Saturday, September 27, 2008

Five reasons French restaurants are suffering

When I started working in France, most of my colleagues ate lunch out every day, and the others went home for lunch. I was literally the only person who ever brought her lunch from home and ate it at work, and my American habit was considered strange and depressing.

Today, our staff room is packed every lunch hour with employees enjoying their version of "brown-bagging" it -- and this is one of the reasons French restaurants are suffering as never before.

According to Le Télégramme, over 3,000 French eateries shut down in the first half of 2008. This is sad to see, but the reasons are clear enough to me. And as I wrote the five below, I thought of even more -- but maybe my commenters will come up with them!

1. The crackdown on drinking and driving: Everybody knows that restaurants make a big profit margin off drinks, and the French government's justifiable campaign against "l'alcool au volant" and the subsequent increase in random breathalyzer testing (which is legal in France) have made customers edgy about drinking at all when out.

"The designated driver" approach may be working for young people who really want to party it up, but among adults, drinking is so linked to socializing that it is considered a bit tacky to guzzle down four or five glasses of wine while others at your table limit themselves to just one. My experience among adults in restaurants has been that if some people limit their drinking because they're driving, the other members of the party follow suit - -which is not good news for restaurant owners.

2. The tobacco ban: It is now illegal to smoke in bars and restaurants in France. Although the effect on restaurants would seem debatable -- personally I'm eating out more now that I don't have to inhale second-hand smoke -- eatery owners generally feel that the ban has reduced their clientele, with cafés and bars especially hard hit.

3. Plunging purchasing power: When I first arrived in France in 1990, going out to eat was almost always a full-board extravaganza -- an apéritif, wine, mineral water, desserts and coffee for all. Of course all of those extras add up, and restaurant owners are starting to notice new dining styles that bring tabs way, way down. Ordering tap water has become de rigueur, and it is no longer unheard of to ask for "un dessert pour deux" -- or even to share a main dish, which would have been considered shameful just a few years back.

4. Changing work habits: It may be the land of the two-hour lunch, but a lot of people I know have figured out that as long as their office stays open at lunchtime and their professional activity allows for it, they would rather eat in just an hour -- or even half an hour -- and get off work earlier. Personally, I can't blame them there.

5. Fuel prices and ecological concerns: Taking a picturesque drive to a country auberge is a pleasant way to spend a Sunday afternoon, but with the price of gas higher than ever and green guilt lurking in all of our souls, this sort of outing may be falling out of fashion.

As for me, a proud carrier of tickets-restaurant, I am actually going out more, not less. But I'm obviously bucking the general trend.

If you live in France -- or anywhere else, for that matter -- have you noticed changes in habits involving eating out?


Ken Broadhurst said...

Hi Betty, I don't know about the idea that the police are stopping people at randow checkpoints to discourage drinking. That was true around Saint-Aignan for a few months about 4 years ago, but recently I haven't seen much of it. I should add that I don't go out for lunch much, preferring to cook at home.

Let's hope the smoking ban is only a temporary cause of low levels of restaurant customers. Soon, people will be smoking less overall and it won't be much of an issue. Ken

Betty C. said...

Well, my husband has been pulled over twice for a random test at about 9:00 pm on the way home to our village. Both times he had had a drink in town -- but just one, so he was okay.

Loulou said...

I've been breathalyzed too, just outside of our village, at 12:30AM! In the middle of nowhere! I passed, but had had some wine with dinner several hours before so was freaked out.

The price of going out is going up, as it has everywhere. The owners have to pay more for their food and labor, so the cost trickles down to us.
I agree that the other factors you mentioned have caused an impact.
It's sad. We used to love to go out, but it really isn't worth it anymore, unless it is a special occasion.

Betty C. said...

Loulou -- Yes, I forgot the general food cost factor -- purchasing power going down, but food prices going up.

It is worth it to go out with a special blogging friend, though, methinks!

eleonora said...

