Restaurant Expansion Recipe: Creativity, Integrity and Trust
By Stuart Pallister, Head of Academic Editorial Content at Ecole hôtelière de Lausanne
Think of leading chefs like Alain Ducasse and Wolfgang Puck, and consider their restaurant businesses which have become truly global. How can they ensure that their restaurants in, say, Doha, Shanghai or Singapore are in line with, and reflect, their demanding standards and personal branding?
Maintaining standards during restaurant expansion
"You have to consider your creative team," says Stierand, the director of EHL's new Institute of Business Creativity (IBC). "You have to surround yourself with people who are capable and talented enough to understand what your ideas are all about."
It also involves developing systems - whether for training or an organizational structure where the next generation of talent can watch and shadow a 'famous chef' like the late Joël Robuchon and learn all about their creative signature dishes. At the same time, there needs to be an organizational environment "so these creative chefs themselves don't get bored. They also want to (develop) their own signature."
So it's a balancing act between the famous figure - the reason why customers go there (to a specific restaurant) and at the same time you have to foster a creative and inspiring work climate within the organization and of course that's tricky. It's not something where you can follow ten points and say, 'Okay, this is what we do.' It involves building trust, Stierand adds.
In terms of organization, Schützendorf says, four key people may be sent to operate a restaurant overseas: an executive chef, a sous chef, a sommelier and maître d'. A restaurant expansion strategy clearly needs to develop talent but that talent can be poached as investors internationally seek to hire up-and-coming chefs. So loyalty is an important ingredient, says Schützendorf, along with the competency and training they've acquired. "It's a quick win for any other restaurateur, taking somebody who has been flown in by a star chef - hire them and pay them more money."
However, even though the offer may be interesting, young chefs should be cautious. "The facility and resources may not be there to execute the job correctly" and it may lead to an ambitious chef becoming demotivated. "Once you're out, it's very difficult to go back because by then trust has been blemished. So you have to tread carefully," Schützendorf says.
Sustaining creativity when restaurants operate overseas
Stierand's research has focused on creativity as he has interviewed top chefs such as Ferran Adria. Adria, while he still had elBulli on the Costa Brava in Spain, told him he worked with three or four chefs who could all be Ferran Adrias. 'They're as talented creatively as I am,' Adria had said. But the chefs knew they were in a creative 'hotspot' and didn't want to leave, because they knew that once they did, they wouldn't be able to return.
"Once you can establish something like this - and this does not necessarily have to do with money, it's simply that spirit you've created can't be much better than that (elsewhere)," Stierand says.
When operating overseas, it may be difficult to source the right food ingredients, although certain hubs like Hong Kong and Macau can fly in food directly from Paris. So a restaurant in Doha may have to become creative and use local ingredients such as camel meat. Schützendorf says this can reduce the risk of spending money on ingredients that local customers may not know or want. "So you have to adapt to the local environment, except again for these hubs like Macau and Hong Kong where the priority is not about profit. It's about standing out, (being) unique. And even if you don't fill the restaurant, you have a unique positioning which will potentially draw in customers."
"Just look at the world of art and paintings," says Stierand. "When famous painters traveled to the Mediterranean, suddenly the colors, the lights changed. And I think this is where true creativity can happen." As for haute cuisine, "maybe you'll find it difficult to get the usual products, (so you have) to use local ingredients and do something extraordinary from those. That's true creativity."
"You still need to see the creative signature, regardless of whether you use camel meat or poulet de Bresse," he adds.
Overseas investors may, from time to time, approach 'star' chefs to open restaurants in their hotel or mall but it's not always a recipe that's successful. As Schützendorf points out, the chefs will likely want to maintain control and say 'trust us because we don't operate any other way. It's either take it or leave it.'
"Sometimes these Michelin-starred chefs get too stuck on their philosophy and don't adapt to the local culture. Nobody ever wants to close a restaurant … but nevertheless a lot of restaurants fail."
He cites the example of a Ducasse restaurant at the W Hotel in St Petersburg. Ducasse refused to make changes to the décor and cuisine. "At one point, Ducasse said 'no, this is my cuisine. This is how we do it.'" The restaurant eventually closed down. "It was far too early for St Petersburg. The concept was so revolutionary. There were no other hotels then. Now you have a lot of competition coming up and there is a nice food scene happening right there although the product is very scarce. But at that point in time it was too early."
"Nobody ever wants to close a restaurant."
Stierand believes it's better for leading chefs to be very selective and to say 'no' more often than 'yes' to proposals from investors. The chefs should think carefully whether the restaurant expansion plan fits with their creative identity and consider whether they will remain 'authentic.'
At some point, the star chefs may be tempted to cash in and use their personal branding to sell supermarket products but, says Schützendorf, integrity is an issue. "They're selling their soul. They're really selling their soul sometimes."
Summing up, Stierand says the chefs have to be "absolutely in control", even if that means tensions with investors. A sustainable restaurant expansion strategy "(...) need(s) to (make) absolutely sure that (standards are maintained) even if you are not there physically." Customers, he adds, want and expect authentic cuisine.
The chefs may want control of the cuisine, the team members, and even the glassware and silverware, says Schützendorf, "because it's their reputation." However, that may lead to conflict with the investors. "The only criticism I have is that all these points are not laid out from the get-go, to say 'this is our philosophy, this is how we operate and this is our experience based on what we've done in the past and the scenarios we've lived through, because people did not meet our expectations and at one point they wanted returns on investment that were too fast. And so it gets very ugly sometimes."