A recovery recipe for French restaurants


PARIS – You are sitting at a table with your loved ones – inside a transparent bubble. The butler approaches, but not too close. He wears white gloves and a mask. He does not give you a card, but a QR Code, and invites you to download the menu on your smartphone.

As surreal as it sounds, you might soon be experiencing this scene at your favorite restaurant. But that, of course, assumes that the restaurant has survived the past two months. What began on March 14 – the day professionals learned at 8 p.m. they had to close the curtain at midnight – was nothing short of the worst crisis in industry history, and the numbers were dramatic.

The French Union of Hotel Professions and Industries (UMIH) estimates that of the 160,000 catering outlets in France, some 100,000 would be doomed to failure in the absence of a support plan. “Most restaurants are very small businesses, and their cash represents barely two days of revenue,” warns Hervé Becam, vice-president of the association.

Bernard Boutboul, founder of the consulting agency Gira and specialist in the sector, says that if the closure were to last until mid-June, as it is rumored, at least 20% of restaurants – around 40,000 in total – would disappear . . Other sources claim that “only” 10% of establishments will fail.

We must of course remain cautious in our forecasts, as there are so many uncertainties. The future of restaurants will depend on whether customers want to come back, but also political decisions made, and not just exactly when establishments are allowed to reopen. There are also decisions to be made about hygiene rules, for example, and when tourists will be allowed to enter the country.

And this is not just a problem in France. In the United States, industry guru Roger Lipton is already talking about “carnage”, with 3 million jobs lost. In Canada, it is estimated that in March alone, 10% of restaurants in the country have already closed.

Switching gears

After the entry into force of confinement, many cooks decided to make themselves useful and mobilized to offer meals to hospitals. Among the most effective initiatives, we must cite “The chefs with the caregivers”, the operation concocted by the head of the Elysée, Guillaume Gomez, with the journalist Stéphane Méjanès. Supported by the start-up TipToque (for logistics), the Rungis Market, Transgourmet and Metro, dozens of cooks have been treating nurses, doctors and nursing assistants for more than a month.

At the same time, chefs are trying to stay in touch with their customers through social media. On Instagram, Guy Martin, the two-star chef at Le Grand Véfour, creates easy recipes from his own kitchen. Also on Instagram, Bruno Verjus, Parisian star, tells endearing gastronomic stories every day. Amandine Chaignot, former “Masterchef” juror on TF1, has transformed her young restaurant La Pouliche, in the 10th arrondissement of Paris, into a small farmers’ market in order to ensure at least some income for its suppliers.

Restaurant owners are, of course, also striving to save their businesses. The most enlightened, aware of the fate of their European or American colleagues, recognize that the State is there to help them.

A woman sweeps the path of a closed restaurant in Montmartre in Paris. Photo credit: Gao Jing / Zuma

“We are lucky to be French! says Yannick Alléno, the three-star chef at the Pavillon Ledoyen et Cheval Blanc in Courchevel. “We thank the government for doing its best in every way. We were able to immediately benefit from state-guaranteed loans and short-time working so that we did not have to lay off staff.

Grateful but worried, restaurant owners never stop defending their cause before the public authorities, banks and insurers. The latter aroused the anger of the profession, recalling without batting an eyelid that the operating loss guarantee does not apply to the pandemic. The UMIH is furious with the insurers, and has asked for a special support fund, which they say should be financed by a future premium. This surcharge would protect the restaurant industry against a new health crisis in the future.

To respond to all these concerns, the French Minister of the Economy, Bruno Le Maire, organized a videoconference meeting on April 20 between restaurateurs and representatives of banks and insurance companies. During this exchange, the Minister invited everyone Рincluding insurers Рto act in a spirit of solidarity, and asked S̩bastien Bazin, President of AccorHotels, to propose conditions under which restaurants could resume their activities. normal.

But it is a delicate subject. The sector will be one of the few not to be allowed to reopen on May 11. The authorities believe that this would be too risky from a health point of view, given the exchanges and contacts between people, whether employees or customers. Irritated, some do not understand why schools are safer than their establishments. For others, the uncertainty and the waiting become unbearable.

“You can’t imagine how much we are in a hurry to find our customers,” says André Terrail, the young boss of La Tour d’Argent in Paris. “Our work is a game which, in principle, never stops.”

