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Bloomberg.com on French Dining Trends


robyn
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Here: http://www.bloomberg.com/apps/news?pid=206...MlN0&refer=home

Comments?

Robyn

Perhaps my description of the topic was simplistic - but I think what the article said is two-fold:

1) A lot of French eating establishments at all levels are in trouble due to the state of the economy; and

2) To a certain extent - when diners are counting their euros - especially for meals like lunch when they're at work - they may well wind up spending their lunch money at places like McDonald's instead of the local cafe.

Now obviously the person who might have dinner at his local bistro - but doesn't due to economic conditions - will not wind up at McDonald's. He will just stay home. But at a place like La Defense at lunch - well we saw a lot of fairly empty restaurants - and large numbers of people at McDonald's. Can't say I blame them - because the restaurant we ate at was awful. And - at least at McDonald's - you get a consistent product for a fairly low price (or so I'm told - I don't think I've had a meal at McDonald's more than once or twice in the last 10 years - and that was when we were driving on interstate highways in the United States). The worst kind of dining experience is to pay too much for a mediocre or worse meal.

There are two other factors. One mentioned in the Bloomberg article was the smoking ban. I don't think the smoking ban has hit high end dining - but - in a country with so many people who smoke - I suspect it has surely had an impact at the cafe and lower bistro level. I'm a smoker. Why would I go to a cafe to have a drink at the end of the day if I can't have a cigarette with my drink? Simple answer is the only places I went to were those with outside terraces where smoking was allowed. That is ok in early October - but one would have to be a pretty hearty smoker to sit outside in January or February. And a cafe can't do ok if it has little or no business during the winter.

Second is the attitude about service. I know what I've read about the French attitude about service in restaurants (and elsewhere). We're really not "serving" you - we are allowing you to be guests in our establishments - etc. There is sometimes quite a thin line between being civil to one's customers - and being surly. And I am sure some restaurants cross over the line (I know we had it happen on more than one occasion). For those of us who live in or have traveled in other countries - especially ones with exceptional levels of service - like Japan - well let's just say that the service ethic can leave something to be desired in terms of some experiences in France. Perhaps even the French are getting tired of getting poor service when they are spending their hard-earned money to dine out or do other things.

Anyway - what is going on in France is going on elsewhere these days. Bloomberg just gave it kind of a "French twist".

BTW - precarity isn't a word I'd ever heard before - so I looked it up. Here is the definition. It seems to be more of a European concept than an American one. And since politics is beyond the realm of this forum - I won't say what I think about the concept. Robyn

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Grossly simplistic, as are most mainstream American or British press articles whenever they try to comment French eating habits, with a twisted sense of causality that, as we say here, "doesn't eat bread" (= has no important consequences) but is a type of misinformation. It is not clear at all that the current restaurant crisis in France (which only follows a general increase of precarity that has been going on for years in French society) has caused, or will cause, any extra rush to McDonalds' restaurants. These have been thriving in France for quite a few years and presenting them as a logical solution to the food crisis is, to say the least, a tad manipulative (not mentioning the fact that McDonalds, in their own way, are part of the food crisis).

Edited by Ptipois (log)
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Perhaps my description of the topic was simplistic - but I think what the article said is two-fold.....

I agree with Ptipois the article is very simplistic and draws a conclusion from a simple correlation without really looking for any other factors. McDonalds, and local French fast food operations (and I include Paul in that) have been popular for a long time, it is probably more of a generational shift than economics. The young are adopting different lifestyles and have different pressures on their time.

I also wonder about the stats - France is the "biggest earner" (Revenue? Profit?) Outside the US, but Japan has three times the number of restaurants (3,598) maybe not as profitable in percentage terms but they must generate more revenue. Are we seeing some selective stats from the journalist in order to justify an article and all those expenses incurred in sampling the declining restaurant scene in Paris?

What you won't have seen at La Defense is that all the offices have staff restaurants where food is subsidised and probably 70/80% of people will eat. The quality isn't the best but they will generally serve a full three course meal with 3 or 4 choices per course. So the vast majority are still sitting down to "real " food at lunchtimes.

I must refute your comment about service in restaurants. From my experience French service is very good. It is different to a lot of countries and, takes a little time to understand, and thus you may not have understood how to get the best out of it. The social norms and manners in France are different to the US in some subtle and important ways and this will effect your experience. There will be good and bad service experiences in any trip but I believe it is wrong to generalise and continue with stereotypes.

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Well, the extension of McDonalds in France really is yesterday's news. Now arguments about the lifestyle are absolutely relevant, as are the ones with emphasis on the smart marketing (from the addictive sugar in the sauces to the toys for kids).

But the basic reason for McDonals success in France, which is, PhilD, their fastest growing market outside the US, is the quality of what they serve. When McDonalds took up in France, cheap food/snacks in France were generally quite bad, and they still are in many, many places.

We all have ideas of nice, Camdeborde-like typical French bistrot sercing delicious simple food. But the reality for anyone travelling in France who would like to have a simple sandwich or croque monsieur in a random café is more than awful. Old industrial bread, surimi-like ham, tasteless butter...

