The Bas Armagnac wine region of SW France.
Ever thought of getting away from the rat race, getting off the treadmill and just laying low for a while???? Living a somewhat calm and peaceful existence where the rest of the world just seems light years away. Well, welcome to the GERS and to be more specific, welcome to the Bas Armagnac region of the GERS department.
I moved here almost 5 years ago……. And the time has just flown. My first couple of years revolved around our main house of residence and the restoration of our wine chai into a comfortable 2 bedroom cottage and the former stone stables block into 3 terraced cottages. Thus began our vacation rental business
After feeling somewhat settled in this beau colic and easy living area, I moved onto venturing into French life……. offering my services to our local French radio station. Would they like me to translate the local news and cultural events from French to English? And that is how I ended up being the weekly broadcaster for radio d’Artagnan each Thursday afternoon.
From there I decided to venture further afield. With the onset of my sister’s decision to move here from the UK I needed to incorporate her quickly into French living and keep her busy and it was time to further extend my business skills. And what better way to help my sister assimilate into the local community than to open a small restaurant and internet café. Now this decision was not taken lightly. There was a method and perhaps some madness behind my thinking here. Firstly, there was no internet café within 15 miles. Secondly with a local high school with more than 1500 students, a mechanical engineering school and a busy European auto racing circuit, plus our own small airport with pilotage for glider, single engine, helicopter and ultra-lites, what else could attract the young community better than a BURGER BAR! AND, the nearest big Mac was 25 miles away.
But this was not to be any ordinary Burger bar. It was to be a gourmet burger bar and what could be better, than to make gourmet burgers from our local and plentiful supply of duck meat! Yes, I was going to make gourmet Gascon burgers from ground duck meat……. together with a Texas burger and other assorted grilled sandwiches. Keep it simple and offer these burgers and sandwiches with, of course, French fries!
Firstly, I had to test out my recipes on my sometimes unwilling family and guests. Yuk, was the initial comment. Duck burgers? Well, why not. We have chicken burgers, turkey burgers, veggie burgers, so why not duck burgers. AND they would be ZERO cholesterol.
Locating the ground duck meat though was no easy feat. Now buying magret de canard, (duck breast), duck legs, duck carcasses and aiguillette (duck tenderloins) was easy, but trying to convince the suppliers I wanted ground duck……. well, that was an entirely different matter. I was told, YOU don’t make hamburgers out of duck meat. Impossible! (In French no less!) Well, what about duck sausage? I had tasted that. Oh, no, I was told that is only made at certain times of the year, when all of the foie gras and subsequent duck processing took place.
OK. Try a few more duck purveyors. All answers were the same. Can’t supply you with ground duck meat, but can sell you any of the other cuts. Well, the magret was too expensive, the duck legs too stringy and sinewy and the carcasses, although very cheap, had very little meat on them to strip off, making for an impossible work task. I did not give up though. But, I was close to it. Then, while on my dozenth plus call to a duck purveyor, I managed to convince him to meet me. Perhaps in person I would have a better reception. Add to this, my French was and still is fairly limited and I was no way conversant. However, I was determined to move forward.
I arranged to meet the duck supplier in a local bar/restaurant. I arrived and found myself face to face with two French chappies. After introducing myself, I offered to buy them a coffee or Armagnac, by way of keeping their attention, at least. We sat down and I ran through my idea of wishing to buy ground duck meat. Impossible. Why? The cost of grinding the meat will cost you more than buying the meat. OK, I will grind my own meat. Well, I guess you could do that. So, that is how we started off. Then it was down to cost versus time, versus quality. And lo and behold, it was the supplier who suggested I buy the aiguillette (duck tenderloins) since they would be much easier to grind and would be one of the best parts of the duck!
