The French may never abandon the notion of mealtime as sacred, but it seems they love their crumpets and chips. France is now the second-largest importer for British food products.
PARIS —Will Christmas pudding replace the traditional yule log on French tables this year? Jill Bruce, head of Marks & Spencer's international food sector, thinks it just might. This very British dessert was chosen to be showcased at the new M&S Food that opened last week in Paris.
Ten years after leaving France, the company made a great comeback three years ago by opening a 1,400-square-meter flagship store on the Champs-Elysées. And since June, it has opened several M&S Foods, minimarkets that sell only food products. The group plans to add 20 more M&S Foods to its 11 outlets in the Paris region in the next three years, making Paris the leading Marks & Spencer city outside the United Kingdom.
On its shelves are traditional British specialties — scones, crumpets or mince pies — but also, and most importantly, dishes that reflect the diversity of modern British cuisine. "In first and third positions of our sales in France, there are Indian dishes," Bruce says. More than 1,000 "Indian curry for two" boxes are sold every week. The group doesn't disclose its revenue in France but indicates that "its sales per square meter are comparable" to those of its "best shops in London."
Behind the Marks & Spencer engine, several stakeholders are hoping to make the most of the new French enthusiasm for British products. "These past two years, France has become the second-largest export country for our food products," says John Gleave, head of the UK Trade and Investment's French food department. "The French have realized British cuisine is not what it used to be. The many French expats back from London also play a role," he explains.
Exports rose by 10% in 2013, reaching 1.9 billion euros, according to the Food and Drink Federation. And exports rose another 9% in the six first months of 2014 — even in unexpected sectors such as cheese.
But it is "mostly the snack products for which the English have a real savoir-faire," which have found their place in supermarkets, Gleave says. Tyrrells chips, for instance, are massively popular. Launched in 2002 by a farmer in Herefordshire, a county that borders Wales, the brand has been exporting to France for two years, and it hasn't changed its packaging at all. The inscriptions are in English and the packaging, with retro photos, are humorous. David Milner, the company's general manager, says it's thanks to this "100% British positioning" that the chips are successful. Their sales in France are growing on average 25% a year, he says.
Since 2011, the chips have been distributed in the majority of Parisian stores. Starting in January, the brand will be distributed by Sollinest, which has been distributing English "snacks" since 1995. Its biggest success is the Regent's Park brand of muffins, crumpets and scones, which it bought in 2006 and whose sales increased 17% this year, says co-founder Jean-Marc Krief.
The British are making the most of this change in French eating habits. Stéphane Klein, general manager of Prêt à Manger, which, despite the name, is actually British, says he has had to put more seats in his French outlets, which have charmed local residents with quality products that have an English touch — porridge, cheddar and bacon, for example. The chain chose France as its first European location three years ago. It has 11 stores in the Paris region and plans to open four to six more next year.
But Klein says that there are some French traditions that never change. Even though the quick sandwich on the go is starting to replace long table meals, "for the French, meals remain a moment of conviviality and are not just for utility."