The Story of Mr. Boulanger
A few years ago, I read a story in National Geographic titled “Who Invented the First Modern Restaurant?” Unsurprisingly, it was a Parisian chef known as Mr. Boulanger. His infamous dish of sheeps feet simmering in white sauce caught the attention of the growing French upper and middle class. Mr. Boulanger convinced them for the first time to leave their own personal kitchens and venture to this new form of dining called a “restaurant”; the French verb restaurer, meaning “to restore or refresh.”. This kicked off a 250 year-old tradition of dining out, which we now know encompasses bistros in Paris to burgers in America. There are restaurants on every street corner, in every town.
“Mr. Boulanger must have looked like the fat and happy Chef Gusteau from Ratatouille (unlike the many chefs today that resemble Russian tattooed prisoners who spent a winter in Siberia).”
This story stuck with me, and not just because I have this warm nostalgic childlike belief that Mr. Boulanger must have looked like the fat and happy Chef Gusteau from Ratatouille (unlike the many chefs today that resemble Russian tattooed prisoners who spent a winter in Siberia).No, the story has stuck with me because chefs these days have fundamentally not changed their method of business since 1765, when Mr. Boulanger first opened his doors. The sandwich box in front of the restaurant has merely been replaced with a virtual one on Instagram, the hanging menu in the window with a lousy website some cousin built, and instead of writing the order on paper, we now tap our fingers on a tablet. Other than a select few regulars, today, we still know little to nothing about who our customers are, whether they are vegan, vegetarian, pescitarian, gluten free (you name it), how did they find us, where do they want to sit, and most importantly, why did they never come back?! All these questions lack answers under the status quo restaurant ‘business model’.
To operate a restaurant today, as it was 250 years ago, is like living in a time vacuum or worse yet, a tiny hamster wheel. Everyday we wake up, arrive at our restaurant, and hope our night will be as busy as yesterday. Moreover, as we turn on the lights, clean our tables, and spend time in our dank paper-filled office researching yet another new POS solution, we still wonder whether our restaurant will ever gain that permanent neighbourhood or destination status we have worked so hard to achieve, or whether we fall out of vogue without really knowing the real reason why?
It is essential to not understate the significance of this operational stagnation. When a business only makes money one way, the same way, since its beginning, how does it even begin to tackle the challenges faced by a crisis of this magnitude? The current model does not enable it to.
“Although you might not be able to see it yet, the pandemic has awoken a new understanding amongst restaurateurs and their customers.”
Fortunately, in crisis comes opportunity. What appeared to be the death blow to an industry that employs tens of millions across North America, Covid has in fact shifted the industry’s fortunes. Although you might not be able to see it yet, the pandemic has awoken a new understanding amongst restaurateurs and their customers; significant changes must be made in order to make a restaurant a healthy and fulfilling business yet again.
We want restaurants to remain the cornerstones of our main streets. They are businesses that create vibrancy, culture, and important places for gathering in our communities. What we don’t want is restaurants that cut costs, reduce product quality, and skirt labour laws in an effort to stay afloat. Despite many choosing this ill fated path, it is an inevitable death march for a restaurant.
“Sadly, 30% commission on takeout and a few hail mary hashtags will not save this important pillar or our society and our respective cultures.”
To restore restaurants as healthy business opportunities for sole proprietors, friends with a great idea, or immigrants and families with deep culinary traditions, we have to understand the economics of the dining room itself. Sadly, 30% commission on takeout and a few hail mary hashtags will not save this important pillar or our society and our respective cultures.
In the next article, we will look at just how flawed the dining room economics are and why the key to unlocking it is right under our noses.
An expert in dining room economics and the guest experience, Frazer Nagy is an entrepreneur and the co-founder of Tablz, a Transparent Kitchen company, committed to a vision of changing the way the story of your dish is communicated and helping restaurants finally become profitable businesses.