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Hospitality business owners feel lockdown heat

For Pascal Pérou, a restauranteur in the French town of La Baule-Escoublac, 2020 has been a hugely challenging year.

When the first wave of coronavirus swept through France in February and March, his restaurant, Le M la Baule, was one of thousands of hospitality businesses closed on short notice.

“The first time we closed, the government asked at 8 o’clock for us to close by midnight. It was a Friday, and that’s the day you prepare for Saturday, Sunday and Monday.”
– Pascal Pérou

The restaurant normally employs 40 staff in summer and 30 in winter, and can make 500 covers a day when busy. But when the news of the shutdown first came, there was almost no time for the business to prepare.

“The first time we closed, the government asked at 8 o’clock for us to close by midnight. It was a Friday, and that’s the day you prepare for Saturday, Sunday and Monday,” he says.

“We threw food worth about €4000 away. We gave some to our staff, but a lot just went into the bin. We were then closed in March, April and May.”

But when the restaurant reopened in June, a very different kind of challenge emerged.

Forced to limit their travel abroad, and encouraged by government campaigns to explore their own country, French people flocked to the Loire-Atlantique region in droves.

M. Pérou found his popular town inundated by tourists.

“June was a really good month, and July and August with the holidays in France, in La Baule as soon as we opened the restaurant the business came back just like that,” he says.

“I’ve never had such a good season, September was really good and October as well. But now we are here in November, and we have had to shut down.”

With around half a million new cases in France in the first two weeks of November, restrictions have forced all non-essential bars and restaurants to close. While take-away food can be sold, Google mobility data shows a 55 per cent fall in retail and restaurant activity in the region.

The latest closure came with 24 hours’ notice at the end of October, but the prospects of reopening soon are not clear.

While French economy minister Bruno Le Maire has suggested retailers might reopen by the end of the month, there is no clear date for restaurants to reopen. This close to Christmas, even an early reopening could soon be cut short.

“I think at this moment we might open between the 12th or the 15th of December, and then close again on the 7th of January,” says M. Pérou.

“But for a restaurant like we have, we need a day before we reopen to prepare, clean the tables and be ready, and an extra day to close the restaurant again.

“Suddenly to work two extra days only to be open for three weeks, I can’t really see the point. It is stop and go all the time.

“My worry is how can you pay your mortgage and your rent when you are forbidden to work? I’ve got staff accruing two or two and a half days (in holidays) every month and how can I pay that? We are really lucky we’ve got a good team and as a business I care about my staff but I do worry.”

“They did a very good job in trying to follow the rules but they are now hit very hard by the requirements, and are obliged to restrict the number of people in their restaurants.”
– Cyrille Pineau

It’s a situation repeated across France says Cyrille Pineau, Managing Partner at Baker Tilly Strego business advisory and head of the Nantes office.

“We have a lot of clients in sectors like restaurants and they did everything right in trying to keep people safe,” he says.

“They did a very good job in trying to follow the rules but they are now hit very hard by the requirements, and are obliged to restrict the number of people in their restaurants.

“It is perhaps even worse for small restaurants where you might have very little space and still can only have a few people inside.

“For all business people it is difficult because the government makes decisions but they do not tend to consult the business sector as to the impact of these decisions.”

While some measures are welcome, M. Pineau says, including a State-backed guarantee to help businesses overcome liquidity issues, the burden remains on business to manage through the ongoing crisis.

For M. Pérou, the options while he waits for the restaurant to reopen are limited.

A bid to switch from seated meals to takeaway didn’t resonate with his clientele, so he is now looking at how to reinvigorate his menu on opening with new options and styles.

But while he describes 2020 as a lost year, he is hopeful that the recovery will see French citizens and tourists return soon.

“You can’t close the restaurant for four months without there being some damage, but we must be positive. I don’t want to focus on the negative – when I look at many other people in the industry, we are very lucky,” he says.

“You run a company not only to make a profit or to pay your rent and your staff, but because it is what you enjoy doing. This year has been sudden and brutal. I have to look forward and hope things will improve.”

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Cyrille Pineau

Baker Tilly STREGO

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