Rules of engagement

Led by Alain Ducasse and about fifteen starred chefs, the Culinary College of France – which brings together 1,800 restaurateurs and nearly 1,000 quality producers – asked that catering companies be authorized to reopen on May 11 if they take commitments on hygiene, and on two other points: that they choose French suppliers and artisans, and that they maintain as many jobs as possible.

This call did not please everyone, including some within the Culinary College. The most “virtuous”, in other words the best restaurants, would be favored. They alone could invest in expensive equipment, keep their staff and buy from small, quality producers. Another objection: wouldn’t it be dangerous to reopen too early?

Our job is a game which, in principle, never stops.

Indeed, the Culinary College appeal succeeded in placing the reopening schedule at the center of the debate. So much so that on April 24 a new meeting was held with representatives of the catering and hotel industry, this time in the presence of President Emmanuel Macron. What better way to show the government’s commitment than a two-hour videoconference involving the Head of State and three ministers? The president did not announce a date, but spoke of a method and means.

“He announced new support measures, but also a stimulus plan and an intelligent timetable,” said Alain Ducasse.

The official reopening date will be decided at the end of May, depending on the evolution of the epidemic.

In any case, we must prepare for this reopening. The tables will have to be far from each other, which will reduce the turnover. Not too serious at the start, since tourists – who can represent up to half of the turnover – will be absent. Work in the kitchen and in the dining room will also be reorganized to avoid contagion.

Alain Ducasse is already working on setting up his establishments and is thinking about the rules that everyone will have to respect, at least for several months. Masks, gels and foot baths in restaurants, even starred?

“Yes, we will have to! »Answers one of the most renowned chefs in the world and” godfather “of French gastronomy. “We must move towards transparency on what we eat and with whom we eat,” he adds. “We will develop perfectly rigorous measures that we are committed to respecting. The worst would be to have to shut down two months after restarting!

The problem is that the rules of hygiene and social distancing are at odds with the friendliness of a restaurant, and even more so of a large restaurant. David Sinapian, president of the Grandes Tables du Monde network, carried out a small survey. While most patrons are concerned about having to hold a menu that could make them sick in their fingers, they unanimously reject the idea of ​​room staff wearing masks.

“We can offer a digital menu, serve dishes in gloves, but we cannot medicalize gastronomy,” explains David Sinapian. “A restaurant is not an operating room!

In South Korea, which is one month ahead of the evolution of the pandemic, new hygiene solutions are already in place. “In my restaurant in Seoul, we reopened 30 places out of 150, and installed a 4-meter carpet that disinfects the shoes of incoming customers,” says Yannick Alléno. “There is frost at the entrance, and the clothes in the cloakroom are stored in plastic wrap.”

As François Blouin of Food Service Vision explains: “Restaurants will have to do even better with hygiene and know how to prove it. But where they will really have to innovate is in “contactless usability” and their ability to open up to deliveries. ”

At present, few restaurants, especially the more chic, offer their meals to take away. First, because the Deliveroo, Uber Eats or Just Eat platforms charge a comfortable commission (around 25%) and collect customer details. And second, because it’s not always rewarding that a prestigious establishment is on the app alongside local supermarkets. But there are ways to avoid these digital giants, for example by using the Rapidle or Stuart services.

In the longer term, the pandemic could transform consumers’ relationship with restaurants. Most top chefs plan to cut down on their menus to cut costs without compromising on quality. Mathieu Viannay from Lyon knows he will not reopen La Mère Brazier in the same way. “Several menus with a lot of choice and 35 employees? It will no longer be possible!”

Anne-Sophie Pic, the most starred woman in the world and at the head of the group Pic based in Valence, is also thinking of getting rid of her long card. Why not think of dinner as a show? Going to a three-star restaurant for dinner can be an experience where guests are guided from arrival to departure. But some are not convinced: “Of course, we can reduce the menu to three starters, three main courses and three desserts. at Epicure three stars in Paris.

Will the experience of containment make customers be wiser? Will they demand a more local, more responsible, more respectful of the planet? “I have been advocating for years that we eat less meat, but of better quality, and that our plates give pride of place to vegetable proteins”, specifies Alain Ducasse.

“We took this direction 10 years ago,” he adds. “When I reopen, I will offer our customers a welcome dish, the same in all my restaurants around the world. It will be based on locally grown vegetables and cereals, without salt or fat, served at the right temperature.

And that, after these most difficult months, is really something to look forward to.

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