Leveraged Sell Out — Private Equity & Restaurants’ Decline

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Long before there was even a debate as to which Parisian eatery, Boulanger or Rose de Chantiiseau came first, or La Confrerie de la Chaine des Rotisseurs was there to guide those seeking gastronomical delights, ancient civilizations were dishing it up to satisfy sustenance-seeking souls. The Greco-Roman era featured thermopolia, cook shops that served hot and cold foods and calida, mulled spiced wine from earthenware jars. These establishments could serve simple limited fare such as lentils, meats and cheeses. Or they could be refined, elegant settings with al frescoed walls ensconcing the patrons. Though the history is sketchy, some of these establishments also became magnets for less savory pursuits.

That brings us Far East and forward a millennium or so to Kaifeng and Hangzhou, Chinese urban centers circa 1100 A.D. densely packed with more than one million inhabitants each. Trade between these northern and southern capitals was bustling, naturally generating hordes of hungry tradesmen. To the diners, the menu was positively ethnic, so little did it resemble that of their respective native cuisines to the north or south. Luckily, for the weary traveler, there were other more exotic far-from-home comforts to be found in the sensual smorgasbords of the bustling entertainment districts these trading Meccas offered.

But a true établissement gastronomique? That does indeed take us back to the hotly debated Mssrs. Boulanger and de Chantoiseau. As legend has it, the French Revolution produced a surplus of gourmet chefs with fewer job opportunities given their former in-home patrons had been hauled off to the guillotine. Being upstanding experts of their crafts, all meals then and now began with a simple base of bouillon, or in the case of one Monsieur Boulanger, pieds de mouton à la sauce poulette, or sheep’s feet in a white sauce. As recounted in the bible of French gastronomy, Larousse Gastronomique, in 1765, the first known signage proclaimed “Boulanger débite des restaurants divins,” (“Boulanger sells restoratives fit for the gods.”) Etymological and Biblical perfectionists alike appreciate that “restaurant” is derived from the French verb restaurer, the literal meaning of which is “to restore life,” as in “the bread of life” for which we rightly give thanks.
As opposed to the “restaurant” used today derived from the French verb restaurer, meaning “to restore or refresh,” Boulanger’s restaurant served rich broths considered capable of restoring one’s health.

If only we could be sure of the veracity of said perfection. Alas, it’s never as simple as “Voilà!” when research fails to corroborate legend. Such was the dilemma facing Rebecca Spang, an expert on 18th and 19th century European history at Indiana University Bloomington. In researching her book, The Invention of the Restaurant, Paris and Modern Gastronomic Culture, Spang could find no sources to back Boulanger’s existence to say nothing of a restaurant carrying his name. Rather she found the 18th century’s answer to the National Enquirer. In it was a reference to Mathurin Roze de Chantoiseau, who humbly advertised himself as being the “creator” of restaurants. His aspirations apparently extended beyond being a restauranteur, all the way to that of central banker and his proposed new form of currency to reduce France’s national debt. Of Boulanger, Spang said of her research, “Nothing personal. This doesn’t mean he didn’t exist.”

In the modern era, all you need is Yelp and your existence as a restaurant is immediately indisputable, a matter of public record. These days though, Googling a restaurant’s name can often lead you to the word: “Closed.” As widely reported, a Yelp survey a week ago found that 16,000 eateries that closed during the pandemic, or 60% queried, have closed permanently.

 

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