Paris Calling

A Recovery Recipe For French Restaurants

Some of the country's eateries may not survive. Others are having to adapt — and quickly — to a still uncertain scenario.

The famed restaurant "Fouquet's" on the Champs Elysées in Paris.
Laurent Guez

PARIS — You're sitting at a table with your loved ones — inside a transparent bubble. The head waiter approaches, but not too close. He's wearing white gloves and a mask. He doesn't hand you a card, but a QR Code, and invites you to download the menu to your smartphone.

As surreal as it sounds, you may soon experience this scene in your favorite restaurant. But that, of course, is assuming the eatery has survived the past two months. What began on March 14 — the day professionals learned at 8 p.m. that they'd have to close the curtain at midnight — is nothing less than the sector's worst crisis in history, and the numbers have been dramatic indeed.

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

Bernard Boutboul, the founder of the Gira consulting agency and a specialist in the sector, says that if the closure were to last until mid-June, as has been rumored, at least 20% of the restaurants — about 40,000 in total — would disappear. Other sources say that "only" 10% of the establishments will fail.

We need, of course, to remain cautious in our forecasts, as there are so many uncertainties. The future of restaurants will depend on the willingness of customers to return, but also on the political decisions taken, and not just with regards to when exactly establishments will be allowed to reopen. There are also decisions to be made on hygiene rules, for example, and on when tourists will be allowed back into the country.

And it's not just a problem France. In the United States, industry guru Roger Lipton is already talking about "carnage," with 3 million jobs lost. In Canada, there are estimates that in March alone, 10% of the country's restaurants have already closed down.

Switching gears

After the lockdown went into effect, many cooks decided to make themselves useful and mobilized to offer meals to hospitals. Among the most effective initiatives, it is worth mentioning "Les chefs avec les soignants," the operation concocted by the chef of the Elysée Palace, Guillaume Gomez, with the journalist Stéphane Méjanès. Supported by the start-up TipToque (for logistics), Rungis Market, Transgourmet and Métro, dozens of cooks have been treating nurses, doctors and care assistants for over a month.

At the same time, chefs try to keep in touch with their customers through social media. On Instagram, Guy Martin, the double-starred chef at Le Grand Véfour, creates easy recipes from his own kitchen. Also on Instagram, Bruno Verjus, a star in Paris, tells engaging stories of gastronomy every day. Amandine Chaignot, a former "Masterchef" juror on TF1, has transformed her young restaurant Pouliche, in the 10th arrondissement of Paris, into a small producers' market as a way of ensuring at least some revenue for her suppliers.

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

ZUMA_french_restaurants_coronavirus_inside

A woman sweeps the path to a closed restaurant in Monmartre in Paris. Photo: Gao Jing/ZUMA

"We are lucky to be French!" says Yannick Alléno, the three-star chef of the Pavillon Ledoyen and Cheval Blanc in Courchevel. "We thank the Government, which is doing its best in every way. We were able to benefit immediately from state-guaranteed loans and partial unemployment so that we didn't have to lay off staff."

Grateful but worried, restaurateurs are constantly defending their cause in front of public authorities, banks and insurers. The latter have sparked anger in the profession, reminding without batting an eyelid that the business interruption coverage 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 surcharge. This surcharge would protect the restaurant sector against a new health crisis in the future.

To address all these concerns, the French economy minister, Bruno Le Maire, organized a videoconference meeting on April 20 between restaurant owners and bank and insurance company representatives. During this exchange, the minister invited everyone — including insurers — to act in a spirit of solidarity, and asked Sébastien Bazin, the president of AccorHotels, to propose conditions under which restaurants could resume their normal activities.

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

"You can't imagine how much we're all in a hurry to get back to our customers," says André Terrail, the young boss of La Tour d'Argent in Paris. "Our job is a play that, in principle, never stops."

Rules of engagement

Led by Alain Ducasse and some 15 Michelin-starred chefs, the Culinary College of France — which brings together 1,800 restaurateurs and nearly 1,000 quality producers — has called for restaurant businesses to be allowed to reopen May 11 if they make commitments on hygiene, and on two other points: that they choose French suppliers and craftspeople, and that they maintain as many jobs as possible.

This call did not please everyone, including some within the Culinary College. The most "virtuous' — the top restaurants, in other words —would be favored. Only they would be able to invest in expensive equipment, keep their staff and buy from small quality producers. Another objection: Wouldn't it be dangerous to reopen too soon?

