The 19th May 2021 was a date that was anticipated with great expectation here in France. After seven months of closure restaurants and bars were finally going to be allowed to open their terrasses to the general public. Some had even called for May 19th to be a new National Day, such was the renewed feeling of freedoms returning and life becoming “normal” once more. The rules for opening were, and still are, quite strict. Originally the government announced a maximum occupancy on terraces of 50%, but that left small restaurants, like my own, without any viable opportunity to reopen.
For those of us with less than 10 tables outside we have been permitted to open at full capacity. All customers must continue to wear a face mask until they are seated and replace it if they get up for any reason. All servers must continually wear a mask. Nobody is allowed indoors except to use the bathroom, one at a time, and there is alcohol gel everywhere! Plus there is still a 9pm nationwide curfew in place.
In the days before the 19th everywhere you turned work was being done inside and outside restaurants. Furniture that had spent the winter stacked in a corner was being cleaned, terraces swept and repaired, parasols replaced and there was a general air of busyness.
There was a renewed camaraderie between staff members that had been brought back from furlough, chefs were once again firing the kitchen and, something we hadn’t seen for a while, food and beverage delivery vans. The only factor that no-one had any control over was the weather but even if the forecast for most of France was to be wet it was not going to dampen the spirits on opening day!
The day of opening was as expected. A rush of people from the moment of opening until closing, in time to beat the curfew. There were some reported isolated incidents of stupidity amongst people thinking their tolerance for alcohol was far greater than it actually is and, in a couple of larger cities, the police had to intervene. But now that the excitement is over what has the first two weeks been like in reality?
Traditionally in France lunch is a very big deal. Two hours, everything closes and workers head to their nearest restaurant for a menu du jour. Over the past seven months this has not been possible and many of those workers have got out of the habit of going for lunch. There has also been a shift in the employment law. Previously workers were not allowed, by law, to eat lunch at their desks but since the restaurant closure this has changed. Many restaurants have reported sales being lower than expected whether this is caused by a change in habits, continued nervousness of being in groups or the weather, remains to be seen.
Unfortunately, the weather has certainly played its part with more rain than is normal for this time of year. As I write this it is raining and I have reservations for this evening! Customers are not allowed inside and the rules for providing shelter outside are strict. Evening trade is being severely hampered because of the curfew. Restaurants that would normally manage two services do not have the time to turn the tables. The last time for reservation has to be around 8pm but many people work until at least 6pm or even 7pm. Traditionally evening service does not start until 7pm or 7.30pm
Another factor that has become evident very quickly is that there is a shortage of hospitality staff. With the majority of catering employees either being furloughed or finding alternative employment over the past seven months it seems that some bars and restaurants are struggling to recruit for the summer season. There is a similar issue in the UK and, I would expect.it will be a repeated pattern across many countries as they reopen the hospitality industry.
On a personal level my own restaurant has been quiet during the first weeks of reopening. We have only four tables outside because of neighbouring doorways and public access along the street but we felt it was important to get the restaurant open again before our customers forgot we were there. We are still offering a takeaway service and many of our regular clients are still choosing this option.
Luckily, until today, it has not rained but I find myself checking the weather forecast at least twice a day. Stock control is one of the most difficult issues that we face. Knowing how much to buy for the restaurant in normal times can be tricky, but with the threat of rain and then no customers…………impossible!
The next significant date for the hospitality industry is June 9th. At this point we will be permitted to allow customers inside with a maximum of 50% of our normal capacity and outdoor terraces will be back to full capacity. There will also be a system of QR codes that customers must use to register themselves within the premises, which is linked to the government’s track and trace system, in order to be alerted if there are any reported Covid cases at that establishment.
The national curfew will also be relaxed to 11pm. Everyone within the industry is hopeful of progressing in the right direction and of continuing to open up leading into the summer. We can only hope that Covid cases continue to decline and that there is no further closure.