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The restaurant saga


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Restaurants eh? Not a trade I ever

thought I would find myself in, but now that the season is over and I

have some free time, I can write up my experiences from the previous


You may well have read my tales of

running a gite on this forum....I earned myself a few enemies over

that one. Perhaps not enemies as such, but moaners who doubted it

all. Seriously, I may have some free time every now and then but

making stuff like this up? Come off it!

So earlier this year, a friend called

Luc popped up for a visit from the Herault. Talk got round to my

local villages lack of eateries. There is a bar/hotel which was

closed all last year and had recently re-opened under new management,

and there is a camp-site with nearby restaurant which is open for the

summer. Rumours in the town said that the chap running the campsite

place had fallen out with everyone and was not doing it this year.

Luc looked thoughtful.

A few weeks later he got in touch again

and asked me to dig around a little and find out about the campsite,

perhaps see if I could get hold of some figures, so that's just what

I did. Turns out it is owned by the marie and they rent it out and

given the number of people that come to the campsite it has a decent

captive market for the summer. The number looked good.

Luc was hoping to apply to run it

himself, but was hindered by living miles away, difficulties

relocating for the summer with 3 young kids and a few other reasons.

He dropped the issue.

Those numbers though.....the place

looked a potential gold-mine.....a decent investment.......hang

on...what the hell do I know about restaurants?

I submitted my application that week.

A relative of mine, A, has some

catering experience to small groups, and she came in as a partner. We

drew up a plan and were called to the village council where we had to

give a presentation in front of the local Mafia Dons. Well, I say

mafia, they are the mayor and owners of other businesses in the

village. I don't think they are into the whole horses head in the bed

and unrefusable offers thing, but they call the shots here. Turns out

our application was one of 6 that got to this interview stage.

And so it came to pass that in

February, we were told we had got the gig, and now would be a good

time to set up the business on paper.


Yeah....French paperwork....really


“Hi, I would like to open a business

bank account”

“No problem. Whats your SIRET


“I don't have one yet”

“right, well, come back when you have

one. I can't do anything without it”

“Hello, so to apply for a SIRET

number, I need to supply my business bank account details first?”

“Yes, that's right”


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It was mostly A

who dealt with the paperwork side of things for establishing the

business, so my understanding of the details is a bit light, however,

I do understand perfectly the reasons why she was close to tears of

frustration on a few occasions – Everything seems to be designed to

be infuriating and inflexible. The usual French red

tape.....everything in triplicate with 4 forms of I.D. including a

letter of attestation from the midwife who delivered you and a sworn

character reference from the Pope was just the beginning.

With our shiny new

business plan, we met with an advisor about how best to proceed with

registration. They read it though and advised us to go to the Chambre

de Commerce, so a meeting was arranged and off we went. The lady read

through the plans, listened to our ideas and told us the best way

forward. To do this would require these boxes to be ticked, those

forms to be filled out and these hoops to be jumped through. To be

fair to them, they were helpful throughout the procedure. It took us

around two weeks to get the dossier together, with frequent meetings

with them to check on progress. The big day arrived and A found

herself sat before the Big Cheese for a final check of the dossier

before everything would be validated.


…. … hmmm..... Hmmmmmm..... I'm afraid you have made a



“yes, you

mention here about also doing takeaway food”

“yes, thats in

the plan too, pizzas mostly.”

“You can't”.

And that was that.

It turned out that whilst everything else was fine, if we wished to

do takeaway, the Chambre of Commerce was not the place to be doing

this, we should be using the Chambre des Metiers instead. Obviously,

this was our fault, despite being advised otherwise and several

different people reading and approving the dossier as it formed. We

were faced with the prospect of having to start from scratch with

another administrative group and whilst all this was happening our

opening deadline was fast approaching. A village event in May was to

be our Debut, and without the magic SIRET number, we still had not

even managed to get EDF to connect the electricity, never mind all

the million and on other things that we needed to do as well! You can not even place a wanted add for staff on most online websites without this bloody number, so we were really snookered.

