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Brussels restaurants face uncertain future amid skyrocketing costs

16:07 20/04/2024

Brussels restaurants are sounding the alarm over sharp increases in their operating costs, with many saying they are barely breaking even.

A number of eating establishments in the capital have already closed their doors, Bruzz reports, including Bonsoir Clara, a fixture on Rue Dansaert for almost 30 years. A sign hung in their window reads simply: "We surrender."

Dante in Uccle, Le Fontainas and Les Filles have all closed this year as well.

“If nothing is done, Brussels will soon only have junk food,” a collective of about 100 independent restaurant owners warn in a petition.

“We want to serve sustainable quality products at a fair price, but we can no longer do it. Because we first had to deal with Covid and then a sharp increase in the cost of staff, energy, rent and food, it is no longer sustainable for us.

"Many can no longer pay themselves. Businesses are closing every week. Our profession is in danger."

Matthieu Léonard, the new president of the Brussels Catering Federation, told Bruzz that restaurateurs were fed up.

“Many restaurants may be full again, but the owners barely earn anything,” Léonard said, citing wage costs as the biggest problem.

“Wages have increased enormously due to inflation and indexation – 18% in a year and a half. And on top of that come the heavy social security contributions, all while it’s difficult to find staff in the hospitality industry.”

Most restaurants do not dare or do not want to pass on the increased costs fully to the customer, said Léonard.

“Many are still charging €18 or €20 for an Américain frites, whereas such a dish, when you add it all up, should cost €28 to €30. As a result, after paying the staff and the products, many owners are left with virtually nothing.”

Thomas Cherdo, who together with two associates has kept neighbourhood bistro Le Dillens in Saint-Gilles open for 11 years, is partly behind the petition.

“With our fridges and cold rooms, we consume quite a lot of electricity,” Cherdo told Bruzz.

“Our annual energy bill went up from €8,000 to €22,000. The price of many food products, such as dairy, went up by 30%.

"And then there are staff costs. Due to high social security contributions, we went from 11 to three permanent staff and now work mainly with students.

"I manage an army of 40 student workers, not all equally qualified. Moreover, their hourly wages have increased from €12 to €14.50 in two years due to inflation.”

Passing on all the extra costs to the clientele is difficult, said Cherdo.

“We already have 20% fewer customers, partly because of the fierce competition and partly because of changed consumption habits. Before Covid, we really had an audience that came here for breakfast in the morning before work. With more remote working, we’ve lost those people.”

According to Cherdo, social charges and the 21% VAT on alcoholic drinks urgently need to come down. Otherwise, he sees no way out.

“We haven't paid VAT and social security contributions for a year,” Cherdo admitted. “We’re getting fines and there’s a repayment plan. We’re just waiting to be taken to court.”

It is not just bistros and brasseries in Brussels that are having a tough time, Bruzz found. Even Michelin-starred restaurants are struggling.

Chef Christophe Hardiquest, who co-supports the petition, traded in his two-star restaurant Bon Bon in Woluwe-Saint-Pierre last year for a smaller establishment, Menssa, which also has a star.

“My business has plenty of customers, I work 16 hours a day, but it hardly makes anything,” said Hardiquest. “That gnaws at morale.”

Hardiquest ended last year with a loss and has so far only made “a small profit” in March this year, he said.

“You need a little margin to invest and as a reserve in case of setbacks. But due to the increase in costs and all the charges, this is hardly succeeding any more. It’s no longer profitable. I ask for respect. Let us live.”

Hardiquest also denounced unfair competition in the sector, saying that he runs his restaurant by the books, not paying employees under the table and paying all his taxes in full.

“Unfortunately, not everyone works like this,” said Hardiquest. “But where’s the pay off? I don't see it.”

Restaurateurs hope their petition, which has collected more than 3,000 signatures, will be a wake-up call to the government.

“Cheap chains and restaurant groups will still make it thanks to economies of scale,” said Léonard.

“It’s the smaller, independent, artisanal and local restaurants that will go under due to costs and burdens.”

Written by Helen Lyons