Ohhhhhhhhhhhh Betty...c'est tout mimi en venant chez toi...bravo pour ta bannière..elle est croquante et délicieuse...

Loulou said...

Yes, lunch or dinner out with friends is always enjoyable! Especially with one that I haven't seen for a while. :)

myfrenchkitchen said...

I recently bought a book..."The end of food" by Paul Roberts. Very interesting! He describes how even France, who is a country clinging to their traditional food habits, has been affected and infulenced by global changes in food(eating, production etc. It adds to your points here; France is also starting to bend the knee under global pressures/influences.
thanks for an interesting read!

wcs said...

Going out for us is more of a special occasion thing any more, mostly when we are with other people.

Otherwise, it's more economical to cook at home, and more often than not it's better, too.

Of course, it helps if you can be at home all day to garden, preserve food, and cook.

Ken Broadhurst said...

Except the rare occasions when we are traveling (more often in Paris than elsewhere), we almost never go out to eat any more. For one thing, there just aren't that many restaurants around Saint-Aignan, and we've tried them all. We also like to cook and it's more fun to eat at home than for the two of us to go out. The alcohol thing also plays a role in that decision.

spacedlaw said...

In Italy it is still customary for families to go to a restaurant/agriturismo for Sunday lunch (to give the mother a rest) but it has become more expensive, especially with the euro. Thank goodness (?) very few people can actually afford having more than one or two children so that compensates a little but of course the restaurants loose. In Italy most people would have gone home for lunch but what with the crisis, a lot of people have to travel a long time to go to work every day, so they do tend to eat locally, in canteens - when available - or somewhere like a "tavola calda" (a bar serving hot dishes at lunch time, from sandwiches to prepared pasta). The practice of bringing food from work seems to largely belong to the manual workers area still but is bound to spread for economic and health reasons (bar lunches are usually overloaded with fat).

spacedlaw said...

Oh and less people drink when they have to work in the afternoon too (in France or everywhere): we are finally becoming responsible adults!

Mimi from French Kitchen said...

Hi Betty,

I am so sorry we did not catch up! I had no e-mail in Paris and no Internet in the little village we stayed in. We tried Cahors once, but finding parking was so frustrating.

I thought of you every time we saw a sign pointing to Rodez, though.

We'll be back in 2009 or early 2010.


Veronica said...

When we first moved here 10 years ago, there were loads of restaurants that offered 3-course lunches with coffee and wine for 50 francs, and they used to be packed on weekday lunchtimes. That 50 francs is now more like 12 euros, and they are emptier now!

Around here, as tourism has got more important, many restaurants -- both new and existing -- have gone upmarket. You can get some really superb food, at "reasonable" prices given the quality (prix fixe menus from 20-30 euros), but that price still makes it not an everyday experience, and they need to make a lot of money over the tourist season to break even.

Interestingly one local family-run restaurant has gone in the other direction. It used to be quite smart, with the prices corresponding.

We hadn't been in a few years (it got too expensive) and were amazed recently to find it had become virtually a canteen! Starters and desserts are cold self-service buffets, and there is a limited choice of main courses. The food is still good, if less fancy, and there are fewer staff, less washing up, and lower prices. They are doing a roaring trade; we arrived there at 12 on the dot one day last week and were turned away because they were already fully booked by people phoning to be sure of a table! They are doing so well they don't even bother to open at weekends now -- and it used to be the place to go for a celebratory Saturday dinner or Sunday lunch ... So some places cn buck the trend.

Re the breathalyser problem, it's now routine for restaurants here to give you a cork and a fancy bag to take your unfinished bottle home in :-) Is it an Aude thing, or do they do it in Rodez too? A propos, I was just wondering the other day why more restaurants don't do expensive wines by the glass -- another way of turning a fancy profit!

Betty C. said...

Veronica -- Thank you for your interesting comment. I haven't noticed any "bottles in bags" here in Rodez, but I think most restaurant-owners would now be amenable to the idea.

I have noticed more "vin au verre" options, but Aveyron seems to be way behind Paris in that respect.