“You either stop

here, or we go back through the dossier now and remove all references

to takeaway and I will then validate it.” The Big Cheese stated.

“But can we do


“not legally,

however what you do after this is finished is up to you.”

Should we risk it?

I was tempted but the risk of being controlled at some point in the

summer was high. The local village is very divided by politics and

there are plenty of people who take great pleasure in denouncing

anyone they can get some dirt on, so we decided against the risk. The

Big Cheese made a few phone calls to see if we could get our dossier

fast-tracked through the chambre des metiers. Fortunately most of the

hoops you have to jump through for them are the same shape as the

ones we had previously jumped through, so getting their dossier

together went quite quickly. A had to attend a “starting and

running a business” course, which wasted another few days, but

finally after several weeks of faffing, flapping, driving around,

rage, calm and finally euphoria, we had the correct SARL and the

mystical SIRET number.

A business bank

account was in place and with the siret number we could finally get

the utilities sorted out. I had been working in the kitchens on a

load of renovation and rearranging and had been doing so using my

generator chugging away on the terrace, which did not have the puff

to run the water heater, so all cleaning had been done up till then

using cold water, which is not too effective. Plugging in a power

tool meant unplugging a lamp, so it was a constant juggle to get

anything done. Next up....the telephone. That should be simple, no?

Well, no it wasn't. I didn't want anything complicated, just standard

calls and ADSL internet. At home I pay 34€ per month for this and

its all I wanted for the resto, but no. These offers are residential

only and commercial arrangements of this kind were going to cost

almost triple this price. To hell with that, we settled for a

bog-standard phone service with no internet, and even that was

significantly dearer than a residential line. I think next summer I

will try to wing it for a residential ADSL setup with another


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While this was

going on, I was cleaning the place up, buying equipment and making

shelves. Seriously....either the previous chap took all his shelving

with him or he just kept everything on the floor, the place had

nowhere to put anything. So my time was spent going back n forth to

Bricodepot buying brackets and shelving and giving my drill a

workout. Shelves for the plates. Shelves for the glasses. Shelves for

the wine. Shelves for the cutlery. A shelf for the till. A shelf for

the incredibly heavy thing that rolls out the pizza dough. A shelf

for the crepe hotplate....the list went on and on. With all the

shelves up, I just had to find stuff to put on them now.

Man, have you seen

the prices of catering equipment here? Its outrageous. I did a lot of

comparisons and didnt find one single place that was best

value....some things were cheaper from a catering supplier, other

stuff was cheaper from a supermarket and loads of other things were

cheaper in UK.

I ended up buying

the wine glasses in Asda in UK. 4 for 89p, I believe they cost, which

is about a quarter of the price here and for a more substantial,

robust glass. I filled four big boxes and packed them with

bubblewrap, trusting DHL to deliver them to France. Two turned up,

one perfect and the second making ominous tinkling noises when moved.

The local courier who delivered them was mortified and very

apologetic, but reckoned it was like that when handed to their depot.

Inside, it was not the carnage I had expected....4 of the 4-packs of

glasses had broken, the rest were intact. The two other boxes

eventually turned up a few weeks later in a similar state. Overall,

casualties were acceptable. Pizza plates were found in the cellar, so

that saved a bit of effort, but the general plates and bowls still

needed to be sourced. Catering suppliers were selling them at prices

that made my wallet wince, supermarkets had ok stuff but in small

quantities so I looked further afield again. Not as far as UK, just

to Toulouse, where everyones favourite (or most despised, depending

on your outlook) blue and yellow housewares and furniture supplier

have their nearest store. Some research on the Ikea website showed

they had live-ish stock tracking so I waited until they had recently

had a delivery then pounced. Well, perhaps not a pounce, more of a 2

hour slog down the autoroute in a wheezy old van. I was there on a

specific mission, so despite A's pleas, we bypassed the whole

upstairs and went straight to the sales area where we emptied their

stocks of the second cheapest dinner service. 2 Precariously balanced

trolleys and some funny looks from other shoppers and then we were

free of self-assembly hell. I had seriously underestimated the weight

of this stuff and the poor old van was not a happy Citroen for the

return journey. The suspension was not far from the bump-stops and

every bump in the road brought forth a frightening clash of crockery

from the back. We got back intact, and were happy with a job with no

breakage until I dropped a full set unloading it and smashed it all

to bits. The first of many throughout the season.