Then it was a matter of cost! Whole sale duck breasts would run me around 9.50 euros per kilo. The regular price at the retail level usually ran anywhere from 9.00 – 14.00 per kilo depending on special offers and quality etc. I knew that the retail price for aiguillette ran around 16.00 euros per kilo, thus putting it well over my budget and proposed business plan. However, to my amazement, my duck purveyor had a very good offer for me. If I bough the aiguillette in quantities of 10+ kilos he would make me an offer I could not refuse. This was partly due to the fact that aiguillette was normally packaged and sold retail in no more that ½ kilo packages at a time and I would be buying my aiguillette in 2 kilo vacuum packed packages, thus eliminating a lot of extra labor and retail packing. So, we made a deal. And it did fit in with my original costing and business plan. And off I left with 2 kilos of aiguillette to perfect my gourmet Gascon burger.
Along with perfecting my duck burger recipe came the locating of suitable premises and the setting up of a limited French company (S.A.R.L.). The accountant took care of the paperwork for the company. Not cheap, mind you, but since it can be difficult for a French person to even set up a company, it would have been near impossible for me. I set about locating premises in the middle of town. I knew exactly what I wanted in terms of space and location and dropped lucky too. The realtor I was working with had just taken on his books an old building in need of refurbishment and he was buying it. The long story of this is, I took the lease on the building, thus helping him get a mortgage for the building.
I got a very cheap, fixed rent for 20 years with an option to buy the building, BUT I had to pay for all renovation work. He would only rent as is as he had bought it purely to rent as is. Well, it was decided, and we set about to make it a go.
It was now back to perfecting the duck burger and the Texas burger. Trial and error, but it was perfected. And to give the duck meat the right amount of fat (using duck and goose fat of which there is ZERO cholesterol) which also added taste, along with my secret ingredients, the Gourmet Gascon Burger was created. To add taste to the beef burger, which was made from 99% beef, I also added duck and goose fat and my secret ingredients.
Along with the gourmet Gascon Burger, Texas Burger, grilled poultry sandwiches and fries etc, the ‘Gascon Grill and Internet Café’ was born.
The building was a perfect layout. Since it had been a former house, it had a garage on one side which I converted into the internet café, installing natural light by adding 3 French doors across the front. In the middle of the building was a front entry which lead into a large hallway with an old bathroom which was totally revamped to create a new guest toilet and a full private bathroom. To the other side of the hallway was the central kitchen which then lead onto what was the living room, with a wood burning fireplace. The kitchen was stripped and new commercial type appliances were installed. From the former lounge an indoor dining room was created. The kitchen then had 3 serving areas, one directly onto the front foyer/hallway, one through a large window onto the front patio of the building and the third through a former doorway into the new indoor dining room. A great layout. PLUS, the big added bonus, the building came with a 3 bedroom apartment above!
All of this work took about 4 months to complete, installing new floor tiles, wall tiles, copper piping, plastic piping, new doors, electrics, kitchen appliances and painting and finally leveling and pebbling the front drive way to accommodate al fresco dining on the patio area! And thank goodness, since all of this work was indoors, no permits were required. The only permit I had to obtain was for permission to paint the exterior of the building. And the mayor came through with this very quickly, since the renovated building was a very good addition to the town.
All of this came to a close by mid- Summer. And, just before we were about to open, a personal situation caused my working partner, to return to the UK! I won’t say that panic struck, but I was not far from it. With my other business commitments could I really run this alone. No prior experience with a restaurant, although I was very used to cooking and entertaining. But how would I cope with buying and making of the food, cooking the food, serving, cleaning up and running the internet café too.
Well, I did. And lost a quick 5lbs in the process. However, I labored on and eventually found out how to cut corners and how to manage when I was very busy. However, I must say that I found that I had to greatly cut my working hours since I was going it alone and of course still had other personal business commitments. Instead of opening from 10.00am until 8.00pm or 9.00pm, Tuesday through Sunday, I found myself having to cut back to 10.00 am until 6.00pm and give up on the evening service, hence opening for lunch and running the internet café.
Ideally, the business would benefit tremendously from having a couple live above the premises and run the business between them. Most of the day, it only takes one person.
It is the busy lunch and evening hours where you really need to have two persons, handling food and money. Then there are the big weekend fetes which begin in March and go through October……. And these are busy weekends to take in more business.
However, sadly, I cannot be in two places at once, so I have decided to give up my little gourmet grill and internet café and offer it for sale. So, if you have a dream to get away and run your own little paradise………………..?