A British restaurant owner in southern France is urging the French government to boost support for the hospitality industry to assuage the impact of the Omicron wave on customer numbers.
Paul and Val Bridgestock opened their Restaurant aux Quatre Saisons in the tourist town of Axat in the Aude (Occitanie) in 2016, converting their house for the purpose.
“We had previously run the house as a chambre d'hôtes and have always enjoyed meeting people,” Mr Bridgestock told The Connexion.
“The start-up costs were €150,000, including €25,000 in order to meet new hygiene regulations that came in just before we opened.
“It has been a lifelong ambition to have our own restaurant and we are very proud of what we achieved.
“It was a success from the start and 18 months after opening we were the highest rated restaurant in the entire Aude department on Tripadvisor. We finished the next year as the 21st Tripadvisor-rated restaurant in the whole of France.
“I say this not to brag but rather to reinforce the point that even successful restaurants like ours have been hammered by Covid.”
‘Covid has been a catastrophe’
“Covid has bluntly been nothing short of a catastrophe,” Mr Bridgestock added. “We suspected that we might have to close [during the first confinement] but assumed that it would be our own decision rather than a government dictat. Let me say that I completely agree with the decision but I wish that we had been given some warning.
“In all we cancelled about €12,000 worth of reservations and gave or threw away approaching €8,000 of fresh products.
“There was at that time virtually no government assistance apart from covering some staff salaries.
“When we re-opened we were very well supported by local people who all came to support us, including many who came saying that they did not normally eat out but wanted to show support.
“But then came the second lockdown.
“We did get some excellent government support in that period which we are very grateful for.
“However, when we re-opened after that second closure it was a disaster and the government support had dried up.”
Rules controlling restaurant spaces have largely been lifted in France since spring 2021, but the Bridgestocks’ Restaurant aux Quatre Saisons normally welcomes many foreign tourists, whose numbers dropped significantly last year as a result of continually changing travel restrictions.
On December 27, Prime Minister Jean Castex also announced that, in order to curb the spread of the Omicron variant, customers would only be allowed to eat and drink in restaurants and bars if they were sitting down.
The combination of lingering Covid-related restrictions and a lack of tourists meant that the restaurant’s customer numbers fell so low that it was no longer feasible for it to stay open, and it has now been closed for several months.
“We have not had an enquiry for a reservation for over a month,” Mr Bridgestock said. “Literally nobody wants to eat out in this climate and we also feel it would be too dangerous for us and for our staff to open.
“I have a very serious heart condition and just cannot chance getting Covid.
“To go from a very high turnover to zero has been very difficult. We took €15,000 over Christmas and New Year 2020 and this year we had zero.
“Such businesses as ours are desperate for further support from the government.”
Government support not enough
Following the slight tightening of restrictions in restaurants which was announced on December 27, the French government also unveiled two additional financial aids for businesses which were struggling as a result of Omicron.
These included an extension of the government’s furlough scheme for businesses affected by the new rules and whose turnover fell by 65% or more as a result.
It was also announced that businesses in the tourism industry would have their fixed costs covered as well if their turnover fell by 50% or more.
“I cannot see that much, if any, of that will be of help to us,” Mr Bridgestock said, adding that: “We have received zero information from the government” on the help available.
“We have paid a great deal of tax and if businesses like ours are to continue to operate and employ local people then we need grants or long-term interest-free loans to support us.”
“At present I am very sad to say that despite all the previous investment and hard work we see no chance of reopening the restaurant.
Income down by 80-90%
Luckily, Mr and Mrs Bridgestock have been able to maintain some sort of income by selling their meals and other products at local markets.
“We purchased an existing coffee sales enterprise and that has been very good but it does not equate to anywhere near the restaurant turnover.
“We are between 80% and 90% down on the restaurant sales, as well as having yet more start-up costs for the new venture including buying a van, different portable chillers and cooking equipment,” Mr Bridgestock said.
“We will continue to work on the markets until, and if, we can ever re-open our restaurant but we are financially very badly affected by the Covid restrictions.
“We are not shirkers looking for free money, just hard working people who have never been out of work, but really require government assistance at present to enable us to keep going and start not only earning ourselves, but also paying taxes back and employing our six staff.”