Portugal's restaurants down in dumps as crisis bites

Fri Jan 20, 2012 11:46am EST
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By Axel Bugge

ARRUDA DOS VINHOS, Portugal (Reuters) - The last thing the Portuguese will go without is a hearty meal at one of the country's thousands of restaurants to enjoy specialties like suckling pig, grilled sea bass or 'bacalhao' cod.

That could be about to change as Portugal wallows in its deepest recession since returning to democracy in the 1970s, weighed down by harsh austerity imposed by a 78-billion-euro bailout from the European Union and IMF.

As the Portuguese adopt previously unheard of practices like skipping traditional family lunches out at the weekend or eating sandwiches at their desks instead of enjoying full, hot meals at restaurants, usually accompanied by wine, the impact is visible everywhere.

"I have never seen it as bad as this in the 18 years I have been here," said Rogerio Oliveira, whose 'O Pote' restaurant in the town of Arruda dos Vinhos had guests at just two tables on a Saturday lunch-time in January.

Oliveira's restaurant, where his wife cooks and his son waits tables, is typical of many Portuguese dining establishments in that the entire family's livelihood is at stake.

"I will try everything possible to survive. This is all I've got," said Oliveira, 59, across the bar counter where bundles of garlic hang and locally-made wines line the shelves.

At first sight, the troubles for Portugal's restaurants may seem small compared to the country's huge economic challenges in overcoming its massive debts, which will reach 105 percent of economic output this year, and riding out the euro zone crisis.

But, considering that restaurants, coffee shops, bars and bakeries together represent the fourth-largest source of jobs in Portugal, the eateries' troubles spell a significant risk for the economy. They have around 7 billion euros in sales a year, the equivalent of about 4 percent of GDP.   Continued...

<p>David, 23, a waiter, shows his restaurant's menu to the tourists in downtown Lisbon January 20, 2012. REUTERS/Rafael Marchante</p>