hard work but huge success for first village event
Our first “manifestation” (village event) was the most successful “vide grenier” (car boot sale) we’ve ever seen in the village.
It had been a lot of work.
The total official club membership we could call on for any help was two. Just us.
Fund raising and promoting the association was taking up all our time. We had the salon de thé three times a week, we’d just delivered a week of free, sample classes, and on top of that we were organising this big event.
It was a big risk.
We were spending with no guarantee of return. There were no club funds. The small profit from the salon de thé had already been spent on whiteboards and teaching resources.
As we left Beziers Copy Shop with a lighter purse and the first armful of posters and flyers we were worried. Nobody knew who we were, we had no track record for organising vide greniers, and we’d just discovered that we’d picked a date in the middle of the busiest time of year for car boot sales in France. To earn back the money spent, let alone raise more, how could we convince complete strangers to choose our event?
The hot lunch conundrum
Our tea and cakes had been a big hit in the village all summer. We hoped the popularity of Jacqueline’s English style baking would bring people to the car boot sale too, so we’d decided to run an all-day salon de thé.
This would set us apart from the other vide greniers in the area in more ways than one. They all advertised “restauration” (hot lunch), but we had no money to pay a caterer, and we wouldn’t have any free time for cooking on the day.
When we raised this perfectly reasonable point with the ex-president of another local association who’d been acting as our vide grenier guru, his dark eyebrows bunched together. Didn’t we realise it was a long day for sellers too, stuck at their pitches? They’d expect to have something hot to eat at lunchtime. It’s understood.
The idea of outside catering cast a long shadow. The expense would make it even more difficult to break even on the day. And we weren’t prepared to take the obvious budget option.
We live in the Herault department of France, with a culinary culture based on ready access to freshly-caught fish and sea food. Anyone who attends more than one catered event in the area knows the standard fall back when the budget is tight is steaming great pans of shellfish paella.
It’s cheap but it’s also boring, lazy and repetitive. Plus, we both dislike sea food with a passion, so we can’t eat it.
If we had to do hot food ourselves, it had to be on a realistic scale. Our original poster therefore offered “petite restauration” (hot snacks), in the faint hope we’d be able to borrow a sandwich toaster.
In Search of fish and chips
The more we thought about it, though, the more we came back to the idea that a distinctly English lunch might be a selling point. It had worked for us with the cakes at the tea shop, after all.
Fish and chips, we thought, might be a hot meal in the sweet spot that combined English-ness with the local passion for sea-food. According to the Internet, the owner of a rugby bar in Beziers also ran a mobile fish and chip van.
We left nervous voicemail. Would they be interested in catering a village event?
With typical English tact and grace, they ignored us completely.
It turned out to be a blessing in disguise. It forced us to look again and find the mobile “Mister Fish and Chips” shop run by Alex and Paula Breckman.
We were taking risks with our own money but were reluctant to ask them to do it too, so we called them with what was probably the worst sales pitch possible. We couldn’t pay them to cater the whole show and we couldn’t give them any idea if they could expect to sell enough to make it worth their while.
After a brief pause to think they said “OK, we’ll do it anyway”.
Suddenly, not only did we have restauration, we finally had a Unique Selling Point. Our vide grenier would stand out from the crowd. All we had to do was make sure people knew it was in the crowd to start with.
More hard work
Enter poster version two-point-oh, and more Copy Shop expenses.
Then we were on the promotion treadmill, touring the area to put up fly posters in the parts of other villages where no-one seemed to object. Lamp-posts and road signs with out of date posters to Loto games or other vide greniers, or even just decorated with string or gardening wire that suggested posters had been there, were all fair game.
Built-in English reserve means this always makes us feel guilty. Fly-posters don’t exactly add to the natural charm and ambiance of any village. In fact, the week before our event our nearest neighbouring village made it illegal.
We even screwed up courage to hand out what was left of our door to door flyers at other local vide greniers, “just in case” people didn’t manage to sell everything.
At first a trickle of friends and regular customers filled in our sign up sheet at the salon de thé. Phone calls began after we leafleted every house in our village, and increased as people found the posters or responded to flyers we handed out at other vide greniers.
We mapped out 70 “emplacements” (pitches) in the middle of the village, and much to our surprise they were all spoken for in advance.
On the day itself, the first arrivals were in their pitches at 5am.
We were in the middle of a sustained period of destructive, bad weather. While it was still dark we had telephone calls from the faint hearted. It was raining in the next village over, and it was raining in Beziers. They weren’t coming. Somehow by 7am we’d still managed to fill almost every pitch. By then it was light enough to see the cloud cover, and I felt the unmistakeable light prickle of rain in the air.
People were unloading their cars, but as yet no one had paid for anything. It could still all go horribly wrong. I held my breath.
At 8am the sun rose. The clouds parted. The sky cleared to a perfect, bright blue. For the next 11 hours we had the sort of day that would leave most English motorways in gridlock as the entire population took off its collective T-shirt and headed to the coast.
There are almost too many great moments to list.
Our pitches were going to fill the Promenade (the village square) and the public parking spaces around it. We put up home made “No Waiting” signs. On Saturday we went to bed in mild despair because there were cars still parked all over, but before dawn on Sunday every vital parking space had been cleared.
60 sellers filled 70 pitches. Even at only 6 euro a head, we’d be able to pay all the bills.
Probably the most extraordinary thing was the help we had from people we’d started to get to know in the village. It had been a hard and lonely slog doing all the advance leg work ourselves, but we could not have coped on the day. At a day or two notice we had help to welcome and guide people to pitches. Friends turned up unasked to spend all day helping out in the kitchen.
The obvious highlight for a lot of people was the arrival of the “Mister Fish and Chips” van. I created an unexpected spectacle as I walked slowly ahead of Alex and his trailer to part the crowd, like the flag-waver in front an early motor-car.
The queue for fish and started at about 11am and grew longer throughout the day until Alex had to call time because all his chips were gone. The following week we were stopped over and over by people couldn’t praise it highly enough.
And, of course, not to blow our own trumpet too hard, but we were selling cakes and mugs of tea at sunrise and still going when most of the pitches had packed up and gone home.
Our first arrivals, who were waiting for us at 5am, were also the last to pack away at about 5pm. One of them crossed the promenade with ominous, steady determination towards us as we started to pack away too. We needn’t have worried, it was just to shake hands and thank us for such an enjoyable day.
We’ve even had a big “thank you” in the next village bulletin from the Mairie (local council).