This winter marks the 20th anniversary of Val d’Isere’s legendary Petit Danois. The party bar with a big heart has welcomed everyone from ski bums to Prime Ministers over the years. The secret behind its success is the formidable couple who have, for the last 20 years, poured their hearts and souls into transforming it from a pretty unsavoury dive bar to the characterful, warm, fun hangout it is today.
Danes Mette and Henrik Baumann Jensen quit their jobs in Denmark (Henrik had a hot dog stall, flower business and worked in shipping; Mette was a French/English/Danish translator) and moved to Nice in 1992 ‘looking for adventure’. The young couple opened a restaurant, but went bankrupt within a year. Instead of returning home defeated, they travelled and took bar work and chalet host jobs in Andorra before finding a little takeaway snack bar to take over, on a beach in Antibes.
Earning money there in summers, they spent winters travelling, visiting most resorts in the French Alps to ski. When their first son Frederik was born in 1994 the couple started looking for winter work too – and that’s when the Nice beer supplier they’d stayed friendly with mentioned the Petit Danois lease was up for sale. Without knowing anything much about running a proper bar, and with little money after paying the rent upfront, they threw themselves into creating a fun venue with a good vibe.
‘We had the pioneer spirit’
“It had been a dive bar really, and it was left in a mess,” Henrik said. “We decided to make it a ski bum place, where you could come on a whiteout day to watch films, have chips and burgers. We did all the renovation work ourselves – local people couldn’t believe we were doing everything – mixing cement, plastering. People could see we were hard-working, we were there all the time. We started from scratch and we didn’t know a lot but we had a lot of energy and the pioneer spirit. It was a lot of fun.
“After the first year we did a lot better than we’d budgeted and realised we had something here. We created something missing in Val d’Isere at the time – a social area where everyone was welcome, not just English or just French. We never wanted to be like everyone else, we’ve always tried to be different.”
The bar’s international vibe is still what sets it apart. Possibly because of its neutral Danish roots and friendly Scandi bar staff, people of all backgrounds and nationalities feel at home here. Racing driver David Coulthard has popped in, infamous skier Bode Miller has partied there. Anders Fogh Rasmussen was accompanied by bodyguards when he came to visit his daughter, who was working a season while he was Prime Minister of Denmark.
This wasn’t just a winter job – Val d’Isere was home
When Mette and Henrik got married in 1996 there was only one place they wanted to host their wedding reception – the Danois. That’s when they decided this wasn’t just a winter job – Val d’Isere was home.
Initially they only had the main bar area, and as the Danois success grew they expanded into the kitchen area and pool room over the years. But they could never invest too much because they were always on a short-term lease of 1 or 2 years. There was a plan in development to knock the area down and build a pedestrianised resort centre in its place with a brand new shopping centre and central square – a plan that 20 years later is still being fought over. It’s currently being talked about to come to fruition in 2017, though no final decision has been made.
But being forced to think short-term was no bad thing – multiple patch-up jobs rather than complete renovation has ensured the building has retained its old-school character and its soul.
Soul, sweat and tears
“We would have done it differently if we’d have known we’d still be here 20 years later. The situation with the town plan was frustrating initially but it also meant we could do what we wanted with the place as the owner thought it was being knocked down any day so he was very flexible.”
If the new town plan finally gets underway, the Petit Danois would be re-created in a brand new building. “We’d have a top quality modern building to work with and we’d try to buy the walls – that’s my dream.” But how could you re-create the 20 years of soul, sweat and tears that have gone into the bricks of the Danois? “It would be difficult, its charm is it’s old – the stones and wood – and it doesn’t matter if you spill a drink on the floor. It would be very different with everything new but we would create something equally nice, with the same spirit.”
Henrik is still 100% part of the fabric of the place – a hands-on boss with the same amount of enthusiasm he always had for keeping the bar relevant, welcoming and friendly. The customers he charmed back in the early days came back with their kids, and now they’re on third generation Danois regulars. “That’s the funny thing about the Danois, we have very very rich people want to come and have a good time, seasonnaires and ski bums too, and all feel welcome and comfortable. I tell all the staff to appreciate every customer, treat them as you’d like to be treated in a bar. We try to create a family atmosphere among the staff – we have a staff trip at the end of the season and they all go out and skiing together. I feel like it’s a special place.
“We’ve got so many great memories here. We’re still here most of the time, making sure the new staff know how we do things, we haven’t stepped back and left it to managers. I love being a part of the Danois still, love being around happy people. Our customers are sporty, they’re here for a good time. It’s very different to running a pub in a city with regulars, fights and problems. Here’s it’s new customers all the time, from all nationalities, which keeps it really interesting. This year we’ve got staff from Zimbabwe, South Africa, Australia as well as Scandinavia.”
It’s not just the 20th anniversary of the bar that’s being celebrated this season – it’s also the couple’s 20th wedding anniversary, Henrik’s 50th birthday and second son Sebastian’s 18th. The first party of the big 20th year is tomorrow – go along for live music from regular George More, special offers and free Petit Danois souvenirs.
Do you have any great Petit Danois anecdotes and legends? Get in touch!