Tucked in the center of the North Ridge Shopping Center off Falls of the Neuse in Raleigh is Jean Claude's Cafe. It's been there for 20 years, supported by loyal customers who depend on Chef Therese Freeman to satisfy their craving for fine French cuisine--her crepes, her rich, flavorful onion soup, her garlicky frog's legs.
But Freeman's days with the cafe may be coming to an end. Two years ago, with the burst of the dot-com bubble, she put her restaurant on the market. The economic downturn after Sept. 11 didn't help matters. And the final blow came, as she sees it, when the French refused to support President Bush's efforts to gain European backing for the war against Iraq. Freeman hails from Nancy in northeastern France, and she wonders if that's made a difference.
"I hear that many country clubs in Raleigh remove French wines from their list," she says. "The guy who delivers to me told me that a lot of people don't want Evian, the French water. I am positive the boycott hurt us. People don't come in and tell us this--they just don't show up."
Some fans have tried to make up for that. "One of my customers pledges to come every day until the boycott is finished. I know it's a boycott because people talk about it. Some people just say, 'Well, Therese, we come because we love you.' Some people were crying when they left because I told them I might have to sell."
She hates the thought of it.
"I'm here since 1964," she says. "I married a G.I., settled in Plymouth. I worked at Jean Claude's for a year and then I bought it. I never planned to cook except the chef that I hired left and I had to find someone who could cook French or close. So I started to cook and the people loved my food. Anyway this is my life. I love it. It's my baby."
But the economics of the restaurant business are incontrovertible.
"My rent is almost $4,000 a month. If I knew in two months that the economy would be fine, I would never even think of selling," she says. "To survive I have to make $1,000 a day--now I am making an average of $300 a day. I don't know what to do. I used to have 15 people working for me, now I have 7. I pay them always first. Me, I have no salary for the last two years, working 15-hour days."
As a possible finale, Jean Claude's Cafe will be serving a seven-course dinner May 19 featuring wines from all over France to help pay off some of the accrued debt. It will start at 6:30 p.m. with cocktails followed by dinner at 7. The cost is $75 a person. For reservations, call 872-6224
"I'm 70 years old. If I have to find another job, it will be tough," she says. "It might be another year like this or maybe they'll find more about the French. Every day I hear something on the Fox network. Look, I'm an American citizen. I love America."