- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 2, 2010

PARIS | Would you like a steak au poivre sandwich and some deluxe potatoes, followed by a lemon macaroon and a cappuccino? Welcome to McDonald’s, French version.

And the French are lovin’ it. They’ve increased spending each year on McDonald’s to the point that France is now the U.S. chain’s second-biggest market, even in the midst of a global recession. In perhaps the ultimate cultural inversion, McDonald’s in the U.S. is taking some notes from the French franchises’ recipe for success.

McDonald’s sales in France amounted to 3.6 billion euros ($5 billion) in 2009, according to numbers released in late January. That was an 8.5 percent increase over the 2008 figure, which was 11.2 percent higher than the previous year. For 2009, McDonald’s France marked the sixth consecutive year that sales increased at a more rapid rate than any of the chain’s other European subsidiaries.

“Few companies have resisted the global recession like the fast-food chains,” said Nicolas Herpin, a French sociologist studying consumption. “In France, people who never came to McDonald’s before are now customers.”

The American fast-food icon’s success in France runs counter to pop-culture images of French “cuisine,” and French demonstrators have attacked the Golden Arches as symbols of American-style capitalism.

Mr. Herpin said he thinks McDonald’s has appeal in a country known for its love of good food because of its affordable prices and convenient service.

“The French used to come to cafes between meals to eat a hard-boiled egg. Now they eat a sandwich at McDonald’s,” he said.

Also, McDonald’s has marketed itself with an emphasis on what the French like to eat and how they like to eat it. “We still have some work to do on the quality. But more than 70 percent of our products come from France,” said a communication department spokesman at the McDonald’s France headquarters.

In France, McDonald’s customers sit at tables surrounded by wood panels, television screens showing environment-friendly messages, and computer terminals where they can order food quickly and pick up their meal at the counter when it’s ready. As a result, the French no longer are ashamed to say they ate at one of the country’s 1,161 McDonald’s and enjoyed the food.

“The Frenchman is not a typical customer. Unlike in the United States, his relationship with food is linked with pleasure. He does not come here too often, only about once every three weeks. But every time he comes, he will take a full menu,” the McDonald’s spokesman said.

“We changed the design, the lighting, the furniture. We want them to spend some time in the restaurant,” the officer said.

On a Sunday afternoon, the newly opened McDonald’s in the Beaugrenelle neighborhood of the 15th district was full. At the entrance stands a McCafe, which sells hot drinks and French pastries. A customer sitting on a large, dark-red sofa was using his computer.

Guilhene Just, who lives in the area, was sipping hot chocolate and chatting with her mother.

“I come here to warm up when it’s cold outside. It is much friendlier than before. It makes me feel like ‘sit down and relax,’” she said. Her mother, Paulette, agreed, saying, “And, why not, even take a full meal. But my coffee is terrible.”

McDonald’s has become a place where the French can grab a quick lunch or to eat in the traditional French style, by lingering, socializing and enjoying the whole experience.

Layan Malshi and Jade Seidman were spending several hours that afternoon going over their chemistry lessons.

“Here we can stay studying for hours, the food is cheap, and no one is going to tell you to leave,” said Layan, a 17-year-old student from the Palestinian territories. Her friend Jade is from New York. “It is so different from the United States,” she said. “There, it’s dirty. Here, you can have Wi-Fi and macaroons.”

However, both girls agreed that the food quality still has plenty of room to improve.

For the past couple of years, though, the emphasis has been more desserts and salads on the menu.

Delphine and Kosseika, who were looking for that type of food, brought their 2-year-old son to McDonald’s for the first time. He loved the french fries.

“We don’t want to bring him here too often,” said Delphine, who later said she visited the restaurant once or twice a month. “You have to be careful not to become obese with that kind of food.”

But will the McDonald’s-French love affair last?

Members of the McDonald’s France communications department said the company has come a long way.

“Ten years ago, we were a bit corny, and Jose Bove was demolishing the Millau McDonald’s,” the officer said, referring to the anti-globalization activist’s destruction of a restaurant as it was being built in 1999 in a southern town. In December, the opening of a McDonalds restaurant inside the gallery leading to the entrance of the world-famous Louvre museum sparked controversy.

In July, the government enacted a law that slashed the sales tax at restaurants from 19.1 percent to 5.5 percent — the same level as fast foods — and gave a much-needed boost to the restaurant industry.

Regardless, the other side of the Atlantic is feeling the impact of McDonald’s success in France.

In November, a Manhattan McDonald’s was remodeled along French lines, to look more like a lounge or bistro, with laptop outlets, subdued lighting, upholstered chairs, and employees in “blacks.”

A U.S. McDonald’s spokeswoman told the Associated Press that “we’ll continue to evaluate” whether more such U.S. restaurants might follow.

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