Bucking a welcome trend in Belgium’s horeca sector

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People in Belgium eat less at restaurants and more at fast food joints, according to latest research.

The data shows that the market share of the fast food sector has risen sharply from 9.4 per cent to some 17.1 per cent.

Belgians are less likely to eat in restaurants – 43.5 per cent compared with 51.3 percent before the coronavirus outbreak.

But at least one restaurant is bucking the trend.While Restaurant Du Progres is surrounded by fast food joints (no less than four, in fact) its business is booming again and is even higher than in pre-pandemic times.

It is an unashamedly a classic Belgian brasserie which, according to the same survey findings, suits Belgians just fine.

The study by payment platform Edenred said people in Belgium prefer Belgian dishes and to go to brasseries (32 percent).

Du Progres, as so many in the trade, faced great problems during and after the pandemic but, thanks largely to their loyal local customers who kept it going during those dark days, it managed to survive.

But, as the survey shows, times are certainly a’changing in the horeca sector in Belgium and the same goes for this popular resto in Gent.

The owner of this splendid establishment for the past two-plus decades, Johan De Baets, has just handed over the reins to Stijn Verpaele, a fellow Fleming.

Johan followed his dad Dirk and grandfather Adhemar, who opened it as a humble bar/café way back in 1952, at the restaurant.

Over the years, Johan did the whole gamut of resto-related jobs, including working as a bartender and waiter, before he took over control from his father on 1 January 2000.

He has been in charge ever since until, with his 50th birthday approaching in October, he decided for a change and henceforth sold the business to Stijn.

Johan still goes in each morning, from 6.30am to Noon, to help “behind the scenes” and, speaking to this website, reflected on a working life dedicated to maintaining a family tradition – and flying the flag for the good old traditional Belgian brasserie.

“I just felt I needed to spend more quality time with my wife and son,” he says, adding, “Stijn has been a close friend and colleague for many years and I am very proud of him and know that, with him in charge now, it will be a smooth transition.”

Stijn himself, in fact, arrived at Du Progres some 15 years ago and,having himself worked his way up from bartender to business partner, has already stamped his mark on the business – with the introduction of brand new toilets.

It’s a not to be underestimated development, he says, because “After the food, the toilets are probably the most important thing in any restaurant.”

Despite the very recent change of ownership, it is not just a 17-strong workforce (and the name) that will remain – so too do all the dishes that have made this such a consistently popular and highly regarded/respected place to eat, right at the heart of this delightful Flemish city (ranked No.9 in the world for quality of life by Oxford Economics’ new Global Cities Index).

The lovely food, which can be ordered via iPad or scanning a code on the table, includes a great and very tasty mixture of meat and fish as well as salads, pasta and veggie options.

Most popular is the Flemish stew which is made daily on the premises (“important”, says Johan) with Belgian beers and a local mustard.

The aim is to offer a fresh and seasonal cuisine so, for example, you’ll see lots of salads available during the summer and game in the autumn. The prices, considering the high quality, are very reasonable.

The décor is,like the welcome from Stijn and his team, very warm and comforting (look out for the terrific old, black and white photos adoring the walls of “old Gent”).

Overseeing things in the kitchen for the past 4 years is Pakistan-born Kumar (who started as a sous chef) while Stijn’s wife Vanya helps out during the day behind what is a very well-stocked bar (serving some great Belgian beers and lovely wines).

The aim is to maintain a longstanding 50:50 split between locals (those who helped so much in the pandemic) and the many tourists who flock to Gent each year.

Johan says one of the big challenges, apart from the sector-wide issue of staff recruitment, is the encroachment of fast food places – there are no less than four within metres on Gent’s Korenmarkt and these, according to the Edenred survey, are now more popular than ever.

“When I started here 33 years ago, there were no such places but now there are more fast food establishments on the square than traditional restaurants,” says Johan.

Thankfully, there are still places like this one to maintain a much-loved tradition.

The name Du Progres roughly translates as “continuity” which, given the changing of the guards from Johan to business partner/friend Stijn, seems entirely appropriate.

Restaurant Du Progres

Korenmarkt 10, Gent

t: 09 225 1716

https://www.duprogres.be/en