Rouwens Van Coppenaal, inventor of the chain restaurant

When chain restaurants appeared in Paris in the Sixties, they were following an American model whose original would arrive in earnest with McDonald’s in the Seventies. But neither Americans nor the French themselves recalled that the underlying idea had first been invented in… France.

At that point, one could still dine at Chartier’s, which had been one of a series of bouillons run by the Chartier brothers. But it was then known by that name alone; only more recently has it again been called the Bouillon Chartier, even as another old bouillon has been restored and is now known as the Bouillon Racine. Both are lovely spaces, with a turn of the century elegance which belies their original role as cheap quick places to eat. Just as Ray Kroc would later promote “Quality, Service, Cleanliness and Value” at McDonald’s, the first bouillons offered cheap, good meals in a clean, neat space, with efficient service, offered by locations all around Paris.

However, it was not the Chartier brothers who originated this system. They in turn were copying the Bouillons Duval, founded in 1855 by Pierre-Louis Duval. In 1870, a writer in the New York Times recalled:

Not more than fifteen years ago I remember him a small butcher near the Halles in the Rue Jean Jaques [sic] Rousseau. The idea occurred to him that the odds and ends of meat and bones in every butcher’s shop might be profitably employed in making broth to be sold to the working classes at a cheap rate. He began by fitting up his small back shop as an eating-house, in which he gave nothing but soup, the rags of meat of which the soup was made, bread, and small flasks of the commonest wine. His ideas expanded, and he afterward took a ballroom which was to let in the Rue Montesqieu, near the Palais Royal, where he established the first grand “Bouillon Duval”… DUVAL went on constantly enlarging his business, and sticking to the original system of good food at small cost. He did not, however, confine himself to the original soup and bouilli; roast meats, fresh game and vegetables, were all to be had in proper season, of better quality than in many a first-class restaurant, and at charges less than in many of the very worst. Some of his dining-rooms…. are magnificent saloons, the panels of which are decorated with really charming works of art. The female waiters… all wear a neat, nun-like uniform, reminding me of that of the cooks in the kitchen of the House of Commons.
The Bouillon Duval – Death of a Benefactor of the Paris Working Classes,” NY Times, July 15, 1870
This is the most common version of the origin of the bouillons and much of it may even be true. But it omits one key fact: Duval’s were not the first bouillons in Paris.

As of 1838, Rouwens Van Coppenaal, with his associates had already founded what became known as the Bouillons hollandais, consisting of
uniform establishments which will soon be as numerous as the streets, where one finds at every hour, and at a moderate price, bouillon which can be taken on site or at home. The entrepreneurs, known by the name of the Dutch Company, also sell, at an equally moderate price, the meat used to make the bouillon and which is provided without the bone.
From the start these were known for providing the same product at “uniform” places – that is, a chain – for a moderate price. Like Duval’s, they began with bouillon; unlike their successor, they never moved beyond that product, which might be why, ultimately, this first effort failed. Yet, like those of Duval and Chartier, these bouillons were apparently handsome, later being described as “sumptuous”. (The term “bouillon hollandais” could also refer to a specific type of “Dutch” bouillon and may even sometimes have been slang for beer.)

Van Coppenal’s establishments are not widely noted, but were important enough to be a reference in their time (which, depending on the source, may have lasted from 1838 to 1856, or only 1840 to 1845). In 1842, this article appeared in the Catholic Encyclopedia:
BOUILLONS HOLLANDAIS (indust.) Eleven years ago an establishment was formed, under the title of the Compagnie hollandaise, which has greatly expanded and whose purpose is the production and the sale of bouillon and boiled beef. The first trials were made on a small scale, and despite some hesitations, the public became accustomed to finding very good bouillon ready made at all hours, and came back. The establishment has profited from all the observations and procedures of science to obtain good results. The meat used is of the finest quality, and, as it is sold by the pound in the outlets, one can easily be convinced that the bouillon is well made with the meat. Twelve stew pots, each holding twenty-five pounds, with the necessary accessories, are set in the bath of a double boiler, composed of a saline solution which communicates a sufficient and continuous heat to them. The stove is ceaselessly lit, and the products follow each other with the desirable regularity and perfection. An infinity of these outlets exists in Paris where one can, at any moment, for 25 centimes, have a bouillon. One finds there at the same time bread, wine and boiled beef. One can also take home what is sold there and have it taken there for a subscription fee. The price of the bouillon is 45 centimes the pound, and that of the cooked meat 60 centimes a pound. The workers and the small households appreciate the benefits of this establishment, which provides an incalculable economy of time and fuel, and more than one great house has not disdained to have recourse to them.
An 1856 dictionary still included this entry, which however appears to be an outdated and contracted version of the above:
Bouillons hollandais. For sixteen years, an establishment has formed, under the title of Compagnnie hollandaise, which has greatly expanded, and whose purpose is the production and the sale of bouillon and boiled beef. Today a great number of outlets exist where one can at every moment, for 25 centimes, take a bouillon. The price of of the bouillon is 45 cent. per liter, and that of the meat 60 cent. the kilogram.
It seems most likely that these first bouillons existed from 1838 to 1845, and that they mainly sold bouillon and boiled beef in what was already a chain; at some point, too they were known for their décor.

Chavette, in 1860, combined accounts when he wrote that Duval’s bouillons were “only the resurrection of the idea – much more elaborate – of the famous bouillons hollandais – which opened without success from 1840 to 1845,” but then went on to repeat the standard tale: “Duval, established as a butcher in a rich neighborhood, wanted to use his lesser meat, and took, on the rue Montesquieu, a space where he sold beef and bouillon. Soon he extended and completed the menu.” So it remains a toss-up as to whether Duval copied the earlier idea whole cloth or if, wanting to sell his less popular cuts of meat, he then had the idea of following the earlier example.

Certainly, however much he was inspired by the earlier establishments, Duval had much more success with the idea, not least because he expanded it to include full meals. In this, he resembles Ray Kroc, who took the original McDonald’s hamburger stand and expanded it into a huge franchising operation or Thomas Watson, who turned the Computing-Tabulating-Recording Company into IBM. It is fair then to credit him with the first success of the idea later copied by the Chartier brothers (and preserved today at the Bouillon Chartier and the Bouillon Racine).

Still, it was Van Coppenaal (and perhaps his associates) who originated the idea of a chain restaurant, along with the idea that it should offer cheap, good quality food in an attractive environment. And so, barring any further discoveries, Rouwens Van Coppenaal can be named as the originator of a concept which has proved so successful – perhaps essential – in modern times.


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