NATHALIE CONTE used to fret over three-course meals for husband Stephane to heat up in the microwave when she was out of town on a business trip, but no more.
These days "I just make sure to leave a couple of cartons of Haagen Dazs in the freezer," says the business writer for a Paris newspaper. "Most often when I come home they're both empty, and he's even admitted to finishing them off in one sitting."
Such American but un-French eating habits have contributed to making Haagen Dazs a star as recognizable as Arnold Schwarzeneggar in the land of three-hour dinners and 400 cheeses.
Just since its introduction here in 1990, the Cadillac of American gourmet ice creams has taken nearly 15 percent (in value; about 4 percent in volume) of the ice cream market - a success that is causing French ice creammakers to wake up and smell the ... pecan nuts in caramel swirl. Such market leaders as Gervais and Motta have recently either introduced or refashioned product lines that are richer, creamier, and boast more exotic flavors to combat the American invasion.
In addition, the success of Haagen Dazs is adding to an Americanization of French - and indeed European - eating habits, a trend already established here with the spread of McDonald's, Burger King, and home-delivered pizzas.
"It's a particularly American way to eat ice cream, to pick up the carton and eat directly from it with a spoon," says Jme Nalliod-Izacard, director of ice cream specialty products at Gervais. "Before Haagen Dazs, that didn't exist in France."
Haagen-Dazs officials agree there is a certain attraction to their ice cream because it is American - especially among younger consumers. But they maintain that the overriding reason for their product's success is its natural ingredients - eggs, cream, nuts, rich chocolate, and fresh fruits - that say "quality" to a country of consumers who know what good food is.
"People at first were curious because we had a new product, but the secret is that we fit the consumer's desire for natural and real ingredients," says Valerie Forgue, Haagen Dazs director of marketing here. "People today prefer a return to coq au vin and other traditional dishes, even if they are watching to eat less."
THE company's distinctive cylindrical cartons can now be purchased in 10 European countries, with most recent expansion into Switzerland and Spain. But with 31 tony and fashionably located ice cream parlors (called "boutiques") in France, and 11 of those in Paris alone, along with a ubiquitous presence in supermarkets and movie theaters, this country is the beachhead of Haagen Dazs' European operations. A new factory in Arras, near Lille in northern France, has already replaced almost all of the company' s imports from the United States.
Haagen Dazs officials recognize that their phenomenal early growth this side of the Atlantic cannot go on indefinitely. For one thing, the French eat about one-third the ice cream per capita that Americans do. While consumption is rising slightly, the French maintain their own idea of eating ice cream. "It still remains a surprisingly seasonal attraction for the French," says Ms. Forgue. "The fact that we will close six or seven of our boutiques over the winter is acknowledgment of this."
In addition, Haagen Dazs' rivals are not about to give the high-profit deluxe ice cream sector to someone else. Gervais has a line called unabashadly "L'Americaine" - more cream, new flavors like "vanilla and cookies" - to make it more like the pace setter.
At $5 or more a pint, the deluxe ice creams are unlikely to take much more of the total market, Mr. Nalliod-Izacard says.
Gervais and Motta, with its new "Mirage" line, are trying to beat their rival with slightly lower prices. Otherwise they are not straying far from a successful formula: One of the "Mirage" flavors is maple syrup.