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The plan for the

resto was simple......basic, good quality food in plentiful portions

at a decent price. No point in going for haute cuisine, afterall the

place is a glorified snack bar. Pizzas, steak n chips,

salads....nothing complicated, nothing fancy. This is deepest,

darkest redneck, hillbilly farming country here and the people want

value rather than gastronomy.

Which is just as

well really as I can't cook fancy food – certainly not on a large

scale. Steaks and salads would be no problem, but pizzas.....how hard

could it be?

The place was

already kitted out with pizza ovens, fryers,grill plate etc, so while

we stocked up, we started a few trials with the equipment. Pizzas

came out fine, but I lacked the coordination to get them done

quickly. A and I discussed staffing options, and we decided that we

would hire a pizza chef – preferably one with experience on the

grill too. A would do salads etc and I would be grill man, bar man, desserts and

anything else that needed doing. A couple of waitresses would round

the team off.

The search for a

cook began.

Two local girls

got the jobs serving, and it wasnt until we were into the high season

that we found we needed another staff member....someone to sell

sweeties, tins of juice, ice creams and crepes to the tourists during

the day, leaving the rest of us free to work. This side of the resto

proved to be a massive hit, with sales going through the roof as the

temperature rose. I hired the teenage daughter of a neighbour. She

was interested in a job, but being under 18 could not serve alcohol,

even wine on the tables, so this job would fit her fine. Taking her

on had another unexpected bonus. She is very, very pretty. Infact

that doesnt do her justice, she is incredibly beautiful and has a

stunning figure. Not the skinny supermodel type but the natural

curves type, her own choice of work wear was usually a skimpy

vest-style top and short shorts so tight they looks like they might

have been painted onto her. A gorgeous, tanned 17 year old girl,

poured into revealing clothes ensured that a constant stream of

hormonal teenage boys made the trek up from the camp site to buy ice

creams and chat to her.!

Sales would tail off somewhat when she wasn't on shift, with either myself or A doing the job. I wonder why! [:P]

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Racism? In France?

Surely not!

Sadly, true

though. Im sure there are a few folk on this forum who still have

their rose-tinted specs on regarding life here, but the simple truth

is things can be just the same as UK in many respects.

C applied for the

job of pizza chef. A seasonal cook with several years experience,

his resume looked good and his references checked out. Olive skinned,

with thick black hair and a very Italian sounding name, he was the

steretypical pizza chef. He had a secret though, which he divulged

right from the start. C is an assumed name he uses, his real name is

Ahmed. He is an arab. He was very pragmatic about it.....Nobody here

wants a “dirty arab” to prepare their food, and in all the years

he had done seasonal work, he found it nigh-on impossible to get a

job if he used his real name. Whilst many employers were not bothered

by his race, they were worried about what the customers would think

when they found out, so he goes by the name C, and whilst he never

claims to be italian, he doesnt make any denials either. He talks

enough italian to sound believable and knows just enough about Italy

to pull it off. He just wants to work, doing the job he enjoys, but

sadly has to resort to this sort of thing to even get his foot in the


I liked him so

arranged for him to come and see the place and check out the

accommodation. Since the village is the ass-end of nowhere and we

could not get a local cook, I had secured the use of a house for the

summer to lodge the chef we would hire. He turned up, had a quick

look round the kitchen and declared it acceptable! The house was of

little interest, he just wanted a bed for the night. He was keen and

A and myself liked him. Back at the kitchen he did a little demo and

knocked up a handful of delicious pizzas. He was show-boating

somewhat, spinning the dough in the air as he worked it etc etc,

yeah, one went on the floor, but nobody is perfect eh?! We doubted he

would have the time to do this sort of thing during service, but he

could work using the roller machine very quickly indeed and we

reckoned his ability to show off a little at quieter moments would go

down well.

