The Coronavirus Economy: How my job managing one of the top cooking schools in Paris has changed

March 21, 2020, 5:00 PM UTC

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As the second-most-visited city in the world, Paris has an enduring power to draw in visitors even after facing the most traumatic events in recent history. Its abiding appeal has largely benefited businesses in the tourism industry, such as La Cuisine Paris, a 10-year-old cooking school located in the center of the city with views overlooking the Seine. The school’s co-owner Jane Bertch has rebounded from dips in business following the 2015 terrorist attacks, the gilets jaunes demonstrations, and the pension reform strikes of 2019. Can she overcome a global pandemic?

Fortune spoke with Bertch for a new series, The Coronavirus Economy, to ask about how the outbreak of COVID-19 has affected her employment status and her plans for the future, and to get a sense of how she has been handling this news, both emotionally and financially.

Jane Bertch has been the co-owner of cooking school La Cuisine Paris for 10 years.
Courtesy of Jane Bertch

Fortune: How much was your business impacted by the pension reform strikes (December 2019 through January 2020)?

Bertch: We are a good forecast of the future. By the time the strikes happened, most people had already reserved classes with us because they book four to six months in advance for their vacations. What I did observe during the strikes was a significant slowdown of all future reservations—reservations made in December and January for spring travel—since there was so much uncertainty about what was happening in France. Once the strikes were over, reservations climbed again for March and onwards.

What changed as concern mounted over the spread of the virus in France?

Initially, I was handling hundreds of emails from concerned clients. As with the strikes, most simply wanted to gauge the gravity of the situation. By the week of March 9, we still had classes running but gradually started getting last-minute cancellations from clients who literally decided to pack their bags and get on the next flight out of Paris. We were operating about two classes for an entire week versus the six on average per day (six days a week). There were a few clients who actually wanted to get into a class before the shutters came down, but by and large we were fielding cancellations and concerns left and right. Overall, 70% of our business disappeared within a span of five days.

How have you adapted your policies to be able to appease clients but also protect the business?

In general, we have a full-refund policy for cancellations made seven days or more in advance with a 10% processing fee; no refund for last-minute cancellations. In this case, we are offering a one-year credit to return. It’s still an enormous expense for us to do that, but it feels like the right thing to do. We can’t become a travel insurer for every country, but we’re doing the best that we can.

How hopeful do you feel about business rebounding?

This has certainly been challenging to my constitution, but once I got over the initial shock, I could think about the fact that nothing lasts forever. This is just a significant dip that we have to go through, and I’m determined to manage the situation. La Cuisine Paris has survived the ash cloud, terrorist attacks, floods, and strikes, but this is unprecedented. I feel like I’ve become a crisis manager over the past 10 years. The dilemma now is not knowing when this ends—that uncertainty is worrisome. But we’re taking all the necessary steps to protect our clients and our staff without whom we wouldn’t have a business at all.

What are those measures?

They are both short- and long-term steps. The best way for me to protect my staff is to ensure that I have a business for them to return to when this crisis is over. In the short-term, communication is a big part of protecting people’s morale. That also means being vulnerable and telling them I don’t have all the answers, but rest assured I’m going to manage this the best way we can. I think that gives them some element of emotional protection.

But it’s complex: The ripple effect of a crisis like this is the scary part. My greatest asset is our chef team, but many of them are freelancers: If they’re hurting, I’ve lost my business. It impacts the suppliers I’ve worked with for years. I’m in the middle of a chain; if we’re not holding classes, it means we’re not going to the nearby market to buy cheese and produce from vendors. We’re all connected. My loss is their loss.

Bertch’s cooking school, La Cuisine Paris, is located in the center of the city with views overlooking the Seine.
Courtesy of Jane Bertch

Have you found President Emmanuel Macron’s announcements reassuring?

I did. I do believe in the state’s support, which we, personally, have never had to call on, but it’s very reassuring to know it’s there. But they are only short-term measures. Small businesses are such a backbone of the French economy; France can’t afford to let them completely fail. They are crucial to every community—letting them fail would be enormous in terms of employment and tax loss; they have to put them on a respirator as much as they can.

Have there been any positive moments through this ordeal?

Several. We get a lot of repeat business, and I’m very grateful for the community that has emerged over the years. The majority of clients who had to cancel did so in the most delicate and respectful ways; many people said, “Hold a credit for me—I’m coming back! I want you guys to be okay!” As a small business, those messages have been so wonderful, because it gives you assurance that people are waiting to return to you, and it gives you conviction that we are going to be here for them to return to. It boosts you at a time when things look grave.

I received an email from an older client, due to come in April, who has been taking classes at the school a couple of times a year. Her message suggested that she doesn’t want a refund and doesn’t know if she can ever return, but she loved her time with us, and she wished us well. I was bowled over by that. I think what’s special during a time like this is you get glimmers of people looking outside of themselves, conscious of what this crisis might do to others and how they may be able to lend a hand.

How has this impacted your daily life?

I live within walking distance to the school so it hasn’t changed my ability to get to work. But I will say that I feel like I’m a surgeon working on getting a body back to health. That keeps me up at night, and it’s incredibly stressful. But I’m surprised by my own resilience. I’ve had the time to be devastated by what’s happening, and now I can focus on getting through it.

More coronavirus coverage from Fortune:

How to get a refund on your Broadway tickets after the coronavirus shutdown
—The oil sector takes its next hit: The coronavirus on offshore rigs
—Some of the most extreme ways companies are combating the coronavirus
—How luxury designers in Italy’s fashion heartland are facing the coronavirus
—Amazon tells employees to work from home if they can. Warehouse workers can’t
—Why Dollar General thinks the coronavirus can help business
—The coronavirus may not be all bad for tech. Consider the “stay at home” stocks

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