The Innovative Kitchen
Illustration by Seun Ajibola
Economics is a science that studies human behavior and our relationship with the scarcity of resources. The theory of the science is that the higher the demand for a particular product or service, the higher the price that can be charged to the user. Except if there is a perfect state of competition. The restaurant business is considered to be a difficult business to operate and remain profitable because of the man-hours and the ease of entry by competitors, which eats up the profitability of the business.
I spent a significant portion of my teenage years working for my parents at a Nigerian restaurant called Stevag Restaurant & Bar located in North York. Stevag has been in operation for over ten years and is a staple in the Nigerian community. Apart from the locals who have been regular guests of the restaurant, Stevag has had the opportunity to serve many of the top and recognizable figures in entertainment, business and politics of Nigeria. Yet, the ability to charge a price that reflects its stature in the community could potentially lead to the death of the business. I think this issue needs to be addressed as consistency and longevity should provide some cache for a business, even on in a perfect state of competition.
My research on the restaurant business for this piece led me to a restaurant concept that I believe be integrated with the current traditional methods of operating a restaurant. This concept has been termed the innovative kitchen. An innovative kitchen is a restaurant concept that sells the creativity, artistic and the personalized service of its restaurant. In contrast, a traditional kitchen focuses on keeping costs low, providing a general service and little in the way of changing the traditional approach to consuming the meals prepared by the kitchen.
Elbulli, operated by world-renowned Chef Ferran Adria, was named the best restaurant five times between the yeas of 2002 to 2009. Elbuli, based in a small town on Spain’s Mediterranean coast received 2 million plus requests for reservations annually, but served only 8,000 meals during the six-months out of the year it was opened. While it was still in operation, it received 3000 plus internship applications from the most talented chefs only to accept thirty students into its kitchen. Ferran Adria, the head Chef, understood and sort to create his innovative kitchen, which was never profitable, however, it has led to other streams of income that would not be easily associated with a restaurant. First, there was the discarding of the a la carte menu at the restaurant that was replaced with a new menu for each of the six-months of operation per year. The staff that was off duty for the second half of the year were sent out to explore the world to search for inspiration to create the menu for the next season of the restaurant. Laslty, Elbuli had a staff to guest ratio of forty or more staff to a maximum guest intake per dinner of fifty people.
Ferran Adria was all about radical experimentation, creativity and reinvention of his kitchen.
The question then is how can this possibly be done in the traditional kitchen with limited resources. It can’t be done, however, there is the possibility to blend the two approaches. This would take an approach that includes a longer window of operation than the six-months at Elbuli that will provide enough time to recreate the menu for the kitchen. A smaller staff to guest ratio and a better supply chain to reduce the costs of product for the meals prepared by traditional kitchen. Lastly, one cool way of personalizing the guest experience is to track the meals eaten by the guests and on subsequent visits introduce them to other items on the menu that fits their pallet.
I am very aware of the difficulties in proposing such a radical shift in the way the traditional kitchen is done. The simplicity and efficiency of the kitchen will be removed and the chance for profitability could be eliminated. On the other hand, the innovative kitchen opens up a vast potential for other income streams, such as paid lectures, authoring of books, endorsements, cookware lines and TV contracts.
While I believe that the traditional kitchen will not become extinct, there is a growing market of food services, such as Blue Apron that will increase the competition for traditional kitchens. In order to stand out, the best way is to combine both the traditional and innovative kitchen methods in a brick and mortar establishment. The opportunities for these diverse income streams will not be achieved overnight, but with patient capital behind the innovative kitchen it will only be for a short while before guests accept and recognize the radical nature of concept.