Why small restaurants may not open every day

A while ago, someone complained about restaurants around where I live – rural France – not being open on Monday evenings. So I had a rant, as follows:

OK, I have an interest in this topic, a very personal one.

There are two points to be made here with regard to restaurants.

1. It is not economically feasible to open a restaurant around here 7 days a week, 52 weeks a year. There aren’t enough customers. Jamie Oliver could open a restaurant on the top of Ben Nevis and people would still queue out of the door for middling Italian food.

2. The ‘Midi’ outlook on life is this: The winner isn’t the person who dies with the most money – the winner is the one who’s had the most fun on the way.

So, 1: It costs, roughly, €2 000 a month to employ a minimum-wage cook or waiter in a restaurant, working 39 hours. A service lasts, at a minimum, 5 hours in the morning and 4 hours in the evening, i.e. 9 hours a day minus two half-hour breaks, for an 8 hour day which starts at 9 am and finishes at 10 pm with an afternoon 4 hour break. If you want to have that person work longer hours, it costs 1.25 – 1.5 times as much per hour for overtime, and they can’t work more than 48 hours normally anyway in a week. Restaurant owners juggle their staff to try to employ them, without overtime, for the most profitable services during the week. As very few French people want to eat out on Sunday evenings and at all on Mondays, they often close then since these services will attract the least customers. Some open Monday lunchtimes if in town centres but not all, so staff sometimes manage to get 1.5 continuous days off with another half day to be taken at some other point in the week. If a restaurant were to open on a Monday evening with a single cook and a single waiter, they would need to take, roughly, €275 just to break even. Say, 10 covers eating the €20 menu with half a bottle of wine per person. Perhaps not difficult in the centre of Nimes or Montpellier but not easy where many English people live, i.e. the middle of bloody nowhere. But this assumes that the restaurant can manage to exist with just one cook and one waiter, who can each do 10 services a week. How about the other, more profitable services in the week? Someone has to work those services too. And it also assumes that no one ever needs to have a holiday, since the restaurant is open 7 days a week, 52 weeks a year. So in fact you need at least two waiters and two cooks to stay open all the time, i.e. €8 000 a month in staff wages which, using the third/third/third overheads/ingredients/staff standard restaurant calculation means you need to earn €24 000 a month just to break even. The last restaurant I worked in was in a 75-bedroom hotel where the owner was happy if the restaurant simply broke even, since it attracted people to come and stay in the much more profitable rooms. There were only three of us in the kitchen there doing up to 130 covers per service – and, if it was a service when someone was on a day off or sick, well, too bad you did it à deux including the washing up. How do restaurants manage to sell you a three-course meal for €12 or €14 as that restaurant where I worked did? By having three cooks in the kitchen who love their profession so much they’re happy to work for less than minimum wage, effectively, by doing several hours unpaid overtime just so people don’t have to reach into their pockets for an extra few euros. There is a knock-on effect to all this; if you work all year on minimum wage, you get a bonus at tax time from the Government equal to about a month’s wages. You also get about €240 a month housing benefit. Roughly another 4 months’ wages per year from the taxpayers who don’t want to pay more for their meals, thanks very much. That money has been very useful for those odd occasions when I’ve needed to feed my children.

2. What’s the point in earning all the money you can possibly get if you never enjoy it? I used to be like that, spent my life flying around the world and never seeing my family, never swimming in the pool in my lovely home in the South of France which I could only pay for by flying around the world working. I know several restaurateurs who work out how much money they need to earn to live on throughout the year and, when they’ve earned it, simply close for the winter. The add-on cost of staying open through the winter, especially on Monday evenings, is ridiculous. Even more expensive than the summer, in fact, since you need to heat your restaurant in winter. And local people don’t have the habit of eating out in winter/on Mondays because the restaurants aren’t open because people don’t eat out….it’s a vicious circle all right.

I do feel strongly about this, as may be obvious. It’s not reasonable to expect small countryside restaurants to be open all day, every day. Do the math yourselves the next time you’re eating a slap-up feed for €14 and then leave a good tip when you’ve finished – and send your thanks back to the kitchen too.

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5 thoughts on “Why small restaurants may not open every day

  1. While you make a good point about the cost of help, I think you missed a point as a result of that cost. And that is that many small restaurants, at least in our rural region, are operated as a family business. In the case of one of my favorites, the entire staff is comprised of three sisters. In another, father cooks, mother tends bar, and daughter is the wait staff. As business owners rather than employers, they could work as many hours as they choose. But being French, as you say, quality of life outweighs quantity in bank account. When I made that point in response to a restaurant review comment on my blog, I was told that many French restaurant owners are simply lazy without an entrepreneurial bone in their bodies. As you may surmise, that comment didn’t come from a Frenchman.

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    • Whilst you’re absolutely right that many small restaurants are family owned and operated, my point remains – why should people, family members or otherwise, be expected to work for less than minimum wage so that we, the restaurant goers, can have a cheaper meal? Just because you’re my husband or son doesn’t mean you should work for less than what you’d get to do any other job.

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      • I assume that your question is rhetorical but I’ll answer it anyway. The reason that you work day and night in your own business for what might amount to less than minimum wage if you were punching a clock is precisely because it is your own business and you are not punching a clock. My wife and I spent 35 years doing exactly that. But, getting back to the point of your post, we could take off when we wanted without answering to a boss. We agree to disagree.

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      • I’m not saying you’re wrong at all; if people want to work all the hours possible because it’s their business, then that’s absolutely fine. I do exactly that right now as a writer and teacher, in fact. My article was really about people moaning that restaurants aren’t open 7/365, and how they don’t appreciate the financial problems associated with doing so. And, of course, that people won’t pay the real cost of the food they’re eating.

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  2. Pingback: What the kitchen thinks about you – Eat Sleep Cook!

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