He got the job.

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In all seriousness I do hope you are keeping notes for a future book from these postings. Also from your posts about running gites.

If you have time I recommend you read "Rosé en Marché" by James Ivey. A really good book about setting up as a market seller, selling rosé wines in France. His account of all the hoops etc. and vagaries of French paperwork gives an interesting insight into life in France.

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Part of the setup

process was to work out where our supplies were to come from.

Wholesalers were all at least 45 minutes drive away, so shopping had

to be planned carefully. Fortunately, I have a little refrigerated

van left over from a previous venture, so it was dragged out of the barn, dusted off and returned to

front-line duties for fetching the shopping. Ice creams were to be

delivered, but which company to use? A couple of brands were happy to

outbid each other for us to sell their products, with Nestle as the

winner, purely because they offered us a load of chest freezers if we

sold their ice creams. This saved having to buy freezers, as they

were offering us surplus ones that we could use in the basement for

storing foods other than ice cream. It was the same process with the

coffee suppliers. We settled on one local-ish supplier as they were

offering what appeared to be

the best machines on free loan. These bloody things proved to be the

bane of my season. They were fancy automated things.....beans in

hoppers on the top, water in another reservoir and a control panel

that looked like it should be operated by Spock on the Starship

Enterprise. Selecting product, cupsize and quantity would send it

into spasms of whirring, clunking and after a few seconds, it would

distribute the coffee. That was the theory, and they worked

absolutely perfectly. For about 3 days, then it all went to hell. Too

weak, too strong, under-filling or over filling the cups, randomly

vomiting hot water or steam....these were daily occurrences, and

despite re-setting the fill levels, they would often start

under-filling only 2 or 3 cups later. Things came to a head when one

evening the normal grinding noise from one machine was replaced by

the unmistakable sounds of plastic gears stripping. The rep turned up

the next day.....I should mention here that I am fairly short so many

people are taller than me, but this guy...seriously, he should be

some kind of basketball player. Or circus freak. There are a couple

of tall chaps I know who have to stoop a little to avoid skiffing the

top of their heads on the door frame, but this chap had to crouch right

down to avoid cracking his teeth off the lintel!


he repaired the machine with ease, and despite our protests assured

us they were the best available on the market. Over the following

three months, there was rarely more than 2 or 3 days would go by

without me coming dangerously close to flinging those bloody machines

out of the front door.


May passed in a buzz of last minute shopping. Pots n pans, kitchen

knives, chopping boards, blender, dough mixer, storage boxes,

microwave, fridges, tea towels, cleaning products.... the list was

endless and bloody expensive. Costs often took me by surprise. Take

chopping boards for example, you probably have one or two at home? I

had to buy 6 – fancy colour coded plastic ones at €28 each!


including drinks licence? - Check.


- Check.


- Check


- Check


- Check.


pots, pans etc? - Check.


- well, kind of.... It was to be a reduced menu at the start of the

season as we were only going to be open at weekends initially until

the tourists began arriving, so we couldn't feasibly stock everything

without loads going to waste.



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days before our opening event, and we thought we were ready. Our

planning had anticipated an average of 20 people at lunch times and

40 for the evening sittings. Our opening day was to coincide with a

yearly village event that sees the main street closed off and things

to see throughout the day, so we figured on a busier lunchtime. Then

the previous manager turned up for a visit and a chat. He suggested

that our estimate was a tad on the low side for numbers on the day of

the fair, and we should count for 200 – 250 at lunchtime!




was no way in hell we could cope with that number of customers, not

on a first day with staff still getting into the swing of things We

had all been eating there a most mealtimes over the past few weeks,

with friends and family joining us. This gave us a chance to start

cooking in larger quantities, but numbers suddenly jumping by a

factor of ten left us shaken.


previous manager was incredulous that we had planned on offering the

menu on this day. Seemingly he had always just done a single dish in

large enough quantities, so I decided to bin the menu on the opening

day and offer paella. C saved our bacon here, as not only was he good

with the pizzas, he reckoned he did a mean paella too. The major

advantage here was he had the equipment – two huge proper paella

pans and the gas rings for them. He wrote out a list and I traipsed

down to the wholesalers for the things he needed.

