|A dish at one of my favourite traditional restaurants in Lyon|
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.....