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.