The previous manager seemingly had an arrangement with

the marie for loan of trestle tables and benches for this, so off I

went. A few trips back and forth from the storage sheds and we had

seating for 200.

This time we really

were ready.


A decided the kitchen needed a minor layout change. This mean moving

the ice cube machine to a different part of the kitchen. This machine

is about 50 cm high, plumbed into a water feed, with a drain for

meltwater. A quick look at its proposed new location turned up both a

drain and a copper pipe with a tap on the end – Bingo. No harder

than plumbing in a washing machine, I had it shifted in a few



day was the grand opening. I arrived nice and early to find the ice

cube machine making funny noises and billowing steam out of the

hatch. Steam? Yeah, turned out the pipe I had connected it to was

actually hot water! The poor machine had been gurgling away all night

trying to make ice cubes with hot water. It was never right after

that. Back in its old location with cold water as a supply, it worked

ok but wasted a large amount of water. At one point I had a service

engineer look at it and he was baffled. I was too embarrassed to

admit my hot-water gaffe, so we just have to live with it as it is


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I had always thought that horizontal rain was unique to the north

east of Scotland, but found this was not so when I moved here to the

Tarn a few years ago.

Opening day was cloudy and dull in the morning, and the rain started

around 10am. By lunchtime, the wind had risen enough to drive it


Our trestle tables were outside, fortunately under a roof and

relatively sheltered by the building from the driving rain, so

remained dry. The fete was a washout though.

I dont like the village fetes here, they are exactly the same

year in, year out. Same events, same people, same stalls selling the

same products.....an interesting enough day out for a visitor to the

region, but for the locals, it becomes tedious. Numbers were low due

to the weather but we did ok.

C was there fairly early and cracked on with the paella. He had done

this large dish enough times in the past to know it off by heart, and

I was envious of his knowledge as he threw handfulls of ingredients

into the pans. Pretty soon, they were bubbling away and smelling

delicious. He was all smiles as he worked, and progressed from white

wine onto pastis as lunchtime approached. Our spirits were good

despite the weather though and we were all indulging in a bit of a


The restaurant is located slightly away from the main thoroughfares,

but I had put a few sandwichboards around the streets advertising our

offerings. A fairly steady stream of people stopped by through the

morning to reserve places, and after midday, the seating started

fill up.

People were appreciative of the hot meal and compliments were thrown

to C, who was working the pans outside next to the seating.

We sold 114 portions, which we thought was pretty damn good given the

conditions. With loads of paella left over, we had plenty to offer to

those who wanted take-away and still had enough for the evening

service. The weather did not get any better and the temperature

plunged over the afternoon. Many stall holders packed up and left

early and we sold a modest 30-odd potions that evening.

The whole day was a bit of an anti-climax really. I had been so

worked up about everything that when the day passed off with positive

results I was left feeling a bit deflated. I had convinced myself

that some disaster would strike, with the food being bad, or not

having enough or not selling any....the previous night had been a

sleepless period with these negative thoughts whirling through my

head. With neither myself, nor A having much clue about how to cook a

paella on such a large scale, we were completely at the mercy of C.

He had promised us the world, assured us it would go perfectly and

that we would be happy. I liked the guy, but the simple fact was he

was still a relative stranger. Whilst he certainly talked the talk, I

had gone through several periods of doubt. Our opening day was vital,

not just for sales on the day, but for our reputation. As the new

manager, could I deliver the promises I had made? Would I be able to

give a good first impression and set a decent reputation? C did me

proud though The food was great, spirits were high and most

importantly, the public were happy.

Since the kitchen had not been used much for the day, there was

little to do in the way of cleaning, so with the public gone, the

dishes done and the place cleaned it was fairly early when I shut the

doors. Myself, A, C, the waitresses and a few of their partners sat

ourselves around a table, turned the music up and got more than a

little drunk.

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