Forty years after the Big Mac arrived in France to universal derision – and initial failure – the French are gearing up for a new Burger War.
This time it is the French taste, not distaste, for burgers which is the cause of the conflict. Burger King, the “other” American hamburger chain, is returning to France in a big way after retreating in 1997 complaining of poor sales.
The firm, which opened a new outlet in Paris this week, is planning to operate up to 400 restaurants in France in the next few years. There are also repeated rumours that Burger King, the home of the “Whopper”, plans to take over the Belgian fast-food chain Quick which has 381 outlets in France (compared to 1,200 for McDonald’s).
In theory, the French disapprove of burgers as a standardised, unhealthy foreign foodstuff, opposed in every respect to the French taste for culinary creativity and individualism. In practice, the French are runner-up in the European burger-eating champions’ league.
They consume an average of 14 burgers each annually, compared to 17 in Britain. The United Kingdom is, however, in danger of losing its crown. Burger sales in France have increased by 40 per cent in the last two years.
Not all of these come from McDonalds or Quick. Most French brasseries now offer burgers on their menus. Even top-of-the-range restaurants sell them. The New York Times recently declared the hamburger made by the three Michein star chef, Yannick Alleno, at the Cheval Blanc in Courchevel in the Alps one of the best in the world.
Renaud Bellais, a restaurant analyst at RHB Consultants, says Burger King can succeed in its second reincarnation in France so long as it offers a slightly higher quality, and more individual taste, than McDonalds.
“The French are eating out more and more, taking less and less time and spending less and less money,” he said. “Fast food is booming and Burger King could easily take advantage of these new habit.”
Not so new, maybe. After a false start in the early 1970s, “McDo” and “Le Big Mac”, “Le Royal Bacon” and special French offerings like “Le Boeuf Moutarde” (beef mustard) have long been present in every mall and medium-sized town in France.