French café-bistrots down but not out

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RFI/Alison Hurd

The local café the beating heart of French life, but the café-bistrot du coin is in decline. French culture is changing, and so must café and brasserie owners if they want to survive.


At Au Bon Coin café in a modest part of Paris’s 17th arrondissement, owner Bernard vigorously wipes down his dark brown formica counter before handing over a good cup of freshly-ground coffee. The premises are impeccable if outdated with plastic tables and net curtains. The only other client, René, who is reading the daily paper for free. He also orders just coffee and a glass of water.

“I serve more [free] glasses of water than cups of coffee,” shrugs Bernard. “I might make 40 euros a day. If it goes on like this we’ll just have to shut up shop.”

It wasn’t always like this. When Bernard first took over the bar in 1977 he and his wife did a roaring trade.

“People would celebrate birthdays, we’d push back the tables and dance, they’d buy rounds before going on holiday. Now no one buys a round, no one even tells you they’re going on holiday. It’s sad.”

Bernard is typical of an older generation of café-bistrot owners whose businesses are struggling to survive.

All across France, cafés are closing down. According to Roland Heguy, president of France’s largest hospitality union (UMIH), numbers have fallen from around 200,000 in 1960 to fewer than 41,000 today. He describes the situation in rural areas as “dramatic”.

Despite its strong café culture, Paris has not been spared the downturn either. As many as 2,000 cafés closed down in Paris in 2009 says Laurent Lutse head of the IDCCB in charge of café and brasserie development.

He explains the drop in business on the smoking ban - extended to cafés, bars and

2,000 cafés closed down in Paris in 2009
2,000 cafés closed down in Paris in 2009 RFI/Alison Hird

restaurants in January 2008 - , the economic downturn, tighter controls on underage drinking and tougher measures against drink driving which have had a big impact on café culture in rural areas, many people now preferring to buy cheap alcohol and drink at home. Competition from American-inspired coffee chains with their easy sofas and wi-fi connections are also drawing younger people away from traditional cafés.

While the reduction in VAT from 19 per cent to 5 per cent has stopped the haemorrhage, Lutse says it’s also up to café owners to modernise and win back customers.

“Some bistrots haven’t moved with the times,” he says. “Many were obsolete anyway and not up to standard. You have to provide something else, invent a new concept.” Such as the concerts, art exhibitions and café-libraries that UMIH has been working at developing along with the French Culture Ministry.

Lutse suggests making cafés cosier, adding more comfortable sofas, softer lighting, giving them more of a "lounge" feel. The younger generation, he says, are better equipped to make the change.

“The smoking ban, the ban on selling alcohol to the under 18s … for new younger owners that’s all in the past.”

Thrity-nine-year old Nouradine has understood the changing times, even making the most of them. His café Le Select is just a few doors down the road from Au Bon Coin but is doing a steady trade. He snapped up his bar “for a good price” in January 2009 when the market was shaky and offers live or recorded music non-stop. There’s a wi-fi connection and he’s lucky enough to have room for a terrace outside for smokers.

“You have to be friendly, make an effort,” he says. “Some café owners just don’t.”

Thirty-something Olivier Border has also understood the importance of friendly service and indulging your regulars. A steady stream of customers come through the open glass doors at the Au Roi du café he runs in the 15th arrondissement. His team of ten young staff serve an average of 300 meals a day.

The recipe is simple: quality food, reasonable prices and friendly service. And a bit of good authentic Parisian bistro décor - old mirrors, a solid oak bar. They’ve avoided the temptation - which is a bit of a trend - to give the café a lounge feel.

“We wanted to keep the Parisien spirit which is disappearing with the trend for lounge,” says Border.

There are no sofas either at the Caves Populaires in a trendy part of the 17th arrondissement known as Batignolles. Just small formica tables and wooden chairs. But this café-bistrot is permanently packed. Co-owner Jean is in his 30s and says oddly enough it’s the lack of concept that customers appreciate.

“It’s not a concept bar at all. People come here because they know they’ll bump into friends. It’s become a genuine local.”

Prices are among the cheapest in Paris, coffee costs one euro whether you’re at the bar o

RFI/ Alison Hird

r sitting down. Sean, a courrier, lives locally and comes in up to three times a day. In what can be a faceless capital city, such bars have added value.

“It’s changed my life,” he says “it’s a real way to feel part of a small village in a huge city.”

Ziad, another regular, says it’s quite unusual to find such friendly spots in Paris. “It’s a real place whereas many are fake or touristy.”

The bar’s success story has even inspired a new guide book Le Guide du Fêtard (party-goers' guide) which lists some 50 similar café-bistrots in Paris. Author Ghames Nabil says he’s noticed people are returning to cafés in big numbers, and not just to drink.

“It’s a bit like in the 50s and 60s, people come here to write, to be inspired.”

But without the smoky haze. Ziad says the smoking ban has actually been a positive thing for his local.

“The smoking ban is going to make France have more babies” he quips. The fact that people go outside to smoke generates movement, gets people talking.

But that’s not without its drawbacks. Jean the manager admits there are problems with neighbours complaining about the noise as joyful, flirtatious smokers gather on the pavement and under their windows into the early hours.

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