Our job is a play that, in principle, never stops.

In fact, the call by the Culinary College 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 restaurant and hotel industries, only this time in the presence of President Emmanuel Macron. What better way to show the commitment of the government than a two-hour videoconference involving the head of state and three ministers? The president did not announce a date, but he did talk about a method and means.

"He has announced new support measures, but also a recovery plan and an intelligent timetable," said Alain Ducasse.

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

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

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

"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 about what we eat and with whom we eat," he adds. "We are going to draw up perfectly rigorous measures that we will undertake to respect. The worst thing would be to have to close down two months after starting up again!"

The problem is that the rules of hygiene and social distancing are at odds with the conviviality of a restaurant, and even more so of a big restaurant. David Sinapian, president of the Grandes Tables du Monde network, conducted a small survey. While most customers fear having to hold a menu between their fingers that could sicken them, they unanimously reject the idea of staff in the dining room wearing masks.

"We can offer a digital menu, serve dishes in gloves, but we can't medicalize the gastronomy," explains David Sinapian. "A restaurant is not an operating theater!"

In South Korea, which is a month ahead in the pandemic's evolution, some new hygiene solutions are already in place. "In my restaurant in Seoul, we have reopened 30 out of 150 seats, and installed a 4-meter carpet that disinfects the shoes of customers entering," says Yannick Alléno. "There is gel at the entrance, and the clothes in the cloakroom are stored under plastic wrap."

As François Blouin of Food Service Vision explains: "Restaurants will have to do even better on hygiene and know how to prove it. But where they will really have to innovate is on "contactless conviviality" and on their ability to open up to takeaways and deliveries."

As it stands now, few restaurants, especially the chic ones, offer their dishes as take-aways. First, because the Deliveroo, Uber Eats or Just Eat platforms charge a comfortable commission (around 25%) and collect customers' contact information. And second, because it is not always rewarding for a prestigious establishment to be featured on the app alongside local supermarkets. But there are ways to avoid these digital giants — by using the services Rapidle or Stuart, for example.

In the longer term, the pandemic could transform consumers' relationship with restaurants. Most leading chefs are considering narrowing their menus to reduce costs without compromising quality. Mathieu Viannay from Lyon knows that he won't reopen La Mère Brazier in the same way. "Several menus with many choices and 35 employees? It will no longer be possible!"

Anne-Sophie Pic, the most starred woman in the world and head of the Pic group based in Valence, is also thinking about getting rid of her long menu. Why not consider dining as a show? Going to dinner in a three-star restaurant could be an experience where customers 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. But as a customer, I wouldn't like to have it imposed this way," says Eric Frenchon, the chef at three-star Epicure in Paris.

Will the experience of confinement lead customers to be wiser? Will they call for a more locally focused, more responsible, more planet-friendly catering? "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," says Alain Ducasse.

"We took this direction 10 years ago," he adds. "When I reopen, I will offer our customers a welcome dish, the same one 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 of months, really is something to look forward to.


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Thousands of migrants in Del Rio, Texas, on the border between Mexico and the U.S.

Hannah Steinkopf-Frank, Bertrand Hauger and Anne-Sophie Goninet

👋 Сайн уу*

Welcome to Friday, where the new U.S.-UK-Australia security pact is under fire, Italy becomes the first country to make COVID-19 "green pass" mandatory for all workers, and Prince Philip's will is to be kept secret for 90 years. From Russia, we also look at the government censorship faced by brands that recently tried to promote multiculturalism and inclusiveness in their ads.

[*Sain uu - Mongolian]

🌎  7 THINGS TO KNOW RIGHT NOW

• U.S. facing multiple waves of migrants, refugees: The temporary camp, located between Mexico's Ciudad Acuña and Del Rio in Texas, is housing some 10,000 people, largely from Haiti. With few resources, they are forced to wait in squalid conditions and scorching temperatures amidst a surge of migrants attempting to cross into the U.S. Meanwhile, thousands of recently evacuated Afghan refugees wait in limbo at U.S. military bases, both domestic and abroad.

• COVID update: Italy is now the first European country to require vaccination for all public and private sector workers from Oct. 15. The Netherlands will also implement a "corona pass" in the following weeks for restaurants, bars and cultural spaces. When he gives an opening speech at the United Nations General Assembly next week, unvaccinated Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro will defy New York City authorities, who are requiring jabs for all leaders and diplomats.

