see the kids running in here. It’s beautiful. They run and hug me and go, “Hamid!” What’s better than that feeling, being involved with the community, getting hugs, and making people happy?  

There is nothing better.

So much blood, sweat, and tears went into opening this location. What made you decide to open up a second store [in City Springs] and how was that experience different? 

When we first opened and were so busy, I didn’t have time to think about any other locations. I was just working every day. And the City Springs project, for the city hall and the performance center, was under development by the Selig family. I had people from around there coming here and saying I needed to be there. 

One day, Mindy Selig [Senior Vice President, Retail Leasing of Selig Enterprises], who had been here a few times, said she liked the place and offered to show me the project. I liked her, she was so friendly and authentic, and I could see quickly that this would be a good project. It ended up being a very good decision.

Since then, so many people have emailed me or visited in person to tell me they want to open more locations. Sometimes COVID stopped it, sometimes I didn’t like the location, sometimes it was just too expensive. So I haven’t really planned for anything, but I’m just going with the flow.

Cafe Vendome | Paris sign
Cafe Vendome

What are your ultimate goals with expansion? A few locations around Atlanta or 50+ around the country?

At my level now, I could see a few more Cafe Vendomes in different areas like Buckhead, Brookhaven, Smyrna and Alpharetta. 

But if I want to be nationwide, I’ll need partners. I’ll need investors. I’ll need more resources because remember, I’m still doing everything by myself. Which is exciting and interesting but I’ll reach my limit. I want the business to be sustainable as well as scalable. I’m trying to hire good people with some experience who can help me and give them a stake in the business. And then I will be able to grow. 

So this is my vision. I really think many other neighborhoods and communities in Atlanta will enjoy this concept. Stopping at two would be a waste.

French cuisine is one of, if not the most respected cuisines in the world. How would you describe it and why do you think it’s so beloved? 

When the French do things, they think about quality, not quantity. That’s why the plates are very small. And when they make it, they make it with their hearts. They’re very picky about the taste and the way of doing it and how they present it. It’s always very refined. 

And the [culinary] education is very important. They train people very early and care about competition and rankings, like Michelin Stars. They go to school, but they’re also going to bakeries and restaurants to work at the same time they’re studying. It’s about the practice and the theory. It’s the same thing with mathematics or physics. It’s very thorough with a lot of demonstration. You don’t do multiple choice; it’s all about demonstrating things from A to Z in a logical and methodical way. They pay attention to the best of the best and when you fall behind, you get eliminated. This is what makes the French successful in cooking.

When you’re next able to go to Paris, let’s say you drop off your bags… what’s the first thing you want to eat and drink?

When I go to Paris I go to two kinds of restaurants: French ones – I like mussels and fish – and family-owned Moroccan restaurants where they do couscous and tagine [an aromatic, slow-cooked stew]. And Paris has so many good Moroccan and French restaurants. Of course, French restaurants have different levels: the very luxurious and Michelin-starred and the ones that are simple but tasty.

When I go back to Paris, I’m very nostalgic. I like to connect with the areas where I spent good times. There is no present or future without the past.

As soon as I come back from Paris, I’m ready to go again.

It brings you back to equilibrium. 

Exactly. It’s a balance and, as humans, we need this. You can’t forget your source. You can’t forget your places, your souvenirs, or your foundation and values. 

This brings us perfectly to my last question. I’m going with my girlfriend to Paris over the holidays, so how do you recommend we spend the perfect day in Paris?

So first, of course you are a food guy, so you have to select some restaurants! Some very, very refined French cuisine and some Moroccan cuisine. Definitely go to Chez Paul, also go somewhere to get a Jambon Beurre. Then spend some time in Angelina Paris on Rue Rivoli and Eric Kayser near Le Louvre.

You need to spend some times in the Chateau Versailles. It’s just beautiful and you’ll feel like the King of France. And then of course the Eiffel Tower. And I would go to the Sacré-Cœur, maybe at the end of the day if you want to see Paris at night. You can see the entire city. If you have time for art, the Louvre is also beautiful.

You should also take a peniche [a large French riverboat] on the Seine. You get in and learn about all types of monuments and it’s a beautiful experience to see them from the river. You can see Paris from the top on Sacré-Cœur, see Paris from the Eiffel Tower, and see Paris from the Seine.

Do this and you will have good vacation.

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