There appears to be one word on the lips of most people at present, even if those lips are hidden behind the ubiquitous face mask. Covid! Our normal lives have been thrown into chaos during the past 8 months. Shops closed, bars and restaurants closed, working from home and pictures of deserted streets. One of the most striking pictures for me was the Champs Elysséé, normally one of the busiest thoroughfares in France, completely deserted. Without exception we have all had to adapt to the “new normal” in our daily lives, but what of us poor restaurateurs?
It was a Saturday night, March 14th, when the news came in. Our last two customers of the evening were just paying their bill. It had been a perfectly normal service, quite steady for the time of year and I was planning the menu for Sunday lunch. I turned to my phone because it alerted me to an email.
An email that was to change our lives. As of midnight that same night we were to be closed with no re-opening date in sight. There had been an announcement made at 7pm by the French government ordering all bars and restaurants to close their doors that evening. An announcement that was made whilst most of us were busy doing what we do best.
For us running a small restaurant, it was heartbreaking to think that we may never open again, may never afford to re-open. It soon became apparent that this decision was going to have a devastating effect on the restaurant industry here in France. An industry that is synonymous with France. President Macron boldly declared that restaurants are so important to France that he would not let any fail. But will he be proved wrong?
The initial reaction of most restaurateurs to the closure order was absolute horror. There were reports of many calling the president of the local restaurateurs’ association in tears. There were televised news reports showing restaurants throwing all their stock in the bin. All those front of house staff, chefs and kitchen porters suddenly without work, without an income and with rent to pay.
But within 48 hours we started to adapt. It was decreed that a takeaway service was permitted. Easy you say. Maybe for pizza or kebab but all of a sudden there were 5 star restaurants starting to box up their food for take away. Remember this is March in Europe, generally it is pretty cold. Nobody is allowed inside your premises, we’ve been instructed that the other person has to remain at least a metre and half from us and we are trying to offer a service and take payments.
Many restaurants set up tables across their front doors, erected parasols to keep the rain off and even set up patio heaters for clients while they waited. Hand gel and disinfectant sprays became the norm. People were scared. I have had customers say to me since that they did not use our take away service because they did not know how safe the take out cartons were. They trusted my kitchen but did not trust that the cartons would be sterile!
This drama now seems a long way in the past and we have become used to living with this virus, perhaps almost to the point of complacency, We have since been allowed to open our restaurants to the public but with new protocols in place. In France we love to sit outside, there is a real pavement culture. Did you know that in Paris the price of a coffee increases the closer you get to the front edge of the outdoor seating?
The French love to sit and just watch and be seen. But since the re-opening, restaurants have had to put at least one metre between tables which has cut the capacity of terrasses and indoor dining areas dramatically. À friend of mine had 100 covers on his terrace. He now has only 60. He relies on having a full terrace lunch and evening during the summer months in order to cope with the leaner winter months. As a result of his reduced seating capacity he has not hired as many seasonal staff this year and has had to work longer himself. We will see what happens this winter.
Here in France all restaurant staff are obliged to wear a face mask, even in the kitchen if there is more than one employee. Customers are obliged to wear à face mask when they enter a restaurant and keep it on until they are sitting at a table. We have quickly become used to seeing our servers wearing masks, in fact the face mask is rapidly becoming a fashion accessory.
But we are getting less and less interaction with those people around us. Surely one of the reasons for eating out is to experience some interaction and service, after all we àll critique the service wherever we go. Now the lovely server has their gorgeous smile hidden and is spending less time with us, even to the point of delivering our order to a nearby table for us to collect ourselves. I am not sure how viable this will be for restaurants in the long term.
Would you still eat out if you had to wear a mask, disinfect your hands, give contact details and have your temperature checked before being seated? Every restaurant that you walk into here will also have an alcohol gel “station” so that you can cleanse your hands. Some still have a bottle on a table with a pump while others have a foot operated system with the gel dispensed at the top of a “tower”.
You now have to leave a name and either a contact phone number or email address so that someone can contact you in the event of a case of Covid being traced back to that restaurant. You will be surprised how many times we have served James Bond and Mickey Mouse! Temperature checking is just round the corner!
As I write this France is experiencing the second round of confinement; bars, restaurants and non-essential shops are closed. Restaurants that want to, can go back to offering takeaway only, but there appears to be less restaurants doing this at the moment. Are we all resigned to the fact that the restaurant industry is going to change beyond recognition or is the government aid too attractive?
So to the future. Depending on how long we have to live with this deadly virus will dictate how far we have to adapt, not only our personal lives, but our businesses. The restaurant industry is already fiercely competitive and will only become more so. During times of crisis, or war, technology generally advances at a faster pace than in peacetime.
For many people the current level of technology has enabled them to continue working, albeit from home. Imagine if we had this pandemic in the 1980’s before email, Zoom meetings and school classes streamed over the internet. Restaurants have also taken advantage of available technology and will continue to do so as that technology advances. We are used to seeing our food order inputted by a server into a hand-held tablet with the order printed out in the kitchen. But what about the customer using their own smartphone to place the order for their whole table? It is already starting to happen.
Being given a menu by a server is no longer viable – paper menus have to be single use, menu folders have to be disinfected after each use. So on every table we have a QR Code to scan with our phone giving access to the menu, including wine and drinks choices. We use our smartphone to place our orders, there is no human contact, and someone will appear with our food and beverages. Could that someone be a robot in the very near future?