Chain Restaurants Are Conquering France

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In France, good food and leisurely meals bien arrosé (“well watered”) are considered the glue that keeps families, and society as a whole, together. And yet, chain restaurants have elbowed their way into the restaurant market and now have a share of 20%, according to an article in Le Monde

That one out of five euros spent in restaurants goes to chains and not independent restaurants seems to be disturbing and somehow un-French to the authors of the article, as well as to certain spheres of French society. Jacque Chirac, when he was still President of France, routinely lambasted “la male bouffe” (the bad grub) of chain restaurants, particularly of the foreign kind, and most particularly of McDo, as it’s called over there. When I was living in France, he regularly uttered these words on the evening news while contorting his dour and craggy face into a grimace of even greater distaste.

And yet, despite all this, or because of it, la male bouffe has experienced accelerated growth. By condemning it, Chirac apparently has made it cool. No one is holding a gun to the collective heads of the French to force them to eat au McDo. But they do anyway, and in increasingly large numbers.

It’s not just fast-food outlets that are doing well, like McDonalds or Subway or Quick, the huge Belgian hamburger chain that monopolized French TV news in January when a 14-year-old boy died of food poisoning after eating two hamburgers in one of their joints in Avignon. Sit-down chain restaurants have also expanded their market share. For example, Hippopotamus, where you can get tough, tasteless steaks, opened 16 new franchises in 2010, and La Pataterie, which offers potato-based meals, opened 31.

Though chain restaurants make up only 4% of all restaurants, they do €10 billion in sales per year, 20% of the industry total of €50 billion. And they’re in expansion mode while the crisis of 2008 wreaked havoc on independent restaurants. What little growth there has been in the industry since then has been in the chain sector.

Longer operating hours seven days a week are cited as one reason. Though not mentioned in the article, price must be another. And the fact that Chirac has made la male bouffe cool surely must be the third reason.

The result is obvious if you walk around in poorer neighborhoods, like the northern suburbs of Paris, or if you read the statistics that are piling up: France has an obesity problem.

Growing rapidly, it follows the U.S. trend line but is about twenty years behind. As in the U.S., there are regional differences. The northern-most region, the Nord-Pas-de-Calais, is France’s fattest region where 51% of the population is either overweight or obese, compared to 42% for France as a whole.

Childhood obesity is exploding at a rate of 17% a year, and by the year 2020, if the country doesn’t get this under control, the French will be just as obese and overweight as we are today. By that time, chain restaurants may have increased their market share to 40%, especially if there is another economic crisis in the intervening years, which seems highly likely.

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