Plus rapide!

French servers return to the race circuit, aprons and all

Published March 22, 2024

À vos marques, prêts…partez!

And they’re off! Through the streets of Paris they go, the spectators cheering them on.

These race participants have prepared a long time for this day, working on their physical fitness, balance, and speed to prepare for the big day. Each competitor is determined to win the race, and the associated bragging rights.

Mes amis, back after a 13-year hiatus, this is the “Course des Cafés,” a race featuring the talented wait staff of Paris’s bistros, restaurants, and cafés. 

Coffee boys ready for their annual run. Paris, Rue Rougemont, 1920.

Mais qu’est-ce que c’est?

On Sunday, servers from Paris’s world-renowned café culture will maneuver their way through 1.24 miles of city streets, starting and finishing at the Hôtel de Ville near the Seine. Each participant will have to complete the race while balancing a croissant, a coffee, and a glass of water on a silver tray (no Krispy Kremes, sadly).

The Waiters’ Race. Paris, Place de l’Opéra, July 1941

The racers must wear the traditional Parisian waiter “uniform”: black pants, white shirt, and an apron. No running shoes are allowed; in fact, no running is allowed. This is a speed-walking competition. And the fastest is not automatically the winner: judges at the finish line will check that none of the tray’s contents have spilled. 

In his book Une Histoire Populaire des Bistrots, French author Laurent Bihl details the first “Course des Garçons de Café” event, 110 years ago. That 1914 event, held to highlight the exceptional serving skills of French waiters, was popularized even further during the Annees folles–the roaring ‘20s–when the bohemian set was known to spend a lot of their time in French cafés. It’s now known as la “course des cafés”–no garçons –to include both male and female servers.

After 97 years, in 2011, the race was put on hiatus due to lack of sponsorship. But organizers didn’t have that problem during this Olympic year. Indeed, with the spotlight on Paris more than usual, the reborn race will be the culmination of a week-long program of events celebrating the French art of service, and the Parisian café culture. 

“We want to show the world what we do here in Paris,” city official Nicolas Bonnet-Oulaldj told Euronews.

L’importance de la course

In this latest edition, separate prizes will be awarded to waiters and waitresses, and still another for restaurant trainees. Additionally, 50 cafés, bistros, and restaurants will be awarded medals for their exemplary work, presented by the Association des Bistrots et Cafés de France. The same organization has been lobbying Unesco to add café culture to the “intangible cultural heritage” list, alongside baguette- and perfume-making, among many other French things.

The “course des cafés” doesn’t only take place in Paris, other cities in France take part, and there have been “waiter race” events around the world including in Japan, Argentina, Hong Kong (where they appear to allow running), Berlin, and even in Washington, D.C. 

While there has been something of a lull in races over the past few years–blame Covid!–organizers hope this revived Parisian race will bring about a resurgence around the world. 

“The sector was hard hit by the pandemic,” Bonnet-Oulaldj said in the same interview, “and many employees continue to work in tough conditions, with very early starts for some and for others, very late finishes.”

For those who are pausing that madness to take part in the madness of race weekend, we say, Bonne chance!

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