By contrast, McDonalds and even current packed sandwiches from gas stations are pretty decent. And they're not only decent, they have quality in the industrial sense: you know what you'll get. When on the road in France, you more or less know what you'll get from a McDonalds (though there actually are significant differences from on branch to an other), you know that it will be good and you also have sanitary reassurances. Stopping in a random bistrot is taking a chance in comparison.

Now of course McDonalds is crap compared to a good sandwich jambon beurre made with quality ingredients. But where do you find it and at what price? You can eat well in France but that's far, very far, from being the rule. Follow the guides and recommendations and you'll experience wonders. But stop to random places and the disrespect for food can be painful. Even in Paris, stop at a random bakery -- sometimes the quality is just revolting.

So I would argue that it's not necessary to relate to cultural stereotypes and French gastronomic pride -- basic economic considerations are sufficient here. People just get value for their money -- they should.

Edited by julot-les-pinceaux (log)
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I agree that the article's correlation is simplistic. However, over the past years I have noted how many McD signs I see in the French countryside (not within the major cities), which to my unscientific eye seems much higher than the number of McD signs I see in Spain or Italy. There is an article that came out this July in BusinessWeek proclaiming that under the guidance of Frenchman Denis Hennequin, McDonald's Europe is now the highest-performing sector of the golden arch empire by revenues, despite having only a quarter of the outlets in the US. And within Europe, France is second in profitability only to the US. (The other top McD regions in Europe are the UK and Germany.)

I have no basis to make this theory, but I have long suspected that McDonald's is merely stepping into a gap in the French food culture, which lacks a quick, cheap bite to fit the modern pace of life. Spain has tapas and Italy has pizza and the friggitoria, but a meal in a traditional French bistro is never under an hour at the very fastest. If you are in a rush, there is no real food alternative even if you can afford to pay for it. When we don't have time to sit down to a bistro, we pretty much have to skip eating altogether in France. Otherwise, we have to eat under stress because the service is so painfully slow, and any attempt to speed things up meets with stubborn resistance. I have never understood why servers seem to disappear the moment we wish to pay the bill. The only effective tactic is to make for the door, and the waiter will appear as if by magic.

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Both very valid points from Julot and Culinista. There definitely is a gap in the French modern eating lifestyle, a lack of decent snacks and reasonably-priced "sur le pouce" eating. It wasn't always so. The drastic decrease in quality of boulangeries, pâtisseries, the disappearance of charcuteries (generally replaced by "Asian" take-outs where everything seems to be produced in the same huge kitchen), and the general disappearance of whatever "street food" France used to have before the 1970s or so, have produced the present situation.

Julot is right, the general quality of bakery items and sandwiches in France is often appalling. The poor quality of bread in particular plays no small part in that.

Besides, our tradition of fixed-hour meals which leaves a definite no-man's land between breakfast (a relatively unimportant meal in the French diet), lunch and dinner has not helped the process. It is as though you were not even supposed to eat outside of socially accepted hours.

One of my old Chinese friends, who has been living in France for more than 30 years but was raised in Singapore, was extremely surprised the first time he entered a Chinese restaurant in Paris at 4:00 PM and asked for a bowl of noodles. "We don't serve at this time of day", he was told. He could not believe it. Moreover, 30 years later he still hasn't gotten used to it. To him the normal human situation is to be able to find a snack at any time and that this snack be good. I must say I love the Asian all-day-round availability of food in the streets.

However I wouldn't go that far as to say that McDonalds offers good food as well as quick, predictable food. Every time I have been confronted to their products and especially their smell, I preferred not to eat at all. I agree that French sandwiches are no better but I do not think they are worse — which is not saying much.

Edited by Ptipois (log)
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Every time I have been confronted to their products and especially their smell, I preferred not to eat at all.

I have hesitated to enter this ring of gladiators, but what the hey.

Today on the Metro a large lady was eating an overcooked grey hamburger with smelly sauce and onions and it preoccupied me all the way to lunch. Please, is there no shame any more.

Let me return to Robyn's post

1) A lot of French eating establishments at all levels are in trouble due to the state of the economy....
I was eating with the person I have eaten more meals out with in the last 50 years than anyone except Colette last week and he noted that the mid-range restos we frequent were empty and it was true for three successive meals.

He posited that it was Economy Fear and I agreed.

Then I walked back to the subway past all the low-range bars and cafes on the Place de Marechal Juin and they were overflowing.

So I assumed it was just the midrange places that were hurting until I had lunch with a plugged-in chef who said he'd heard on the drums that the big boys were going empty some nights last month whereas normally they'd have one such night a year.

Then, back to my old friend, he calls from the US to say Eleanor Beardsley on NPR (not Ladka Bauerova of Bloomberg.com) also reported on the phenomenon.

