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?