‘Starting a business in France? Think it through’

Opening a brewery and traditional pub in the French countryside would be a dream life for many ex-pats. Englishman Steve Skews did just that, but it wasn’t all easy. Find out about the pros and cons of starting a small business in France.

'Starting a business in France? Think it through'
Steve Skews moved from England to Normandy 20 years ago, and has started a brewery and two traditional English pubs. Photo: Courtesy of Steve Skews.

Steve Skews, originally from Lincolnshire, moved to France 20 years ago with his wife Jane. They bought a farm in deepest Normandy, began producing cider and, it seemed, started the perfect life together. But their dream was blown away in the storm of 1999, which destroyed their apple trees. The two were sent back to the drawing board, and being an ale enthusiast, Steve decided it was time to set up a brewery.

After starting ‘Le Brewery,’ Steve has expanded and set up two English pubs – the Famous Knight and the Secret Knight.

Here he talks to The Local about the trials and tribulations of starting and running a small company in France when faced with the “burden of French bureaucracy and taxes”.

How did you end up in France?

Like many ex-pats who came here twenty years ago I was dissatisfied with the state of the economy and the state of education in the UK, where I had been a teacher for 20 years.

There was an option of moving to France where property was cheap.

Why Normandy?

It was a place where you find the traditional values that are important to me. There’s a real community, it produces local products and there’s a good balance with nature, which I felt was being lost in the UK.

Talk us through setting up Le Brewery.

When we set it up in 2000 we had an absolute nightmare in the first year or two. The system for business regulation is very complicated and it’s getting worse. 

It’s not like in England where you can register a business and you can be up and running half an hour later. In France you have to go through so many different departments and offices. Particularly for a business involving alcohol, where there controls for quality of product, registration of labels, and vehicles have to be specially licensed for distribution.

It’s not just me, the French I know are all struggling because of this burden of paperwork and taxation.  None of the decisions made by French governments over recent years have helped small businesses at all.

They have just hit us with another increase in tax on beer.  We are now paying more than 15 times the amount that wine makers pay. It’s just a joke.

In terms of electricity, if you add on all the extras, then it’s gone up 28 percent over the last 12 months.

When you’re running a small business with small margins, this puts us in a really difficult situation.

Any advice for those starting a new business in France?

It certainly needs a good deal of thought put into it. I don’t want to sound negative about starting a company, but anyone going ahead with it needs to make sure they get in contact with the right bureaucratic departments to make sure they know the obstacles that are ahead of them.

People need to go to their local Chambre de Commerce or Chambre de Métier and seek out what support there might be for the development of small businesses. 

They also need to make sure they have someone French on board if possible to help with the minefield that is the French bureaucracy.

You need real business skills now and you certainly have to have sound financial footing.

Did you have any trouble settling and integrating in France?

I came to France to share the culture of France and not to live in little England. Our pubs are very much English in style but the clients are French.

Both the pubs – the Famous Knight and the Secret Knight – have the ethos of English pubs, there’s fish and chips, real ale and so on, and they are appreciated by French and Anglo customers.

How do you get the French to frequent an English pub?

A lot of the French will tell you that one of the things they like about Britain is the pubs and the atmosphere they have.

So to a certain extent we were already on to a winner. I don’t like the image of some of these places in Spain and didn’t want it to become a spot that English people would take over and turn into a little community.

There was talk a while ago of you selling up the brewery. What are you plans?

Well at the moment I’m running it as a bit of a one-man show. But I’m 63, it’s physical work and I am getting tired.

I need someone to take over full time and I need investment to improve the bottling side of it. We want someone to take it up to the next gear.

We are already exporting beer to 15 states in the US. We’ve got a good product but we need new skills for it to become a real success.

Are you happy in France?

I’m very happy to pay into a system that values education and health, which was one of the reasons I fell out favour with the UK.

Although I’m starting to see the same thing happening France with hospitals and schools closing.

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How the wine-loving French are falling for the delights of beer

Beer for an aperitif is no longer taboo. France is a country far more typically known for its wines and liqueurs, but the French are turning their attention to beer, with sales of the frothy tipple booming.

How the wine-loving French are falling for the delights of beer
Photo: AFP

Forget the un verre de vin rouge, s’il vous plait, the new trend is to ask for une demi de biere instead.

Yes, the French have developed a strong thirst for the frothy stuff in recent years, bringing an end to the 36-year long decline in beer consumption. 

In fact, 2017 marked the fourth consecutive year of increases in beer sales across the country, with supermarkets, hotels, and restaurants reporting a 2.7 percent increase in the volume of beer sold. Larger retailers reported an increase of 8.1 percent. 

“The popularity growth of beer in France might seem astonishing to people from other countries that already have a strong beer culture, but you have to realise that beer has had a bad image in France for a long time,” Jacqueline Lariven, spokesperson at Brasseurs de France brewers' union, told The Local. 

She said that a large part of the change was thanks to the new breweries popping up left right and centre across the country.

“We’re expecting 300 to open in 2018, everything from the tiny breweries in markets to those that are backed by big investors,” she said, adding that over the past five years the numbers of breweries in France has doubled to 1,200 in total. 

And the typical customer is changing too, experts say. 

“There’s been a feminisation of consumption. We can’t say that women don’t drink beer anymore, it’s simply not the case,” Laviren added.

She put the change down to new packaging of beers that appear more feminine, plus a more diverse range of tastes. 

“This innovation has prompted a change in consumption, it’s more common now to drink beer as an aperitif, for example,” she added.

The new tastes of beer on the market are a huge factor in growth, in fact, not to mention the changes in alcohol content. 

Joao Abecasis, the president of the Kronenbourg-Carlsberg group, said the French were keen to deviate from the traditional light beers. 

“The growth is thanks to specialty beer, those that are a little more sophisticated,” he told Le Figaro newspaper

He pointed to non-alcoholic beers, aromatised beers, and artisanal beers, which have seen a growth of around 11 percent nationwide and currently represent around 27 percent of the beer bought in France. 

And the non-alcoholic beer sales could boom, if neighbouring countries are anything to go by.

“Alcohol-free beer makes up 2 percent of the market in France, and 4 percent of the Kronenbourg market,” Abecasis said, adding that it was closer to 10 percent in Germany and Spain. 

“We could double this in the coming years. For so long, alcohol-free beer had a negative image,” he said.

While beer consumption is certainly on the rise, France is still trailing the vast majority of Europe when it comes to beer drinking – in fact, only the Italians drink less beer. 

The typical French person takes in 32 litres of beer each year – two litres more than they did four years ago. 

And the biggest consumers of beer in France are those in Normandy, followed by those in the Grand Est and Brittany.

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If you're looking for the best pubs around your area in France to join in the beer-drinking trend, why not check out our interactive map here

READ ALSO: Interactive map: Where to find the best pubs around France


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