What's it really like running a bar in France?
- Credit: Complete France
If you don’t like working with the public, working long hours and being on your feet a lot, don’t read on! But if you'd like to know what life is really like for a Brit running a bar in France, discover what motivated these five intrepid expat bar owners
PLANCHES ET PLONK
Graham Welch and Damon Biddlecombe run Planches et Plonk, a cheese and wine bar, in Belvès, Dordogne
We fell in love with south-west France and decided we wanted to move here. Rather than try to carry on doing the same kind of work as before, we opted to follow our passions: cheese and wine. That was our starting point – it all grew from there.
We’d both worked in bars back in our student days, but we’ve always enjoyed eating out, so we had a clear idea of what we wanted to achieve with ours. However, we wanted to make sure we had the skills to be able to run a successful cheese and wine bar. So I took the Wine and Spirit Education Trust (WSET) Level 3 qualification in preparation for our move. The WSET is the world’s leading provider of globally recognised education and qualifications in wines and spirits.
I followed it up by taking the French Wine Scholar programme, which is supported by the French government. These courses gave me the confidence to talk about wines with our French customers – now they come to us for advice on what wine to pair with what food.
Meanwhile, Damon upskilled in cheese, so he knows his cabécous from his cantals and his comtés. We’re passionate about cheese and wine and wanted to share that passion with other people. We’ve chosen to specialise in artisanal cheese and charcuterie and quality wines, predominantly from the south-west of France, but also from the rest of the country.
We were looking for a name that explained what we did and we like the fact that it’s half French and half English. It’s a nod to our heritage. French people aren’t familiar with the word ‘plonk’, so it often gives us a starting point for a conversation.
We came property hunting one January and February, deliberately to judge various potential villages out of season. It was raining in Belvès but we could see straight away that it was a village that worked in winter too. Shops and restaurants were open and people were milling about. Plus, it’s officially classed among France’s most beautiful villages, and that recognition is said to attract 30% more visitors.
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We wanted a property close to other restaurants and bars so we could be part of a quartier that’s known as somewhere people can come and find something to eat or drink. Ultimately, it came down to two: this property and one that was larger and good to go but in a quieter village. It was a decision between a great space and a great place. Once we found the property, we accepted that it needed work. Our agent recommended a local builder who project-managed the work for us as we were living 800km away in Lille at the time.
We have an apartment on the first floor, which keeps our commute very short! We made the first floor our home, so that our B&B rooms would be on the second floor, well away from any noise in the bar.
To run a bar in France you need a bar licence, known as a licence IV. A village can have one licence IV for every 450 inhabitants. In a city, a licence can cost more than €60,000 but the national average is around €23,000. In a small village, you can expect to pay less than half that amount.
You need the approval of the mayor to buy one so getting him or her on your side early on is imperative. In our case, the woman we bought from invited the mayor to have coffee with us during our second viewing.
We also took the three-day training course about licensing laws and alcohol and a two-day course on health and safety issues relating to food preparation. Your local chamber of commerce will run courses to help you decide whether to set up a company and what legal statute to take. For a fee, they’ll also draw up all the paperwork and file it with the relevant authorities for you – it was the best €700 we’d ever spent!
We aimed to open for Easter 2020, but due to Covid ended up opening at the end of July instead, right in the middle of the tourist season – a real baptism of fire. The bulk of our clientele is local people, French and British. We’ve been surprised how far some of our regulars travel – some live more than 25km away. We also attract tourists and people who are in the area for work. The B&B helps feed the bar with customers, of course.
It was important to us to be in an area that worked all year round. Obviously, it’s quieter in winter, but that gives us the time to catch up on things that need doing – and sleep.
We’ve had great support from the local community and the other businesses. We’re not a threat to them – in fact, we are complementary, so any success we enjoy is good for us all. We’ve been told many times over the year, by both French and British locals, what a difference our arrival has made to the village. It’s even encouraged others to open businesses here who might not have had the confidence to do so beforehand.
Several things make us stand out. We’ve brought some city style to a rural village, so people love to come to us for date nights or special occasions. We’ve really focused on offering artisanal products, and we offer almost all of our 60-plus wines by the glass, which is unusual. We also hold wine tastings in the bar or, for groups of six or more, in their own home, and we’re now working with a local wedding organiser to run sessions for wedding parties. It looks like next summer will be busy!
We had to shut as a bar for six months during the second lockdown. To keep our heads above water, we starting offering takeaways and acting as an off-licence, or cavistes, as they say here. That showed potential so when we were offered a shop space on the square, we jumped at it. Plonk et Plus, our cave à vins, opened in June and so far, so good. The village has a night market every Wednesday under the medieval market hall in the square, so we’ve become the go-to place for wines each week.