As someone with some interest in the psychology of eating, I think it's fascinating that the Americans are clogging the lines at the Orsay and Louvre but not the restos. Again, I think it's psychological but it could hurt. And as an astute observer said to me yesterday, it could lead to a new model of Paris resto, much like the last big recession/depression brought about the bistro's d'a cote.

What will it be? I dunno? But it should be interesting.

Another datum point: today's Figaro reported that Lavinia had a 19% increase in wine sales as of June 30.

Going into Host Mode, could we kindly avoid Chapter 82 of the cultural stereotypic arguments about "service, surliness and French waiters." As my next door neighbor says "been there, done that" and right here on eG.

Edited by John Talbott (log)

John Talbott

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The stats for French profits have appeared in other media too - like this article from the New York Times. The Times article also details some of the reasons for the chain's success in France.

One of the reasons that I've read about is that some menu items are based on traditional French food - like the Croque McDo. The restaurants are attractive. And the service is fast. Note that we had very good service most of the time in Paris - but not at La Defense. And the business people in the restaurant where we dined got the same miserable service. Very very very slow. Three servers trying to serve perhaps 40 outside tables (it was a nice day and lots of people were dining outside). You would think there was no unemployment in France! Not inexpensive - and the food wasn't good. Now perhaps most workers at La Defense have company cafeterias and the like - but sometimes people might want to go to lunch somewhere else with a few friends who work at other companies in the complex. It is easy to dismiss La Defense in terms of what is available on a culinary basis there - but I've read that 140,000 people work there - and another 30,000 live there - so it is a pretty important part of Paris.

Note that we did not in general find service at lunch to be slow - by our standards - in Paris. Even at Guy Savoy - the "lunch regulars" were in and out in about 90 minutes - we took longer because we had more courses. And - at other places - the meals were paced so one could dine in about an hour. At this place in La Defense - we waited more than an hour from the time we sat down until we got our food. Of course - if you want to eat in 30 minutes - not an hour - you'll be hard-pressed to do so in many French restaurants - but we got in and out of some cafes in 30-45 minutes when we ordered simple things. So I don't think it is only an issue of "fast food" versus "slow food". I suspect price - and predictability in terms of the quality of the food - may be more important.

What Julot says about people traveling "on the road" is also relevant. And his description of France sounds exactly like the United States. For example - you can drive in the southeast US (where I live) and perhaps stumble on a restaurant that serves good BBQ. But 9 times out of 10 - what you'll get is mediocre or worse. Which is why - unless we happen to know a particular non-chain place that is good when we're driving somewhere - we stick to chains (although McDonald's isn't on our radar screen - we like chains which serve buffets with lots of southern vegetables - places like Waffle House - etc.). Also - if one is traveling with children - there are few places that are friendlier than McDonald's.

I think that predictability of the food product will become more and more important as world economies slow. An independent restaurant where business is slow may be tempted to serve things that should be thrown away. Most McDonald's have enough business that they won't do this (and - if they did - the powers that be would probably come down on their heads like a ton of bricks).

As for John's comments - Paris is an extremely expensive city for average tourists in many respects. But they can go to museums very cheaply (particularly with museum passes - a 6 day adult pass to all of the best is 60 euros - and kids usually get into museums free). A random meal for 2 in a decent bistro would usually cost us about $50-60. If you're traveling with a couple of kids - make that close to $100. And that is only for lunch. Most people like to eat dinner too :wink: . So comparing museums with restaurants isn't a good comparison.

I suspect that $50-60 for lunch isn't an inconsequential amount of money for the average person who lives in Paris either. We had a cab driver to CDG who gave us a lengthy discourse about the increased co-pays he was required to pay for himself and his family these days under the French medical system. Those are more than a few dollars that won't show up in his local restaurants. So I don't think it's a question of "psychology". It's money. Tourist money - local money. Dollars - or euros.

Just look at the demographics here. We are all mostly older people (like you and me John) - younger couples without children (DINKS) - single people - etc. Not too many 30 or 40-something people with kids asking about nice places to dine. These people especially are being squeezed - and they especially are most likely to wind up dining at less expensive chain restaurants (when they can afford to dine out at all). Just out of curiosity - what is the median family income in France - or Paris (although Paris may be atypical because there are probably more rich people - and more poor people - than in other parts of France - not too many in the middle).

BTW - I know more about economics and markets than food. And any data about anything that pre-dates the 4th quarter of 2008 is ancient history IMO. Because that's when world economies started to fall off a cliff (before that they had been perhaps strolling down a hill). I suspect 4th quarter statistics will be very bleak for many industries - including the restaurant industry - whether in France or the US. Robyn

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All this talk made me think of François Simon's article on McDonalds awhile back, where he compared a salad at McDonalds to what is served in many brasseries in Paris nowadays. I think the brasseries didn't fare too well when weighing in the price/quality ratio.

Anti-alcoholics are unfortunates in the grip of water, that terrible poison, so corrosive that out of all substances it has been chosen for washing and scouring, and a drop of water added to a clear liquid like Absinthe, muddles it." ALFRED JARRY

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