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.


  1. Unless you were catering to a bunch of geeks at a place like a Google cafeteria, I'm not sure this idea would be happily received by a large fraction of the restaurant-going population. While there is a sort of logical beauty to your proposal, I think that the masses would not be psychologically prepared for such a change from the traditional restaurant-going experience.

    The idea of a restaurant having an identity and themed menu seems to be ingrained in our society. I believe such a drastic change in dining style must be slow and gradual, if possible at all.

  2. http://www.foodnetwork.com/24-hour-restaurant-battle/index.html

  3. Why stop there? Take the Y Combinator comparison to the logic extreme: Angel (Food Cake) Investors!

    But if you step beyond the reality TV show, you'd probably find that given their necessarily refined palates, Chefs might take greater umbrage than the average geek at being merely "Ramen profitable." So it'd cost you at least an extra flavor packet here and there. ;)

  4. Matt, found your post after having the idea and searching to see if anyone had done this. I envision the incubator as such:

    Rent a big space that can house 5-8 restaurants, individual basic kitchens and shared use of complex equipment. You allow aspiring restaurateurs to submit their restaurant ideas and go through an application process. The selected restaurateurs get ~6 months in the incubator, pay rent, and build their restaurant to prove their concept and test out dishes with the public. You can sign up mentors (well-established/famous chefs) to mentor the restaurants, and market it to the public as a place of food innovation.

    Additionally, you can use the space to teach classes, hold events, etc, meaning there's a secondary revenue stream besides the rent coming in. Potential to also take equity stake in participating restaurants.

    Launch would be in New York, in some scrappy up and coming neighborhood to keep fixed costs relatively low. There's a large enough population of foodies in NYC that are willing to travel a bit out of the way to get good, innovative food.

    If 'Lean' can work for startups, it could work for restaurants as well.


Startup Life: Three Months In

I've posted a story to Medium on what it's been like to work at a startup, after years at Google. Check it out here.