Tuesday, 22 January 2013

It's time we made an effort to save Traditional French restaurants from a gloomy and uncertain future

A dish at one of my favourite traditional restaurants in Lyon
No lover of traditional French cuisine will be happy with the results of a recent study which confirms the continuing downturn in the fortunes of the traditional French restaurant business and predicts that the bad news is set to continue.

The study, carried out by Xerfi, an economic studies institute specialising in market sector analysis, comes in the wake of poor performances by the restaurant business over the last few years which continued in 2012 with a drop in volume of 2% due to its vulnerability faced with consumers who are looking for ever more ways of reducing their non-essential spending.

Le Figaro has published some of the study's general conclusions, which point to a further retraction of 1% in 2013 for restaurants in general, but there's even worse news for traditional French restaurants (as opposed to Chinese, Italian and other kinds of restaurant), who are predicted to see another drop of 2% this year, resulting in a substantial total loss of 7% over 2012-2013. Figures are, however, set to pick up by less than 1% in 2014.

Those figures may not look too bad if taken in isolation, but they should be put into the wider context of the performance of food outlets in general. They include fast food restaurants, boulangeries (which have greatly increased their turnover in sandwiches and other lunchtime snacks over the last few years), and small, local supermarkets with their ranges of food designed to be eaten outside or at work.

Fast food outlets, after years of rapid growth, have seen their sales stabilise, but not drop, over the last two years, and they are predicted to bounce back more quickly over the next two years. In other words, they are continuing and will continue to eat into the market share of restaurants, and that of traditional French restaurants in particular. More competition will come in the form of an increase in the diversity of fast food fueled by boulangeries, sandwich shops and large restaurant chains.

Faced with this prospect, the restaurant business seems to be gearing up to fight back with what could turn out to be a blessing in disguise. In order to cut costs the business is beginning to interest itself in large food processing companies which, having recognised the beckoning opportunity, are working hard to increase the variety and quality of what is called 'cuisine d'assemblage' - literally, 'assembly cooking'. This relatively new range of products differs from those used by more traditional restaurants because of the use of semi or fully-prepared (although rarely frozen) products which are then 'put together' by kitchen staff. This kind of product is already being used by restaurant chains.

But cuisine d'assemblage presents a three-fold risk to the restaurant business, and traditional restaurants in particular. With much less food preparation involved there are likely to be redundancies among kitchen staff and even chefs. Also, and as all kitchen staff have to do is follow the instructions, creativity and variety are likely to take a back seat to standardised recipes. This is not good news for those who appreciate traditional restaurants which serve fresh and traditional produce and ingredients in an authentic manner, as those restaurants may well find it even harder to compete due to the relatively high cost of their meals.

Lastly, consumer belt-tightening and fierce competition from the increase in sales of fast food, restaurant chains and cuisine d'assemblage, all of which represent cheaper alternatives to traditional restaurants, resulted in the closure of around 6% of traditional restaurants between September 2011 and September 2012, and that figure is predicted to rise to even higher, record, levels in 2013.

I was saddened to read this news. As someone who eats regularly in traditional restaurants I have seen some of them close over the last few years (mainly, but not only, in urban areas), and others have chosen or been forced to cut corners and introduce some aspects of cuisine d'assemblage in order to survive.

Traditional French cuisine and restaurants still enjoy a well-deserved worldwide reputation for excellence despite the existential threat of cut-throat competition which thrives not on quality but on low prices.

The only way of reversing, or at least stabilising, this trend, is to make a conscious effort to eat in traditional restaurants despite their slightly higher prices and even if it means sacrificing one meal out a month in a Chinese or pizza joint.

I for one am not going to desert my favourite restaurants anytime soon and I hope that today's sobering news persuades others to do likewise, because if the restaurant-going public doesn't make an extra effort to support traditional restaurants, nobody else will.....


