Waiters Race Through the Streets of Paris While Balancing Trays of Coffee and Croissants

About 200 servers competed in the 1.2-mile race—a tradition that goes back to 1914

Waiter holding a tray with arm outstretched
Waiters walked quickly through the streets of central Paris on Sunday while carefully balancing a tray on one hand. Dimitar Dilkoff / AFP via Getty Images

The Summer Olympics may still be months away, but waiters in Paris are already training for the hungry tourists who will soon descend upon the city.

Over the weekend, some 200 of France’s best servers competed in a race of their own through the streets of central Paris. Called the “Course des Cafés,” the 110-year-old tradition requires uniform-clad waiters to walk a 1.2-mile loop while carefully balancing a tray with a full glass of water, an unfilled coffee cup and a croissant.

Participants were not allowed to run, and they could use only one hand at a time to hold the tray. Their goal? To finish the race as quickly as possible without dropping or spilling anything.

When contestants crossed the finish line, judges “checked the ‘integrity’” of their trays, writes the New York Times’ Aurelien Breeden. “Any glass of water below a 10-centimeter gauge line inflicted a 30-second penalty. Empty glass? That’ll be one minute. Broken dishes? Two minutes. Something missing? Three. Lost your platter? Disqualified.”

The first “Course des Garçons de Café” was held in 1914. It’s been a beloved Parisian tradition ever since, though it hadn’t been held for 12 years because of budget constraints, reports CNN’s Xiaofei Xu.

The race’s revival is part of the lead-up to the Summer Olympic and Paralympic Games, which are set to begin on July 26 in Paris. City officials wanted to promote the “excellence of French-style service” that has become a key part of Paris’ “intangible cultural heritage,” as Nicolas Bonnet Oulaldj, the deputy mayor in charge of trade and commerce, tells the Guardian’s Kim Willsher.

“When foreigners come to Paris, they don’t just come for the Louvre and the Eiffel Tower,” Bonnet-Oulaldj tells the Times. “They also come to eat in our cafes, at the Bouillon Chartier, the Brasserie Lipp or the Procope.”

The race, which was sponsored by the city’s public water utility, was also a celebration of one of France’s most important professions. Without waiters, the city’s many cafes, bars and restaurants would flounder.

“The bistrot is where we go to meet people, where we go for our little coffee, our little drink, where we also go to argue, to love and embrace each other,” says Anne Hidalgo, mayor of Paris, to John Leicester of the Associated Press (AP). “The cafe and the bistrot are life.”

Waiters holding trays and walking through the street
The race dates back to 1914, though it hadn't been held for 12 years because of budget constraints. Dimitar Dilkoff / AFP via Getty Images

The race’s winners get a medal, an overnight stay at an upscale hotel and tickets to the Olympics opening ceremony. This year, Samy Lamrous won the men’s division in 13 minutes and 30 seconds, while Pauline Van Wymeersch won the women’s division with a time of 14 minutes and 12 seconds.

Van Wymeersch has been waitressing since she was 16. Now 34, she works at Le Petit Pont, a restaurant near Notre-Dame Cathedral.

“I grew up in a way with a tray in my hand,” she tells the AP. “I have been shaped, in life and in the job, by the bosses who trained me and the customers, all of the people, I have met.”

Waitressing is more than just a job—it’s “part of my DNA,” she adds.

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