This article originally appeared on MUNCHIES France.
On the second Saturday in June, the beaches of the Hérault seaside resort in the south of France are already quite packed—and so the ballet of the snack carts begins. At least thirty have already sprung up along the three or so kilometers of sand between La Grande-Motte and Palavas-les-flots, a beachside stretch often frequented by locals.
"Last year, you could feel the tension here. Between the [financial] crisis and the [Nice] attacks, sales were nil. But this year we're off to a great start. In May, I was already seeing numbers on par with what I made last year at high season."
Frank is pumped for summer. The goateed 40-something rocking mirrored aviator sunglasses stores all his summer wares in a cart bearing the logo of "Ho Ho la bonne glace" (Ho Ho Fine Ice Cream), one of the biggest employers of ambulatory vendors in Carnon, a vacation destination in the south of France.
Loïc pulls his own cart beneath the blazing sun, his head shaded by a large straw hat. The reserved young man (he's not yet 20 years old) is employed by Magoo, another snack company well represented in Carnon. For three years, he's been peddling his wares along the edge of the Petit Travers beach. "I started when I was a junior in high school, to make myself a little summer pocket money," he recalls as an inflatable snake gyrates in the breeze beneath his cart umbrella. "But now I'm totally hooked on the business side, and the interaction with customers."
Nicolas, also just 20 years old, is on his second day as a vendor for "Loulou"— the beignet of choice in the area. When it comes to these spongy pastries filled with Nutella or apple, Loulou's delicacies take second to none in Carnon. Today, they are displayed in a particularly eye-catching way—between two French flags, perched on a plate that Nicolas wears atop his head.
From the Petit Travers to Carnon West, from Carnon East to the port beach, everything about the crowds can vary wildly. The vendors' job is to adapt to these differences and find "their" clienteles. Says Loïc, "In my zone there's a paid parking lot, nice homes, and comfortable families—it's a good area." Meanwhile in Carnon West, Taha is selling cans of soda to two youths who are using them to dilute their strong alcohol; it's 10:00 in the morning. "See you later, guys!" he calls as they head off, explaining: "Here the clients are very working-class; that works less well for some vendors. But I'm a more casual kind of guy, so it's a good fit for me."
Over at the Petit Travers, Frank too has identified his audience. "At my age, I do more of the families—whereas my colleague Julien, a younger bodybuilder type, fares better with the gay guys at the 73, [a portion of the beach traditionally popular amongst the LGBT community]— especially when he goes around shirtless," Frank adds with a smile. He then launches into his sales call, a siren song that carries far and wide, causing potential customers to lift their noses out of their beach reads.
The contents of the snack carts tend not to vary much from one competitor to the next. Generally the staples are beignets, frozen treats, drinks, tea and coffee. But the quality of the articles can vary. For example, while the Loulou beignets are handmade by Nicolas' bosses, the ones Loïc sells are a bit less intricate: "They come ready-made, and we fill them with apricot jam and banana filling that my boss prepares."
Recalls Nicolas fondly, "In the early days I ate lots of them—but I overdosed."
Sales patterns can vary greatly as well. While the Loulou brand reigns supreme in the beignet game—moving almost sixty per day per vendor—for the rest, beignet sales have been dropping for years. As for Taha, while he might move more soda cans than his colleagues, he says that the best-selling item is still ice cream treats—particularly Magnums. Loïc agrees, adding an important detail: "It depends on the weather. There's weather that makes customers hungry and weather that makes them thirsty. If it's super hot and dry I sell more popsicles and water bottles; if it's hot and humid it's more beignets and Magnums." This summer, Loïc is also offering a new item: Paletas, a beach exclusive. These fruit popsicles bear the label of "100% natural," which doesn't hurt sales.
Those vendors who work for a company get to take home a third of the day's proceeds. And in that case too, much depends on weather and attendance. "In my zone, the proceeds generally hover between 150€ and 300€ per day, so if I get as much as 100€ for the day I'm happy—50€ and I'm disgusted," Loïc says, adding, "But it's all cash, so that's a plus."
Across from the parking lot at the start of the Petit Travers, the strip of sand is thin; the towels there are packed cheek by jowl. Naturally, this glut of beachgoers affects the demand for snack vendors—it could be a prime sales zone for any vendor, except that so many of them now stroll the same area that individual profits have become slim to none. Frank covers a bigger area, in the shelter of the dunes, just by the Grand Travers. His zone, a less crowded one, allows him to do very good business—all the more so since he works seven days a week from the beginning of June to the end of August. "For a good seller," he says, "the take is between 100€-150€ a day over here. If you do the math, by month's end you're almost at an engineer's salary."
Says Loïc: "Financially speaking, the best spot in Carnon is the one where Taha works." And Taha doesn't argue: "[It's easily] 1500€-1600€ per month, without working every day—it definitely beats the minimum wage I got working at a snack bar two years ago."
The equation is a little different for the handful of independents who conduct their business solo. There are no more than ten of them in all Carnon. There's André, a solid young blond who worked a year at Ho Ho before striking out on his own. A guard at a private beach by night, on weekends he wheels around his boat-shaped snack cart that he built with his father. When he passes by Frank, the latter has only kind words to say about him. "On the Petit Travers, the ambience between competitors is very relaxed—everyone just kind of does his own thing." However, Loïc—despite being on good terms with his competitors—recalls others who have not been so peaceable. When he was new to the business, one seller would repeatedly threaten and try to scare him. He recalls another who would never return the hello when he said it. Guillaume, a former worker for Sorbet Coco, agrees, saying that just a few years ago the atmosphere was less good-natured: "The typical trick you'd see was a guy who's about to cross your path, then makes a U-turn at the last second to cut you off and steal your sales." There are even occasional squabbles between sellers on the same team. The assignment of a given sales zone, and with it its clientele, can set teeth gnashing. Jules, an ex-vendor, worked for one of the big companies and recalls that the allocation of zones led to very unfriendly feelings between sellers, which eventually caused him to quit before summer's end.
Meanwhile, Frank still enjoys the calm of his little section of beach on a quiet Monday morning. "In two hours I've made just 10€, so I started cleaning up the beach. I've already emptied an entire pail of crap I've picked up just since this morning." And the previous day, at the other end of Carnon, Taha spoke glowingly of his summer job, although he noted, "On the other hand, the suntan [you get] is disgusting."