By Edward Cody
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, June 26, 2009
PARIS, June 25 — Ah, France, bastion of the three-hour lunch. First comes the appetizer, followed by the main course, then cheese and dessert, washed down with red wine and, along with an espresso at the finale, maybe a little cognac to enhance digestion back at the office.
Well, yes and no.
While they have not abandoned their love of food, French people increasingly are resorting to a humble sandwich for the noon meal. Some even gulp it down with a soft drink while sitting at their desks. So much so that the consumption of sandwiches in France has grown by more than a quarter over the past six years, to 1.8 billion annually, and climbed by 10 percent last year, according to market researchers.
Moreover, the change has often come at the expense of neighborhood cafes, where lunch still means a hot dish like grandma used to make and sitting around the table for an hour of conversation with friends or colleagues. The number of bars and cafes in France has fallen from 200,000 half a century ago to 38,600, according to industry associations. More than 2,000 went out of business last year alone as an indoor smoking ban took effect and the world economic crisis bit into budgets.
The shifting lunchtime habits, which are more pronounced in large cities such as Paris, are part of a social tug of war in France between the imperatives of a modern industrial economy and a long-cherished tradition of fine food produced and prepared by artisans devoted to their crafts. The increasingly common sight of a young French office worker walking down the street munching on a sandwich suggests tradition is more and more on the losing side as the years go by.
“If they were home, or near home, maybe they would have a real meal,” explained Jean Rossi, a market researcher at the Gira Food Service consulting company who has investigated the sandwich phenomenon. “But their offices are one hour or more from their homes, and with their limited buying power, the sandwich is an obvious solution.”
For instance, McDonald’s has enjoyed rising business in France for the past five years, taking full advantage of the evolution. Income at its more than 1,100 French outlets rose by 11 percent in 2008 despite the economic crisis, the company reported.
Most French people still prefer to eat a full lunch when they can, following age-old custom in the country and its Latin neighbors, such as Spain and Italy, industry officials said. As a result, sandwich consumption per capita is still lower than in other countries. Britons, for instance, eat several times as many as Frenchmen.
“The function of a meal in France is not just to take on energy, and it never will be,” cautioned Nawfal Trabelsi, vice president for marketing and communications at McDonald’s in France.
But the change, Rossi and others pointed out, is that French people increasingly are willing to forgo their tradition of a sit-down lunch if they face time constraints or are low on funds. The younger they are, the more easily they make the decision, he added.
Yannis Athenes, a 24-year-old computer engineer, is one of the people Rossi was talking about. Athenes handed over about $5 one recent day for a grilled salmon sandwich prepared at a little stand outside the Benjamin Cafe on Rivoli Street, in a busy shopping district just north of the Seine. Athenes said he sits down for a full lunch whenever he can but frequently resorts to sandwiches because of a lack of time.
“The truth is,” he said, holding up his sandwich, “I’m going to eat this while driving. I have appointments set up that I have to get to, and I just don’t have the time to sit down for a real meal.”
Xavier Mazzoni, who operates the stand, said he left his job in a traditional restaurant a little over two years ago to open the sandwich stand, renting the space from the cafe owner. As clients lined up to be served, Mazzoni, 42, said he has to get up at 5 a.m. to make the sandwiches — tuna, chicken, ham, cheese, salmon — but is rewarded with enough business to bring in a good living and finance a planned beach vacation this summer for his two children.
A waiter circulating among the traditional cafe tables only a few feet away acknowledged that Mazzoni’s sandwich stand drains away food business from the Benjamin, which advertises in gold letters painted on the wall that it offers “traditional cuisine.”
“But we have to live with it,” he said.
As he set down a cola for one 20-something woman with swept-back hair, she pulled a sandwich out of her bag and bit into it. Unmoved, the waiter shuffled off to tend to other customers.
The problem is, Mazzoni said, that about five other stands have opened up in the neighborhood since his arrival to try to take advantage of the sandwich boom. Across France, the number of shops and stands selling sandwiches has risen to more than 32,000, doing about $13 billion in business, industry research shows.
But the surge in the new sales pattern may slump a little in 2009; since the beginning of this year, Mazzoni noted, the economic crisis has produced a dip even in sandwich consumption, with some of his previously steady customers reverting to bringing a lunch pail to the office.
Part of the most recent sandwich boom, particularly last year’s steep rise, can be attributed to the crisis, which has carved into food budgets even in a country where many businesses subsidize employee lunches. A sandwich and soft drink in Paris run between $4 and $6, while a sit-down lunch easily hits $18 to $20 even in a simple cafe.
But the increase in sandwich consumption also reflects a long-term generational change in the way French people, particularly the urban young, view their noontime meal. Although older people cling to the idea that a full meal is a necessary part of the day, those under 40 think nothing of grabbing a sandwich if it will save money or time. For an up-and-coming French businessman, lunch may not be for wimps, but it has become expendable.
First-class business travelers on the three-hour train between Paris and Brussels in the 1980s, for instance, used to enjoy long lunches served by waiters in crisp white tunics who, for a price, proposed four courses and poured good wine into crystal glasses. The same trip now takes a little over an hour; travelers have the choice in a bar car between club sandwiches or “wraps” that they can carry back to their seats with plastic cups for airline-style mini-bottles of wine or cans of beer.