Web Analytics
France’s Bistros Close, in a Frenzy of Donated Cheese and Pâté | Press "Enter" to skip to content

France’s Bistros Close, in a Frenzy of Donated Cheese and Pâté


PARIS — Xavier Denamur is used to bustling between the five popular bistros he owns in the Marais neighborhood of central Paris, managing a team of nearly 70 waiters and chefs and keeping tabs on the phalanx of patrons who crowd his tables, elbow-to-elbow, year round.

But on Monday, Mr. Denamur, 57, was scrambling to deal with a situation that he said resembled wartime conditions: overseeing the abrupt closure of his businesses as President Emmanuel Macron prepared to move France to a quarantine. It was soon official: The quarantine will start at noon Tuesday.

By midnight, Mr. Denamur would have to empty his refrigerators of almost €20,000 worth of chévre cheese, boeuf bourguignon, pâté and other delicacies that would spoil by the time any quarantine ended, and would now have to be given away.

“We knew there would probably be a shutdown, but I didn’t think things would happen so fast,” he said, pressing two cellphones to his ears as he and a handful of employees hurried to empty refrigerators and wipe the bistros down before shuttering indefinitely.

As governments across the world shut cities and close borders in a race to stay ahead of the coronavirus epidemic, Mr. Denamur was among thousands of business owners trying to manage the chaos and help his employees, while calculating how to stay afloat.

Outside his flagship bistro, Les Philosophes, the normally traffic-clogged rue Vieille-du-Temple was empty under a leaden sky, save for a few people with suitcases rushing to catch trains and hail taxis to flee Paris. On Monday night, Mr. Macron announced a 15-day lockdown on all but “essential” outings, starting Tuesday.

“It’s a catastrophic situation,” Mr. Denamur said, surveying the ghostly interior of Les Philosophes, where cane-backed chairs and marble-topped round tables, normally outside on the sidewalk, were piled into teetering stacks. “I need to make sure that everything is taken care of.”

Similar scenes of frenzy have unfolded across France at restaurants, stores and commerce of all stripes after the government late Saturday ordered all nonessential businesses closed until further notice.

France’s corporate giants were swept up in the tide ahead of Mr. Macron’s announcement Monday. Big employers including the automakers Renault and PSA Peugeot Citroën, as well as the tiremaker Michelin, announced they would halt French factory operations. Air France said it would put all its employees on part-time work for six months.

If the prospect of an extended clampdown left companies reeling, it is especially daunting for smaller employers like Mr. Denamur, who have little time to prepare for potentially large losses and ensure workers aren’t left in precarious straits as they are forced to stay home.

“It would have been more intelligent to warn us earlier,” said Mr. Denamur, who had just stocked up on cheeses, meat and vegetables that he suddenly had to get rid of and count as a loss.

To minimize waste, he asked his employees to come in Monday to grab whatever food they could. Neighborhood residents lined up as he donated the rest.

While the quarantine is set for two weeks, Mr. Denamur said the situation was so uncertain that he didn’t count on reopening before June. “The Roquefort cheese might last that long, but the rest of our food won’t make it,” he said, adding that he had called his suppliers to cancel all orders until further notice.

President Macron said he would do “whatever it takes” to support workers and especially the small and midsize businesses that form backbone of the economy. “No French company will be exposed to the risk of collapsing,” he said Monday.

He announced €300 billion in state guarantees for companies’ loans, tax exemptions and a suspension of rents and electricity bills for struggling small businesses. The state will pay firms to keep people partly employed so as not to swell the jobless rolls as Europe stares down the barrel of a recession.

The pledges are part of a concerted scramble by European Union countries to prevent uncontainable damage to the economy as businesses shutter at alarming rates. The European Commission and governments have unveiled fiscal support measures worth nearly €1 trillion combined.

But guarantees sounded like so much noise early Monday as Mr. Denamur assessed the future of his business. As of midnight Saturday, his employees were put on temporary unemployment, with just four hours’ notice following the government decree.

Mr. Denamur, who acquired his first restaurant on the street, Le Petit Fer au Cheval, 30 years ago, was in the Lot-et-Garonne region of southern France, where he sources produce, cheeses and meats, when he heard the news. He rushed to book a train to Paris on Sunday.

Many of his employees have worked at the bistros for years. Mr. Denamur said he would continue to pay their salaries, which he reckoned he could afford for about two months. He encouraged them to use up paid vacation first, after which they would be eligible for technical unemployment, which pays the equivalent of France’s monthly minimum wage.

Despite the government’s pledge to backstop employers, Mr. Denamur said it wasn’t clear how or when he could obtain promised financial aid.

“The government says it will reimburse businesses for putting people on reduced work schedules,” he said. “But my restaurants are closed — the employees can’t work at all,” he added. “The government needs to be more clear. Workers need to be reassured.”

Mr. Denamur had arranged for his accountant and an inspector to hurry in Monday morning to assess his financial situation.

He lifted a metal floor grate and descended to the basement to inspect a refrigerator. Thousands of euros’ worth of chèvre cheese had just been delivered, while milk, pork pâté and Spanish ham would expire in two days. Comté cheese the size of car wheels wouldn’t outlast a quarantine, either.

Those were suddenly sunk costs, and would have to be written off. Mr. Denamur had phoned Tout Autour du Pain, a boulangerie, to see if the bakery was willing to buy anything. Around 9 a.m. Monday, Benjamin Turquier, the owner, arrived in a small van.

Mr. Turquier bakes 2,000 baguettes a day, 1,600 of which go to restaurants, he said. When the order to close restaurants hit Saturday night, he lost that business instantly, and doesn’t know when it will return.

While his bakery can stay open because it is considered an essential business, “economically the hit is going to be huge,” he said.

Offers of credit hardly seemed useful at a time like this, Mr. Turquier added. “We are told the government has a plan for easy loans. But I wouldn’t take on a loan right now — how would that help?”

As he spoke, Mr. Denamur’s employees filtered in to take food emptied from the refrigerators.

“Keep your distance from one another, to maintain health safety, please!” he shouted as the employees converged on packs of salmon, meats and crates of milk and cheese. In the kitchen, two workers packaged up boeuf bourguignon and vats of pre-sliced potatoes. “This way you’ll be stocked up at home for the long haul,” Mr. Denamur said.

A bartender at La Belle Hortense, Mr. Denamur’s wine bar and bookstore — where he recently made Albert Camus’s “The Plague” a book of the month — wheeled her suitcase down the street and waved goodbye.

Mr. Denamur would stay until his refrigerators were emptied of nearly everything. Should trains stop running in France, he was ready for a 10-hour ride on his motorcycle back home to hunker down with his son.

“In France, bistros are the parliaments of the people, and now they are closed,” he said. When the coronavirus crisis passes, he added, life, and quite possibly the world economy, won’t be the same. But the bistros will still be there.

“I’m telling everyone to keep fighting and to keep smiling,” he said. “We will reopen one day. And we will survive.”


Be First to Comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *