Yes, it's true. French pensioners enjoy four courses and red wine with their meals-on-wheels service. There's a starter, typically a terrine or consomm‚, a choice of four hot main courses, say filet de saumon grille aux amandes, pommes vapeurs, sauce b‚arnaise, or navarin d'agneau, flageolets. Followed by dessert, such as clafoutis aux cerises or poire au caramel. Then cheese with crusty bread, a choice of wine, beer, cider or water, and a sachet of coffee and sugar.And they don't only get a hot lunch. Here, in the cold room at Apetito's unit in the aptly named Paris suburb of Chilly Mazarin, two workers are assembling chilled evening meals and breakfast packs. It's a far cry from their British peers, who typically get one hot two-course lunch a day, or a fortnight's worth of frozen meals (see Peterborough).
Of course, it's not that Apetito has decided to favour its French customers. As managing director Pascal Brunelet explains, it's a cultural thing. Just as in Blighty pensioners want steak and kidney pie and sticky toffee pudding with custard, in France they want traditional lengthy meals. It's also down to the fact that the French are willing to pay more. The Paris council "heavily subsidises" the meals, which cost €10 (£6.50) each, and pays Apetito direct, so there isn't the messy double-billing of customer and client as in the UK.
Brunelet reckons that in France, Apetito spends 20% more on ingredients than its competitors, but says it's not possible to make a comparison with the UK.
The three-year contract in Paris started in December and is Apetito's first meals-on-wheels operation in France. Brunelet reels off the facts - some two million people live in Paris; 2,000 take meals on wheels and a further 3,000 take meals at lunch clubs. The Paris meals-on-wheels service is divided into four sectors. Apetito has one sector, catering for 500 people, and Sodexho looks after the other three but doesn't provide hot meals. Needless to say, Brunelet has his eye on them.
The extra courses and meals compared with the UK have meant the delivery vans, known as chefmobils, which have ovens on board to regenerate the food have had to be redesigned to carry more chillers. It has also meant the computer software used in the UK had to be readapted for Paris to collate the choices for each extra course and meal.
The food is delivered from the production unit in Orly and kept chilled until delivery a day later. Unlike the UK, the Paris council doesn't allow weekend deliveries, so to offer a seven-day service, the team delivers chilled food for Saturday on Thursday and for Sunday on Friday. It's something Brunelet wants to change.
Each driver loads up an average of 30-35 meals. Brunelet had initially bargained on 38 but bad traffic has meant they've had to invest in an 11th chefmobil - they cost about €30,000 (£21,000) each.
It's noticeable as the 11 chefmobils pull out of Chilly Mazarin that all the drivers are men - the opposite of the UK, where the shorter working day appeals to mothers.
Brunelet hopes to take advantage of the fact that meals on wheels is a fairly new concept in France and expanding fast. He lists Sodexho, Eurest and Avenance as rivals, but says the market is not core business for any of them. One of his main "competitors" is the culture of the country. France is very centralised, the family unit is still strong, as are labour organisations and Roman Catholic ethics, so older people have more care in their communities.
To increase Apetito's market share he plans to develop franchises within the next three years to cover rural areas, leaving Apetito to target larger towns or cities. This is unlike the UK, where Apetito's Wiltshire Farm Foods franchises provide a service for those not eligible for meals on wheels. "In rural France there is no social organisation," explains Brunelet. "A franchise is the only way to reach the individual customer."
His main thrust, however, will be to introduce frozen food delivery, again in the next two or three years. Brunelet says it's the only effective way Apetito can expand in France. His reasoning is the same as that of the UK, where frozen deliveries started in 1991. It's cheaper and more effective because it requires fewer central production units (CPUs) and fewer deliveries. Mass production makes it more hygienic, cost-effective and consistent, so last-minute changes can be accommodated and there is therefore less wastage. Needless to say, these cost savings have earned the proposal the council's blessing.
We tailed one of the drivers around Paris, which wasn't easy. Karim - who says he has memorised 150 of his customers' apartment codes - nipped in and out of the traffic in true Parisian style and pretty much parked where he wanted. No one booked him.
However, most Parisians live in apartment blocks. That can mean several journeys up and down in lifts - even in the same building - to collect and deliver the hot food. One driver had to walk up 32 flights of stairs when the lift broke down.
Our first stop was Madame Herclet. To keep the food hot, Karim carried it up to her flat in a polystyrene box and transferred it into hers - all customers have their own box for health and safety reasons. It will keep warm in there for up to an hour. (In the UK, the food tends to be served immediately.)
Then he popped her starters and her supper into the fridge, had a quick chat and we were off again.
You might think pins on the wall are low-tech, but they're the only efficient way of doing it," explains Paul Howell, sales director for Apetito, pointing to a map of the Peterborough area in Cambridgeshire, showing where all the customers live. It's about 9am and we're standing in a tiny office in the company's unit as the preparations begin for the day's meals-on-wheels service. Today, 114 hot meals and 40 frozen meals will be served in the city and surrounding area.
The company has been running the contract since April last year. Some 450 people - mostly pensioners - benefit from the seven-day service. It gets complicated because some customers go to day centres on certain days of the week. These, too, have their meals delivered by Apetito.
Fortunately, there's also a computer system, called Emeal and designed by Landsteine, which marries the menus with the customers. Howell runs through the details. All get a choice of two hot dishes and a vegetarian option two weeks in advance. The menus are on a four-week cycle and include traditional English fare such as pork sausages in gravy with creamed potatoes and baked beans or Lancashire hotpot with creamed potatoes, carrots and swede. There are no starters, but puddings include apple and raspberry roly-poly, or cherry cobbler with custard.
