Page last updated at 08:21 GMT, Thursday, 25 September 2008 09:21 UK

French restaurants feel the pinch

By Hugh Schofield

Jean-Pierre Difolco of Il Gallo Nero
Restaurateur Jean-Pierre Difolco says the average bill has plummeted
Economic gloom is hitting the French where it hurts most - their tastebuds - as they rein in their eating habits to balance the monthly budget.

New figures show that the bankruptcy rate among restaurants and cafes has skyrocketed since the start of the year - because ordinary people lack the means to dine out.

A long-standing trend from the sit-down towards the take-away is now being exacerbated by financial penury, and many fear that an essential part of the nation's art de la vie is under threat.

Alarm bells were rung this week following a report by financial insurance company Euler Hermes, which found that about 3,000 establishments went out of business in the six months from January.

Of these, some 1,790 were traditional restaurants - a 25% increase on the year before - 530 were fast-food outlets (up 19%); and 610 were cafes and bars (up 56%).

'No improvement'

"We are very worried," said Daniele Deleval, vice-president of the Union of Hotel and Catering Trades.

"Since the start of the year the number of people going to restaurants has fallen by 20%, and we see no sign of improvement."

There are several reasons for the decline.

For one thing, the move towards American-style snacking is already a long-established phenomenon - with the traditional long lunch steadily being replaced by le sandwich.

Meanwhile, the ban on tobacco in bars and restaurants that came in earlier this year has hit hard - especially in rural areas. Many customers prefer the liberty of domestic indulgence to the half-pleasure of the smokeless meal.

On the one hand the cost of our raw materials is going up, and on the other the disposable income of customers is going down
Jean-Pierre Difolco, restaurateur

And in Paris and other tourist cities, the strength of the euro has frightened off the Americans - and to a lesser extent the British - who in normal times spend lavishly on French cuisine.

But the major factor is undoubtedly the French public's own money worries.

With spending power in decline, the meal out with friends or family has become a dispensable luxury.

"This is above all an economic crisis," said critic Francois Simon, creator of the Simon-Says food blog.

"Along with some other trades - like building - restaurants are the first to be hit when times are bad.

"People are going out less, and when they do go out they are consuming less. They are cutting down by not having aperitifs or coffee, or by having tap-water instead of mineral water. For a restaurateur, that can make a huge difference."

No starter

According to Simon, some restaurateurs look askance at a growing tendency among clients to order simply a main course with no starter.

Smoker outside French cafe
The smoking ban has made some people stay at home

For example, at the Aux Lyonnais restaurant owned by top chef Alain Ducasse, waiters pointedly warn that the main course may in that case take rather a long time in coming.

And at Au Quincy near the Gare de Lyon, two couples were recently asked to leave the establishment after they asked for just a main course.

"How do you expect me to survive?" the chef exclaimed.

Jean-Pierre Difolco, who runs the French-Italian restaurant Il Gallo Nero in Montparnasse, says that in recent months the average bill paid by a customer has fallen from more than 30 euros (23) to under 25 euros (19).

"Nowadays people take a carafe of house wine instead of ordering a bottle, and the vast majority order the set menu instead of a la carte," he says.

"If I hadn't introduced the set menu option, I would have gone under by now," he says.

"On the one hand, the cost of our raw materials is going up, and on the other, the disposable income of customers is going down.

"It means that we have to cut out anything that gives added value - anything that means we can charge more.

"In effect we have to lower quality in order to satisfy the customer," he laments.

"But then the whole spirit of the restaurant has changed. Ten years ago people played the game. Eating out was fun. Now it's just a way of filling up the stomach. Customers take the menu and their eyes are on the price column, not on the food. It's a great shame."

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