South Kensington is one of the most euro-chic and Francophile neighborhoods of London. There are busy cafés, a French bookstore, a designer pastry shop and an elegant eatery that serves waffles and crêpes — the Kensington Crêperie.
“We are a French crêperie so we work with a lot of French suppliers, especially for cheese, flour, cider," the general manager Michele Zavani tells me. He himself is Italian.
Zavani says shortly after the Brexit vote last June, he had to wait more than two weeks for a delivery of cider from Brittany. A delay like that had never happened before and was a huge handicap for the business. Zavani says his boss got a funny feeling about it and started looking for substitutes closer to home.
“Because of the fear of the Brexit, because of the fear that the French producers will take advantage to raise the price of the products, my boss started to relocate the suppliers in the UK, to try to avoid even the risk to have to face an enormous rise of price in product," he says.
And sure enough, right after the vote, the crêperie’s buckwheat flour supplier in France began to charge 2 to 3 percent more. When Zavani asked why, the supplier told him they had to face the result.
When Zavani pointed out that Brexit hadn’t gone into effect yet, the supplier responded, "We work ahead."
"It's crazy," Zavani says.
Colin Stanbridge, the head of the London Chamber of Commerce and Industry, says he's heard a number of similar stories.
"There's absolutely no reason to put the prices up," he says, "apart from the supplier seeing an opportunity to make more money."
Even without price gouging, international goods are already more costly because the British pound is at a 31-year low, in part because of Brexit.
Now, more than three months past the shock of the "leave" vote, Stanbridge says the London business community is looking to move on with a stiff upper lip.
“If you’re a Brexiteer," he says, "if you’re someone who wanted to leave, you say, ‘Now I can be free of all the bureaucracy from Brussels.' ... If you’re a person who voted to remain, you’re going to say, 'It's not the result I wanted but I’m going to make the best of it.'"
Still, Stanbridge fears the city could lose its cosmopolitan flavor if international workers and products are pushed out.
"I would argue that cuisine in London outstrips most European cities, and the reason is because we have attracted so many different nationalities to come and set up restaurants and serve their communities,” he says.
“And that vibrancy, not to mention great food, is important to the nature of the city, and why I love living in London, and why I’m slightly nervous about what London might become in a post-Brexit situation.”
At the Kensington Crêperie, Zavani says many of his recently arrived European co-workers are considering leaving the UK. He is not too worried about his own ability to live and work in England long term. But he's concerned about his diminishing purchasing power, and whether, as an Italian, he'll have access to his pension plan after Brexit goes into effect.
For now, though, he’s trying to handle the crêperie’s new business model as best he can. And that means getting once-French items locally. Zavani says the good news is that deliveries come faster and goods are fresher.
“Like, for example, we have our egg man 30 kilometers from London, a milkman, milking the cow 30 kilometers from London, the cider comes from just outside London. And the flour from Herefordshire is actually organic, very good flour, and I think many restaurant and businesses will try to avoid as much as possible suppliers in Europe.”
Zavani recognizes there is no urgent need to take such measures but says shell-shocked owners are erring on the side of caution.
“It’s not the Brexit itself, it’s the fear of the consequences of the Brexit," he says. "It’s the unknown that scares people. So you try to adapt yourself, and this is the best way to adapt our business — go local. But for sure it’s not good for a French producer."
It’s too early to tell who will be helped or hurt most by Brexit. Some customers at the Kensington Crêperie are already feeling its side effects. Zavani says among the regulars who are now served English Stilton cheese instead of French Roquefort, a few have already complained that the crêpes no longer taste French.
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