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Burgers and Sushi in the Home of Camembert

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Cliché or not, France has a reputation for resisting the globalisation of food habits, particularly the Americanisation of these, to perpetuate the myth of a ‘French paradox’ (below average cases of being overweight and having heart disease in spite of its rich gastronomy), and the French remain loyal to traditional ways of eating. Most meals are eaten with other people in France, and the French usually sit down for meals at regular times. In addition, like in many other Western countries, the French are starting to cook from scratch again in order to have more control over their food intake, health and budgets. On the menu at home, traditional French dishes remain the mainstay.

Nonetheless, when taking a closer look at food habits, the French are actually much more Americanised and prone to eating Asian cuisine than one might first think. Indeed, the most dynamic food products are often related to North America and/or Japan, as exemplified by the success of cookies (up 5% in current value terms in 2015), muffins, donuts, burgers, US table sauces, buns, slices of packaged hard cheese, Asian sauces, packaged sushi (which continued to rank within the most dynamic chilled ready meals in 2015) and kits for sushi.

The invasion of these food types started in the foodservice channel at the beginning of the 2010s, with the sudden development of specialist coffee shops, such as McCafé and Starbucks. Then came ‘US diner’ concepts, such as Memphis Coffee, and lastly came food trucks, such as Le Camion qui Fume, the most successful food truck in Paris. Following on from a scandal about food safety in Chinese restaurants in the early 2010s, many Asian outlets also repositioned themselves as Japanese restaurants, thus appealing to French consumers due to their novel positioning.

The French quickly became even more enthusiastic about eating hamburgers than they already were, in both consumer foodservice outlets and at home; according to a report published in L’Express magazine, French consumers ate one billion burgers in 2014, representing a 10% increase on the previous year, and were said to be the second biggest sushi eaters in the world in 2015, just behind the Japanese.

The French have decided to replicate at home what they have tasted in restaurants in France and even on their travels abroad. In response to this demand, US and Japanese food has quickly spread to supermarkets/hypermarkets: ice cream, with the impressive growth of Ben & Jerry’s and Häagen-Dazs; Philadelphia in processed cheese (broadly used to make cheesecake); packaged bread, as illustrated by the breakthrough of US-style breads, such as buns, bagels, thick toast bread; and dessert mixes to make cupcakes. On ethnic “Epicerie du Monde” shelves, Kikkoman sauces (soy sauces grew by 6% in current value terms in 2015), sheets of dried seaweed (nori) and Nissin soba noodles (instant noodle pouches increased by 17% in current value terms in 2015) are growing, often at the expense of English, Mediterranean and Chinese products. Almost all big hypermarkets in France now even have in-store stands, where sushi makers prepare food in front of customers.

What made French consumers willing to change the cuisines they traditionally preferred? In a few words: cultural blending and compromise. Firstly, there is the “Francization” of American and Japanese food: for instance, gourmet hamburgers adapted to the French palate, with French cheese; and even the combination of sushi with foie gras. France is proving to be fertile ground for receiving Japanese cuisine, as the French are increasingly fond of Japanese culture, martial arts and manga.

Despite that fact that North American and Japanese cuisines are well established, the main threat could be that the novelty begins to wear off as the French become accustomed to these products; Tex Mex and Chinese cuisines have both already bore the brunt of this, in 2014 and 2015. However, for ethnic food importers, North American and Japanese cuisines do not consist solely of hamburgers and sushi and have plenty of room for growth. New products of a similar ilk are expected to develop on French shelves, such as relish sauces, pickles, pastrami, French’s Classic Yellow mustard (a US mustard brand that passes itself off as French in North America and is now emerging in packaged food in France), more premium sushi and more varied Japanese dishes.

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