People are the high of the job. It’s great to see customers really enjoy what you set before them, or when we get feedback about a new wine or cheese we’ve introduced. The lows are the hours. During the height of the season, you can easily work 17 hours a day, seven days a week. Of course, that evens itself out over the course of the year.
Unless you’re planning only to target tourists and expats, get your French to a level where you can hold a conversation. Your French-speaking customers will forgive any linguistic errors but they don’t expect to have to speak English to order from you. If they perceive what you offer to be ‘too British’, it’s likely to limit how often they come.
Our first year has been incredible. We’ve opened not one but two successful businesses in the middle of a global pandemic. We keep having to pinch ourselves. Next year, as well as running more cheese and wine events for weddings and private groups, we’ll arrange gourmet breaks and out-of-season experiences.
Lisa and Stuart Bunce travelled halfway round the world to find their bar, the Relais d’Aulnay in Charente-Maritime
Eight years ago we bought the château across the road from the relais as a holiday home to meet up with family as we were living in Hong Kong. We always said that it would be great if they made the bar more of a welcoming place for families as they had such a lovely garden.
After a few years we finished renovations on the château and started renting it out as a holiday home (chateaudeminargent.com). Then the owners of the bar retired and put the relais up for sale. We were still in Hong Kong but thought that if we bought the bar, we would eventually move over to run it ourselves, once Stuart had finished working in Asia.
When my job in Hong Kong came to an end, I applied for residency in France and will be back and forth to Hong Kong when travel becomes easier. We are currently living in the apartment under the château and are also fixing up the old station house at the back of the relais which we will live in.
We wanted the bar to be somewhere relaxed to enjoy a drink or meal with friends, similar to a typical beer garden back in the UK. The town has a bistro and a bar in the square but nowhere with a garden for the kids to play. We bought the licence with the bar and then I had to do the course to sell alcohol and the HACCP food hygiene course. We also had inspections to check for disability access and fire safety. Our first barman, Fabien, helped a lot as he had owned a bar in the town and knew the rules and regulations.
Our clientele are a good mix of French and British, many holidaymakers. The locals have been positive. We’re very different to what the town already has and we support other local businesses. We’re probably more like an English pub in terms of decor and our simple pub grub menu, but we have both a French and an English cook and we offer plats du jour as well as Sunday roasts and the usual British pub regulars. Burgers are the most popular item on the menu, in particular the burger canard.
We opened just after the first confinement last June and, as we were fairly new to it all and wanted to take it slowly, we didn’t advertise. By summer we were very busy as people were so eager to have a holiday after lockdown. We were lucky Stuart still had his job in Asia and we weren’t relying on the relais for an income; he was able to cover outgoings while we were closed during the following lockdowns.
Alongside the business we have pods in the garden that we hope to rent out in the future and also bedrooms in the relais. We have quite a few bookings now for next summer in the château which will keep us busy too. If all continues to go well Stuart will apply for his residency and move here.
Running the bar is great for meeting people and learning French. Working for yourself is a plus but it is hard work and non-stop; there’s always something to do and never enough hours in the day.
I’d advise anyone considering running a bar in France to find someone local to help you cross all the hurdles and with all the necessary paperwork. Be prepared for hard work, learn the language and become part of the community.
THE RIGHT NOTE
After several years running The TapHouse, Beth Curtis is now selling her Riviera music bar
Although I’d never worked in a bar before, I had experience of working in restaurant kitchens, VIP hospitality and running my own music events. I fell in love with Villefranche-sur-Mer when I first visited; it had a rustic French charm mixed with the glamour of the Côte d’Azur.
I come from a design and marketing background so a cool brand with strong values was the basis of the business. The important part was welcoming everyone as part of the family. Because of my passion for music I always made sure the playlists or live groups were the best I could find. People go to a bar to enjoy themselves and that was what we strived to deliver.
Marc and I bought an empty shell so had to create everything from scratch. It had been a successful bar but needed renovation. We got the keys in May and because Villefranche is seasonal we needed to open in June. I gave it a quick facelift, then at the end of the first season, did a full renovation with a music theme including original vinyls set into the bar top.
To serve alcohol I needed to do some courses to obtain a ‘permit d’exploitation’. Luckily Marc had been through the process before and helped set up the business side and obtain the necessary paperwork. We have a Licence lll which means we can only sell alcohol up to 18% – one of our best sellers was our low alcohol cocktails.
Originally I did everything myself and was working from 10am through until 4am. After the first season it was clear I needed help. I employed different barmen over the years, a chef, and finally a fantastic bar manager.
Our clientele ranges from little fans aged three up to customers of 94-plus; a mixture of locals, people who work for or own other bars and restaurants, expats, tourists and second-home owners. One thing we all have in common is the love of music.
Originally the city of Villefranche was extremely supportive but unfortunately I have been refused permission for a terrace which sadly means I am selling the bar. I’m currently looking for the right venue to move the brand to.