French chef Joël de Robuchon had a vision. Inspired by the Japanese and Spanish tapas dining experiences, he developed a new restaurant concept: to bring ‘cuisine’ in front of guests, show them the art and perfection of preparation, and delight them with high quality while offering a spirit of conviviality.
The concept of ‘L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon’ was born, a Michelin-starred restaurant where classic gold and white colors specific to many luxury French restaurants, were replaced by black and red. A restaurant with a relaxed atmosphere where customers sit at a kitchen table and can observe the art of cooking and preparation. A concept scaled globally to become one of the most successfully operated high-end restaurant chain.
A common business model for Michelin-starred restaurants is consistent delivery of high-quality food, a constantly changing menu, harmony within and across courses along with service perfection. Value typically gets captured through high prices, whereas lower prices for lunch aim to increase utilization. The dependence on review platforms such as Yelp or Trip Advisor is reduced, given the high consumer trust in the independent Michelin ratings. Fixed cost tend to be high, mainly driven by high-end equipment and labor cost. Staffing needs are determined by peak occupancy requirements. Busy weekend nights determine the headcount and the owner has to carry the cost for the entire week. Precision and specialization are key, limiting the use of part-time employees. The need to keep an à la carte offering besides the menu increases complexity and food waste. The menu also needs to frequently change, requiring ongoing product-/menu-development and training cost.
The business model of a Michelin-starred restaurant can easily turn into a vicious cycle, says HBS professor Gary Pisano. Only few haute cuisine restaurants without any other kind of income are profitable. Joël de Robuchon managed to turn his Atelier into a profitable business, due to an extremely effective operating model.
The operations strategy choices of Joël Robuchon and the effectiveness of the model became evident during a visit to his Atelier Etoile in Paris earlier this year.
First of all, Joël himself wasn’t there. He centralized the innovation process, creating the dishes in his “Parisian laboratory”, where he “crafts, prepares, tests and studies the future dishes to be offered to its customers worldwide.”1 He therefore uses his time and skills most effectively and leverages them across all of his restaurants. His global presence also brings other economies of scale, e.g. in purchasing and operational effectiveness. It also allows him to build up a global brand that he can use to unlock adjacent revenue streams such as food product and wine sales through retailers.
Food production scheduling is the second process driven strategy that he masters. I consider perfection in the kitchen as a prerequisite to get Michelin stars. Though watching into the kitchen processes that day, I was surprised by the degree of pre-prepared food. Most sauces and dressings were ready, and even the pulpo carpaccio (Figure 1) was pre-cut and pre-assembled in the size and shape of the plate. Actual in-restaurant preparation time for that dish was down to putting garnish and the pre-maid dressing on top, all together roughly one minute. This is a key feature that allows him to flatten the peak in resource requirements during meal times, making the restaurant more profitable and reducing preparation risk and complexity during peak times.
Finally, the kitchen table (Figure 2) is a tangible layout choice that brings multiple benefits. It reduces staff walking distances, reducing labor cost, and also creates a unique customer dining experience of directly watching a two star operations. Supported by the unconventional color and interior design choices, it also creates a more casual, unconventional and faster-paced environment. This reduces customer cycle times, allowing Joël to sell a chair more than once a night, and also attracts (typcially more price insensitive) business customers that are looking for a Michelin star experience, but only have limited time available.
Unfortunately, there are no sales or profitability figures available, but my personal observations, supported by the continued growth and global expansion make me believe that the Joël’s unique operating model choice allowed him to become one of the most profitable starred chefs in the world. Oh, and the food was delicious!