  1. I don't know if I can express myself well enough in english but here are my thoughts. I found out that in the old days, people used to go to french restaurants to celebrate a special event... or just to enjoy great food once in a while. Those restaurants served complicated sauces, rare dishes that non-pros would never make at home; it was indeed special and expensive. Now days, anybody can go to an expensive restaurant but tastes have changed. It is wonderful to have so many choices. I love Pacific Rim food but basically I love all kind of food. I have to be careful of my selections as heavy sauces are, well, just too heavy for me. I enjoy more fresh vegetables, light sauces or no sauce at all, just pure, organically (bio) grown food. Simple but delicious food. Asian food offers it to me when I want to go out or I go to a vegetarian restaurant. "Restaurant" french food is delicious but not very artery friendly.

    Veronique, of "French girl in Seattle"
    had a wonderful post today about "McDonald in France". The only time I have been to McDonald was in Tokyo where I had rubbery breakfast pancakes. But in France, McDo adapted their concept to french food to please the population. The meat is impressively organic, buns can be a baguette, alcohol is served, macaroons for dessert... Read the comments, particularly the one left by Malyss.
    The french have such a bad attitude and are so slow at adapting to changing times. They are left behind, even with food. I don't know if it is because they were the best at a time with food and fashion that they just couldn't get any higher? Instead of criticizing everybody, maybe they should swallow their passé pride and adapt to "today".
    Another thought : Champagne. Too expensive for most of the world. Yes good Champagne is delicious, but the average American doesn't want to spend the money and wouldn't know the difference between good and bad.
    There is room for everybody to enjoy what they want and we should celebrate our differences.
    I agree with you, going to a good french restaurant once a week would help (more green vegetable please!). The young generation love cheap, convenient food and I doubt they want french food. French food is not doing well in the US either. Italian (pasta and pizza), Chinese, Tai... French food, too old fashion according to my american friends.

    1. Wow! Two comments in one! Now there's original if ever I saw it. Are you ladies trying to save bytespace on Blogger's servers? :)

      Those comments are rich in content and analysis of the malaise in French cuisine, and it may come as a suprise to you both, given my defence of it, that I agree with much of what you wrote.

      French cuisine is indeed artery hostile, and I am the first, as an Englishman who likes his 'meat and two veg', to complain about the lack of vegetables in French cuisine. In fact it is by no means rare when asking which légumes they have in midrange French restaurants to hear the waiter say "pasta, rice and green haricot beans." Green haricot beans are ubiquitous here, and it goes without saying that pasta and rice are not vegetables, but feculants.

      And yes, French restaurants (and France in general) are slow to change and adapt. For instance kids nutritional needs are still badly catered for and they serve up the same dishes as they did many years ago. Also, salads are still of the same old Salade Niçoise and Salade au Chèvre Chaud variety, with little use of the kind of original ingredients (fruit, fish and other) which characterise modern salads, notably in places like the West Coast.

      Finally, I agree that there is a tendency here to look down one's nose at foreign recipes and new ideas and the idea that French cuisine is still 'la meilleure du monde" persists, despite everything, in a sort of resting-upon-one's-laurels kind of way.

      But for all that it would be a shame if traditional French restaurants turned into ersatz copies of themselves, created by food-processing companies to the point where their food would, to all intents and purposes, be just another kind of fast food. Nobody can realistically hope to see a worldwide resurgence in popularity of French recipes of course, but French cuisine still deserves to survive in order that restaurant goers continue to have as wide a choice of cuisine (cuisinic, cuisinistical, cuisinatory? :) styles as possible.

      Again, thanks for these comments. Food for thought?