• U.S. and UK face global backlash over Australian deal: The U.S. is attempting to diffuse the backlash over the new security pact signed with Australia and the UK, which excludes the European Union. The move has angered France, prompting diplomats to cancel a gala to celebrate ties between the country and the U.S.

• Russian elections: Half of the 450 seats in Duma are will be determined in today's parliamentary race. Despite persistent protests led by imprisoned opposition leader Alexey Navalny, many international monitors and Western governments fear rigged voting will result in President Vladimir Putin's United Russia party maintaining its large majority.

• Somali president halts prime minister's authority: The decision by President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed marks the latest escalation in tensions with Prime Minister Mohamed Hussein Roble concerning a murder investigation. The move comes as the Horn of Africa country has fallen into a political crisis driven by militant violence and clashes between clans.

• Astronauts return to Earth after China's longest space mission: Three astronauts spent 90 days at the Tianhe module and arrived safely in the Gobi desert in Inner Mongolia. The Shenzhou-12 mission is the first of crewed missions China has planned for 2021-2022 as it completes its first permanent space station.

• Prince Philip's will to be kept secret for 90 years: A British court has ruled that the will of Prince Philip, the late husband of Britain's Queen Elizabeth who passed away in April at 99 years old, will remain private for at least 90 years to preserve the monarch's "dignity and standing."

🗞️  FRONT PAGE

With a memorable front-page photo, Argentine daily La Voz reports on the open fight between the country's president Alberto Fernández and vice-president Cristina Kirchner which is paralyzing the government. Kirchner published a letter criticizing the president's administration after several ministers resigned and the government suffered a major defeat in last week's midterm primary election.

#️⃣  BY THE NUMBERS

€150

An Italian investigation uncovered a series of offers on encrypted "dark web" websites offering to sell fake EU COVID vaccine travel documents. Italy's financial police say its units have seized control of 10 channels on the messaging service Telegram linked to anonymous accounts that were offering the vaccine certificates for up to €150. "Through the internet and through these channels, you can sell things everywhere in the world," finance police officer Gianluca Berruti told Euronews.

📰  STORY OF THE DAY

In Russia, brands advertising diversity are under attack

Russian sushi delivery Yobidoyobi removed an advertisement with a Black man and apologized for offending the Russian nation, while a grocery chain was attacked for featuring an LGBTQ couple, reports Moscow-based daily Kommersant.

❌ "On behalf of the entire company, we want to apologize for offending the public with our photos..." reads a recent statement by Russian sushi delivery Yobidoyobi after publishing an advertisement that included a photograph of a Black man. Shortly after, the company's co-founder, Konstantin Zimen, said people on social media were accusing Yobidoyobi of promoting multiculturalism. Another recent case involved grocery store chain VkusVill, which released advertising material featuring a lesbian couple. The company soon began to receive threats and quickly apologized and removed the text and apologized.

🏳️🌈 For the real life family featured in the ad, they have taken refuge in Spain, after their emails and cell phone numbers were leaked. "We were happy to express ourselves as a family because LGBTQ people are often alone and abandoned by their families in Russia," Mila, one of the daughters in the ad, explained in a recent interview with El Pais.

🇷🇺 It is already common in Russia to talk about "spiritual bonds," a common designation for the spiritual foundations that unite modern Russian society, harkening back to the Old Empire as the last Orthodox frontier. The expression has been mocked as an internet meme and is widely used in public rhetoric. For opponents, this meme is a reason for irony and ridicule. Patriots take spiritual bonds very seriously: The government has decided to focus on strengthening these links and the mission has become more important than protecting basic human rights.Russian sushi delivery Yobidoyobi removed an advertisement with a Black man and apologized for offending the Russian nation, while a grocery chain was attacked for featuring an LGBTQ couple, reports Moscow-based daily Kommersant.

➡️ Read more on Worldcrunch.com

📣 VERBATIM

"Ask the rich countries: Where are Africa's vaccines?"

— During an online conference, Dr. Ayoade Olatunbosun-Alakija, of the African Vaccine Delivery Alliance, implored the international community to do more to inoculate people against COVID-19 in Africa and other developing regions. The World Health Organization estimates that only 3.6% of people living in Africa have been fully vaccinated. The continent is home to 17% of the world population, but only 2% of the nearly six billion shots administered so far have been given in Africa, according to the W.H.O.

✍️ Newsletter by Hannah Steinkopf-Frank, Bertrand Hauger and Anne-Sophie Goninet

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