All the food is produced at the CPU in Trowbridge, Wiltshire, and taken to cold storage units in Portbury outside Bristol. From there, Peterborough receives one or two deliveries a week and always holds half-a-week's stock.
In the UK, meals-on-wheels contracts are won on best value criteria. Most contracts are for five years, although more often than not capital investment means they run on for a year or two. The meal price is split between the pensioner and the council. Most meals cost between £4.50 and £5.50 depending on the size of the contract, so the client can be contributing between £1 and £3.20. Howell points out that hot meals and ethnic meals cost more than frozen.
Unlike in France, Apetito's drivers have to collect the client's money. Most pay on a weekly basis in cash, by cheque or through a third party, and the computer system shows if the client hasn't paid recently. "We keep dead people on the database in case we owe them money or they owe us any," Howell says.
At Peterborough, the service is split between hot meals and frozen deliveries. Howell argues that the frozen deliveries give people who are still able to cook for themselves more independence and choice about what they eat day to day. Drivers put the food in the customer's freezer and alert social services if they think the customer isn't coping, for instance if uneaten food is still in the freezer."
We provide the freezer, which is then incorporated in the food cost," Howell explains. "Frozen meals are half the price of hot meals because they are delivered in a frozen vehicle once a fortnight at any time of day. With hot-meal delivery, you only have a two-hour window. Some deliveries, for example for diabetics, are time-specific."
Former government minister Stephen Byers's speech in May when he suggested that meals-on-wheels customers should have the choice "between being able to use the normal service or being able to use the financial entitlement to purchase a take-away meal delivered to your door at a time of your choosing", certainly sparked discussion among the Apetito team.
Sales director Paul Howell points out that many pensioners are on special diets.
"Pizza isn't a balanced meal. There would be uproar if they didn't get their meat and two veg. Younger old people may want to go down that route, but not our clients," he says.
But he concedes that the service will have to evolve. "As the generations get older, they won't want traditional beef dishes. They'll want pasta and things.
"One thing Howell looks forward to in the future is a cashless system, as the current method of collecting money from both the council and the customer is obviously time-consuming and bureaucratic. "Our debt runs at 2-2.5%, so it's expensive. In Germany there's a direct-debit system but in the UK fewer old people have bank accounts," he explains.
There has also been lots of discussion in the UK on all-day feeding. In some council areas Apetito provides breakfast and tea-time packs along the lines of the Paris contract, and Howell predicts this will grow. "Our generation is used to having a sandwich at lunchtime and then dinner in the evening, so we could deliver a hot supper, breakfast and lunch pack," he says. "In the future we'll have to be more versatile and look at different styles of food."
Howell adds that the company is working towards 'what you want you can get', but it has to be within a workable context. For instance, it could provide hot drinks, but the concern is that old people might scald themselves.
Paul Freeston, chief exective of Apetito in the UK, points out that in the past 10 years the changes within the meals-on-wheels market have been accelerating, with frozen deliveries and developments in systems. He reckons there's more opportunity for companies, such as Apetito, that can provide the food, the systems and the services - or bits of each. "There's an opportunity for contract caterers in meals on wheels," he agrees. "But even more so for manufacturers who can do everything. More and more local authorities want a total solution."
He explains that in the UK, each local authority has different needs - for instance, some want 100% hot food delivery, or 100% frozen, while others require a mix. Similarly, some local authorities simply lease the chefmobils from Apetito, others want a total service, and some buy the food and do deliveries themselves.
Freeston doesn't fear those who predict that supermarket deliveries could be a more flexible solution. He points out that Apetito's customers are eating with them seven days a week, so there has to be an enormous choice. He says the company produces 900,000 meals and puddings a week and has 750 ready-meal nutritionally focused products, versus, say, 50 in a supermarket, and adds that meals-on-wheels providers also cater for those who need special diets - diabetics or coeliacs, for instance.
Meanwhile, Pascal Brunelet, Apetito's managing director in Paris, recognises the service will have to adapt to the fact that Europe will see the number of over-65s double in the next 25 years.
His client, Jean François Homassel, chef de bureau de la restauration at CAS, the Paris social council, wants the service to develop because he says the alternative - old people's homes - are too expensive to run.
He is horrified by the Stephen Byers suggestion of take-aways - claiming pensioners need daily contact with social services - but believes meals on wheels should be tailor-made for individuals. To this end he supports Brunelet's aim of introducing more cost-effective frozen meals. He can also see the day when the service includes grocery shopping and laundry.
So, with the ageing population, what does Homassel think Paris will able to afford when he is old? "I think more aid in the home," he says.
"There will therefore be fewer old people's homes so money will be saved that way. There will be more people but they will be richer and pay more tax - so it will all balance out."
Do the Brits think there will always be a need for meals on wheels? "It's difficult to say," Howell says, "but we will always need some sort of provision. Years ago, regeneration wasn't acceptable, and now it is."
Each chefmobil delivery van, which were introduced by Apetito in 1996, is equipped with a gas oven that can regenerate up to 60 meals. They are cooked to 80-86°F and held at 70-75°F.
It's a far cry from the old method - still used by some companies - whereby the food is regenerated at the unit to 90-95°F and then insulated for the delivery - inevitably losing heat. "Because we don't take them so high, the product retains its taste," explains sales director Paul Howell.
The food is regenerated once the van is started, so the driver goes out to the furthest delivery point and drives back in. The food is then probed, the temperature is recorded and each meal is carried from the van to the house in a polystyrene box.
Once the regeneration is under way, the driver is protected by a gas alarm. Both the chillers and ovens can be controlled from the driver's cab.
Apetito is a German company that operates in the UK, the Netherlands, France and Germany.
International turnover: £470m