  2. I left you another message on yesterday's post but I can only read my and your answer on today's.
    The last time I was in France, I asked my sister if they had a good chinese restaurant in Rodez, as I like
    to check out what is going on in that city. She said of course there is. Well no, it was a vietnamese restaurant!
    I was also looking for an Indian restaurant, trying to explain to her that eating indian food is like having
    an explosion of flavors in your mouth. No indian restaurant in Rodez either. French people don't like spicy food anyway. I like it hot (for my palette). But I guess since I am of polish and german origins, no french blood at all in my arteries, I am unusual but I was raised in France, eating french food. Once you taste foreign food, there is no turning back. Don't get me wrong, french food is delicious and I'd rather go to expansive restaurants for great food, than cheaper mediocre meals.
    I guess I have became a true Californian too and that is why I am so hard on french food.
    I agree with you and hope french food doesn't disappear. It would be ashamed as it is really an art to cook and mix different ingredients ending up with a delicious dish, and the presentation in expensive restaurants is just amazing. The service can be way too formal too in France.
    I get it now, you thought there were 2 messages but I am the one who wrote down Veronique's blog address.
    Sorry if my comment was very long.

    1. Very long? 'How long is a piece of string?' as we say. It means 'tout est relatif.' In other words, I like reading your words.

      Aaaanyway, and back to the subject in hand. You're quite right, the French tend not to like highly-spiced food. That's because the spices tend to dominate in those dishes whereas the idea of French cuisine is that all the ingredients have their place in the tastebud range.

      And it's also why most Indian, Chinese and Mexican restaurants in France serve recipes from those countries which are much less spicy than the real thing.

      This kind of restaurant is more authentic in Britain than in France in my experience. Why? One Pakistani restaurant owner in Bordeaux once summed it up pretty well. He said that his brother in London, who ran a similar restaurant, served much hotter curries than he could in France, because the Brits, who have a relatively limited culinary history, are more willing and used to eating foreign cuisine than the French are.

      Well, that was his theory anyway..

  3. It is a good theory and I buy it. Maybe I should stop leaving commentaries and let other people put their "2 words" in . I feel like I took over. I will keep on reading and if I leave a message, try not to offend anybody.

    1. "Maybe I should stop leaving commentaries and let other people put their "2 words" in . I feel like I took over. I will keep on reading and if I leave a message, try not to offend anybody."


      What's all this stuff about not commenting and not offending anyone? Since when did you offend anyone? Or stop them having their say?

      I love reading your comments and answering them, and if you stop I shall be a very sad bunny indeed.

      So here's a song for you. I know it doesn't have anything to do with this but I thought you'd like it anyway. And hey, let's have a smile.. :)


      I bid thee well...

  4. Thank you for the song. I love Joni Mitchell.
    Here is one for you.

    1. That's a lovely song Nadege, and I totally identify with his words because they echo my own life so far (and yours too?)

      In effect, I know what it is like to wake up in a hospital bed one day, still alive, and be thankful.

      After all, it had been my excesses and nothing else which had led me to that hospital, but many of my friends from the 70s and 80s who took the same risks lost their gamble with them, and are no longer around to talk about it.

      It's a real coincidence that you just posted that comment. I've been toying for the last week with the idea of writing about this subject over on my other blog.

      Life is indeed short, but if we overdo our excesses early on we risk burning out and and dying young.

      Who gets the lucky straws and who doesn't?

      Now there's a question...

  5. Hi guys

    Here's my wee tuppence-worth. I came here from Derry in 2000. A time when the best you could get from most restaurants in my home town in the north-west corner of Northern Ireland was Chicken Kiev, Scampi and chips, steak and chips etc.;

    Oh my God, the food here was like it came from another planet. The quality of the service... the choice in the supermarkets... everything.

    But what a difference 13 years makes. All those cookery shows on TV have a least made people more interested in food and more curious.

    We now eat better back in Derry. i'm not just basing that on one trip. We go back a lot and there's just no doubt anymore.

    And what's the story about beef in France? It really is tasteless. Well, I say, "what's the story" but in fact, I know. They don't age the beef. I just can't let them away with saying they've the best cuisine in the world if they don't understand this basic principal.

    Voilà, my tuppence

  6. I wouldn't know about beef in France. I just cannot do all the heavy food anymore. David Lebovitz wrote wonderful posts about Ireland I think 2 years ago or a bit more. When I go back to France, I don't recognize the France I knew. So it is probably wrong of me to have an opinion on a country that has become foreign.
    (I have lived in Los Angeles for almost 35 years and I love it).