Wednesday, 25 February 2009

An Upside to the Downturn

Something funny happened when we visited Paris last week. For the first time, every waiter in every restaurant was in a good mood. This did not always use to be the case in Paris, where waiters can be quite grumpy on occasion and even rude. But no, they were all jovial and friendly, more so than I ever remember. More and more, the same thing is happening to me wherever I go in the world these days.

Please don’t get me wrong – I have had fabulous dining experiences in France in years gone by – and I have experienced rude restaurant staff the world over. From the chef in England who refused to cook my steak to my version of medium – despite the fact that his version of medium was quite blue – to the maitre d' who attempts to make their customers feel inferior – bad service exists everywhere. But it exists less and less these days.

I suppose it is not that surprising really. The economic slowdown means that for many of us “staying in is definitely the new going out” and we are thinking twice before we eat in restaurants. My family and I are notorious for our love of dining in fine restaurants, and even we are eating out less often – only when we are travelling or for special occasions. Suddenly restaurant prices seem extortionately high – and they are continuing to rise. The price of food is not just going up in the supermarkets, restaurants have to pay their suppliers more too, and they are passing this increase on to their customers.

In France, restaurateurs began to feel the pinch back in 2008, when profits reportedly dropped twenty percent. Three thousand restaurants and cafes closed their doors in the first half of 2008 alone. Things are not improving either as the strength of the Euro against the dollar is making North Americans hesitate to travel to the Eurozone. So not only are French restaurants losing local clientele as the recession bites, they are losing the tourist dollar, something that has always been hugely important to them.

Those tourists who do venture abroad are expecting better value for money than they have been used to getting, and many rent small apartments with kitchens instead of eating out all the time. I can understand this as during a recent visit to Paris I never managed to pay less than fifty dollars a head for lunch – and as we never drink alcohol at lunchtime that does not include wine. Dinner rang in at between ninety and a hundred dollars per head – and that is before we added wine to the bill.

It is not just happening in Europe either. Restaurants all over the United States are reportedly feeling the pinch as customers either cut back on the amount they dine out or cut out dining out all together. Canadian restaurants are having the same experience, particularly in Ontario where the Canadian Restaurant and Foodservices Association forecasts that foodservice sales will fall up to 6.3% in real sales.

Interestingly enough, in London this does not seem to be the case. According to commercial property group Shaftesbury, restaurants in the West End of London are still doing a brisk trade, with the weakness of the pound attracting larger numbers of overseas visitors. I wonder how long this will last though, as prices in West End restaurants seem to be skyrocketing, and there is only so much that the market will bear.

Some of those feeling the credit crunch are simply moving downmarket in terms of eating out. Although McDonald’s sales fell in early 2008, now they are rising. In fact, McDonald’s has said it plans to open 1,000 new restaurants this year alone. Fourth quarter pre-tax profits rose nine percent as the company profited from consumers trading down during this economic crisis.

But for those of us who continue to enjoy quality over quantity, it is the dining experience that is taking on new importance. As I found in Paris last week, restaurateurs and their staff world-wide are realising that they must be friendly and welcoming at all costs in order to ensure repeat visits from an ever shrinking clientele. In order to encourage those of us with money to spend to return, our experience has to be extra special, not just in terms of the quality of the food, but also in terms of our experience and how important we are made to feel.

I think this is a long overdue adjustment, particularly so in markets like New York, where tips of twenty percent are regularly added to the bill as a mandatory charge. When people treat themselves less often, they want that experience to be outstanding – and while they may be expecting to pay the price, they want to see value for money in what they spend. Whether it is listed as a separate item your bill or not, part of what you are paying for is service. And gone are the days when menus sans prix can be presented to guests at expensive restaurants – as are the days of “if you have to ask you can’t afford it”. Frankly if you don’t ask today you won’t be able to afford it tomorrow.

As much as I deplore this economic crisis, I think it may finally usher in a long overdue era in fine dining world wide, where the customer is finally looked on as someone very special indeed and value for money takes precedence over snobbery. Without the customer there is no market – and without the market all that is left are empty restaurants and unemployed staff.

Vive la difference. Finally - an upside to the downturn!

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