August is a popular month for tourists to visit Paris, but coffee-loving travelers will find their cups running rather dry while the majority of specialty coffee shops close up for weeks on end. Signs posted on doors (or with increasing frequency, on Instagram) note varying days of closure throughout the sweaty end of summer. In fact, other than the major tourist destinations, many of Paris’ cafes and boutiques will go dark for much of the month.
These August closures and the subsequent rentrée in September are an old and valued tradition in Paris. This time off is so engrained in Parisian culture that residents are expected to leave, and many residents expect that shops will close too. Unlike the US, where customers generally have an expectation of reliable year-round availability, the opposite is true in Paris. David Nigel Flynn, one of the owners of Belleville Brûlerie and its remarkable Parisian sidewalk cafe, La Fontaine de Belleville, explains: “There’s an expectation like, ‘You should close. You need a vacation too.’”
“It’s actually really hard to operate a business in August,” Flynn mused. And it makes sense—here we are, moving into fall in the Northern Hemisphere, and if you haven't had a few days off yet, chances are you're punchy, tense, and feeling a bit stressed. Compare that to our Parisian cafe friends—they're in a groove now, fully rested and ready to face the changing season with joie de vivre and je ne sais quoi.
A variety of realities contributes to this Parisian tradition, as Flynn explained to me. He summed up the decision as containing three major factors, all of which feed into one another:
The first was that wholesalers close. “Three of our main suppliers closed, and I think that’s pretty typical,” Flynn said, ticking off their baker, their charcuterie supplier, and their produce vendor. There are possible work arounds so a shop can stay open, but as Flynn says, owners “can’t just roll along through August” without planning. After all, to have a cafe in Paris without charcuterie—what kind of life is this?
Meanwhile, Parisians are also leaving the city en masse. Eventually the scales tip and there stops being enough clientele coming in to support a business. Flynn called the drop in clientele at La Fontaine during August “precipitous.” Tourist-facing businesses don’t experience this drop as much and can continue through August, but cafe culture in Paris is largely built around neighborhoods, not tourists. People mainly go to their local cafe, so when residents go away on holiday there aren’t a lot of new people coming in to continue that income flow. Between the additional waste and the lack of clientele, it costs many shops more to stay open than to close.
Finally, vacations are a right in France; businesses are required to give all employees five weeks of paid time off. Time off is not something French employees dream about taking ”someday”, but is regularly taken. The question is not if employees will take time off, but how and when. (And where to visit next.)
The nature of running a cafe can make giving extended time off hard on the business. If someone is gone, his or her work can’t just go undone; someone has to be behind the counter. Flynn points out that it’s actually a savvy business decision to close: Instead of having to cover shifts while someone’s vacationing, “it’s advantageous to give everyone some of [those required five weeks] in a big chunk” and cut down on the stress of replacements.
The cycle of residents leaving Paris and cafes closing is a positive feedback loop; the less people there are to serve, the more likely shops are to close. But some shops benefit from all these closures. Fondation Cafe in the third arrondissement didn’t close in August. Owner Chris Nielson kept Fondation open because “there’s still a bunch of people in Paris and they need coffee.” Sounds logical to us.
Fondation faced the same decisions Belleville did, and went into August knowing it was not going to be a money-maker of a month. Nielson shrugged as he explained, “we were going to lose money either way,” but that staying open worked better for them. They scaled back hours to save some money and let everyone relax a bit. “It’s good for yourself to take a break,” Nielson insists. And the nearly empty relaxed atmosphere of Paris in August is exactly that.
Closing up for a couple weeks of truly worry-free vacation is an attractive prospect. But this Parisian habit is very much a product of its environment: The limitations of French employment and the culture surrounding vacation and the rentrée both force the hands of cafes and also make the time off possible. Without the required paid vacation for employees, it would be the height of irresponsibility for an owner to bail on their team for a month. On the other hand, US shops that face serious losses in their own hot and sweaty months of the year may want to consider whether it makes more financial sense to give everyone paid time off than try to keep running. It's not a particularly American thought, but you know what? Everyone needs a little vacation now and again.