Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Proposal: The Restaurant Incubator

The problem: Starting a new restaurant is a huge undertaking, requiring the would-be restaurateur to raise a large amount of capital, find a good location, buy furniture, hire staff, get the word out, etc. All of this overhead severely limits risk-taking in the kitchen since it distracts from the mission of creating great food.

My proposal: Apply concepts from technology startup incubators (such as Y Combinator) to the restaurant industry. Give up-and-coming young chefs the opportunity to focus on cooking and creativity, and leverage shared infrastructure to reduce overheads.

I'm a big fan of Top Chef. (See my earlier proposal for a reality TV show for junior computer science faculty -- Top Prof. Bravo should be calling any minute now...) So naturally I see parallels between what the aspiring young chefs on that show are doing and what tech entrepreneurs face when starting a company. The tech industry has found ways to make it much easier for a new idea to get out into the real world, leveraging technologies such as universal Internet access and cloud computing. Why not apply the same ideas to the restaurant industry?

Here's my concept. Open a restaurant called, say, Restaurant Wars, after the popular Top Chef challenge. On a given night, three or four independent chefs each prepare and serve their own menu to the guests. They share a (large) kitchen, some amount of the ingredients, prep staff, wait staff, front of house, perhaps even the wine list. The space, tables, chairs, china, etc. are all owned by the restaurant. Guests can order from any of the chef's menus and are encouraged to provide feedback after the meal.

Get a big-name chef like Tom Colicchio or Ferran AdriĆ  (he needs something new to do, anyway) to serve as in-kitchen mentor for the chefs. 

The owners are investing in the future of the participating chefs and take, say, a 15% ownership in any independent restaurant venture that they launch after participating. Chefs spend up to, say, 3 months at Restaurant Wars, ensuring that there is constant turnover and thereby renewed interest from diners.

Of course there are a couple of kinks to work out (one of which is that my wife thinks this is a really dumb idea). The first is that it's hard to serve radically different styles of cuisine side-by-side. It sets up for some odd comparisons. Also, there needs to be a way to manage food costs across the "competing" chefs; if one is cooking with ridiculously expensive ingredients (say, a terrine of abalone served with a civet-cat coffee foam topped with Beluga caviar ) you need a way to limit costs and keep things equitable. Another is whether potential diners would go for a place with so much turnover in the kitchen, although that's the whole idea. Maybe Tom or Ferran can guest chef one night a month to maintain street cred.

If anyone has $20 million lying around and wants to go in with me on this, drop me a line. I'll be happy to help with the cocktail menu.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Book Review - The Victorian Internet

I just finished reading The Victorian Internet: The Remarkable Story of the Telegraph and the Nineteenth Century's Online Pioneers by Tom Standage. (I read most of it on my iPhone using the Kindle app.) The book was first published in 1998, and it's a great read about the development and impact of the telegraph. Of course, there are a lot of uncanny similarities between the development of the telegraph and that of the Internet. It's really interesting to imagine what living in a world before the telegraph must have been like: information could only travel as fast as a messenger on a horse, train, or steamship. 

The book is not targeted at a technical audience and I was disappointed that there was not enough said about how messages got relayed through the telegraph network -- what was the routing protocol? There is some discussion of different signaling methods and Morse code, of course, as well as the many variations on Morse's telegraph design (including some really far-out designs that included multiplexing multiple operators over a single wire, essentially using TDMA to avoid conflicts).

There is some interesting discussion on the precursor to the electric telegraph, namely optical telegraphs, which amounted to networks of towers placed on hilltops using visual signals to convey information. These were fairly widespread in Europe in the 18th century and in some places it took a while for the electric telegraph to supplant them.

Some interesting tidbits are strewn throughout the book:
  • A wide range of crazy schemes were devised to compress and encrypt information sent via telegraph, especially for business purposes. This caused problems for telegraph operators who were more prone to introducing errors when keying in unfamiliar strings of letters, and decreased the sending rate as well. At one point the ITU imposed a 15-letter limit on code words and required that they be composed of pronounceable syllables. This led to bogus code words like "APOGUMNOSOMETHA" (I am proud to report that Google offers zero results for this word -- I guess I just Googlewhacked it).
  • There was a 19th century equivalent of the DNS: in Britain, individuals and companies could reserve a special "telegraphic address" that allowed others to send them a message without knowing their real, physical address. These were assigned on a first-come, first-served basis and each telegraph office had a giant book listing all of the addresses that had been registered.
  • It took years for the telegraph to be recognized as anything other than a novelty. Morse and others struggled to convince the governments of US and Britain that they should invest in the development and deployment of the telegraph; early demonstrations did not convince U.S. Senators who (obviously) couldn't read strips of paper printed in Morse code.
  • The original Transatlantic telegraph cable took years to complete, and broke four times while the ships were laying it out. It failed after only a few months of use.
  • A period of fifty years elapsed between the development of the telegraph and the telephone.
Among many others. It's a good read, short and sweet, and makes me want to outfit my DSL router in an oiled wooden box with brass dials and steam valves, like a good steampunk retrofit.