BRUSSELS/LYON: What does the future hold for restaurants and guides like Michelin or the World’s 50 Best Restaurants? I’ve always thought that we were living a time that I liked to call ‘peak food’. Everywhere you looked, food, restaurants, chefs were part of our daily life.
Then came COVID-19, lockdowns, closed borders and everything has been put into question. Over a virtual coffee, I sat down with Florent Bonnefoy, an entrepreneur who is currently working with clients across China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore and France on new food-related venture development, restaurants brand building and customer experience maximisation to speak about the challenges that COVID-19 has brought to the restaurant world.
In this wide-ranging conversation with the French entrepreneur, we discuss the future of fine dining, the restaurant business, deliveries and the acceleration of trends that this crisis has brought about.
IB: The world of fine dining as we know it is changing. Rene Redzepi was saying a few days ago that he cannot imagine people sitting at table for long tasting menus like they did in the past. He said that what was happening just over a month ago looks very outdated at the moment. You had experience when the SARS outbreak hit because you were in China. How do you see the world of gastronomy today and in the future?
FB: I was a student in China when SARS hit. One must set the context first. The situation in China was completely different in terms of its development and the food offering. At the time, in Beijing there were few independent restaurants. There were a lot of state owned restaurants and the food was mainly local or for example from the North Eastern part of China. Finding Cantonese food was very difficult. It was a totally different world. Nevertheless, a lot of restaurants went bankrupt and closed because of the SARS crisis because there were a few months (two to three months) were people were not going out.
What we saw after that, and this happens after every crisis, is that there was a wave of new transformation and new concepts – because the crisis created room by discarding businesses that were not economically healthy enough. The food industry and the restaurant industry are very resilient. It is difficult to say how the future of fine dining will be. Will it change completely? If we look at the current crisis, we see a lot of resiliency from the industry. There are new ways of organising oneself, there is a lot of solidarity between chefs and between restaurants. We see a lot of interesting things coming out from various cities and countries around the world. It is a strong industry with people who are passionate, it is a caring industry because the basis of the industry is to feed people, to give joy, to cater for basic needs.
I think that this resiliency is going to produce some new and interesting things in the future.
So ultimately, it depends on how you define fine dining.
IB: To be honest I don’t even want to focus on fine dining.
FB: It is of course challenging for fine dining. If you think about fine dining as a very luxury experience, I think that the fine dining industry was already going through significant changes and transforming itself before COVID-19. Fine dining was becoming more accessible. People and customers are also more diverse than before. Customers want a diverse experience and they don’t mind going to local places or places with a certain lifestyle ambience, enjoy food in a no frills place and the day after go to a luxury place.
In the future, maybe customers will want more responsibility, more sustainability. This was already the case. Maybe they will look for it more and more. This crisis is making us focus more on the way we consume, the way we travel, how we treat the earth. In future, it is likely that people will ask for responsible behaviour, for sustainable ingredients, for short circuits for local produce. Change will be driven by demand.
For the time being and I am thinking six months to a year, there will be resfrictions to travel. The price of travelling is also going to be much higher than it was before.
IB: We have been speaking about travel also prior to our conversation and maybe the world overdid it with travel prior to this crisis. Do you think that destination restaurants are more exposed in this crisis? I am thinking of those restaurants that attract a mainly international clientele, restaurants were people plan their trip based on their restaurant booking. How will these restaurants have to change?
FB: For the time being, and I am thinking six months to a year, there will be restrictions to travel. The price of travelling is also going to be much higher than it was before. It will not cost the same to go to Asia or New York from Europe as it cost before.
In the short term, those restaurants that were destination restaurants will have to shift their business to the local crowd so they will probably need to bring the same excitement they brought to their international clientele to the local community and to their country. I think they can do this because as a destination restaurant, if they can provide an exciting experience, by reducing their price, probably, they can shift their focus on the local market.
Are these restaurants going to shift completely to a local clientele? I think it is still early to know. It is difficult to see how things evolve.
If travel is going to be difficult in the longer term, it will be very challenging for them. I can understand that chefs will want to shift the concept towards a more ‘lifestyle’ and local approach to serve their local community. It is going to be challenging for the short term.
But a lot of chefs have already started to evolve. I see they are doing charity work, helping the local community or even doing deliveries and bringing the restaurant experience home and this is interesting to see. What is core here is the experience that they are providing.
It is interesting for a chef to understand what a customer expects from say someone like René Redzepi and Alain Ducasse bringing their food to your home. Is it just the food, could it be a playlist with some music, some small items they have in the restaurant? These are all interesting concepts to play with.
IB: I agree with you. Last Saturday I was speaking to Karen Torosyan from Bozar Restaurant in Brussels and he was telling me that he plunged straight to work after the restaurant was closed. He has been trying to recreate the restaurant experience at home and it is completely different. He told me he has never had more contact with his clients, that some phone him while they are cooking his famous pies to ask him for advice. He told me he was reflecting on what a ‘Bozar’ experience at home should look like. Of course, he does most of the work but he is also giving opportunity for his customers to do the finishing touches, the plating, the cooking.
FB: This is happening everywhere. Delivery is booming in places like Hong Kong, Europe, the United States. Now we are in a crisis management mode and of course the obvious thing to do is to go for delivery. I think that it is interesting to see that some chefs are really reflecting on how to bring their experience to the people. They are working on creating a connection between them and their customers. I have seen chefs dedicate time online to customers who are doing 20 per cent of the chefs job. They are answering questions from their customers on how to plate, how to prepare dishes and this is a kind of connection they did not have before with that scale.
While they might go to say hello, people will not ask them how to cook something. Maybe it helps to convey even more messages about their philosophy. This is interesting to explore and maybe this is something that is going to stay even after the crisis.
The question is what happens when social distancing stops. I am not sure that this will happen within a year. It might continue and from what we are seeing in China people are returning slowly back to restaurants but there are fewer social gatherings. People prefer to spend time in open areas and not indoors people’s homes because we do not know yet how the virus spreads. There might also be certain regulations that enter into force. For example, in Hong Kong, restaurants did not close but there is now distancing and restrictions on the number of people that can be in the restaurant at a given time. So this is shifting the business of the restaurant.
We are seeing more and more restaurants offer deliveries. This reflection on how a chef brings a restaurant experience to people’s home is appearing and might be here for a long time. What I am noticing is that ghost kitchens are booming. This is really increasing because you have a lot of restaurants, who are going through ghost kitchens to deliver to people.
Before the crisis, we already had a lot of signals of restaurant business shifting. Ghost kitchens and delivery were developing very fast. In China, as a customer, you could get the food from a restaurant you like from any type of app on your phone. This is developing even further because of COVID 19.
IB: I could envisage a situation where destination restaurants go global with ghost-kitchens. If they can serve a number of clients in their city, cannot they expand further with their offering? The question of course is how to ensure the same sort of experience in one city and in another but if four hands dinners work outside the context of a restaurant, shouldn’t this be also possible?
FB: This is an interesting point. I was conducting a survey about what people expect from a restaurant that delivers their food at home and I got some interesting feedback. At the moment, I am based in Lyon. Imagine I am craving food from a specific restaurant that is in Italy or Beijing. What would be a good option is for a local chef or ghost kitchen to produce the food of a chef or restaurant because they either had trained in that restaurant or have an agreement. This is probably an area that should be explored. I am not sure about the business model and how it would work but this is a trend that we might see in the coming year if there are travel restrictions.
But I think, in the end, there is something special about going to a restaurant.
IB: Yes, yes I agree.
FB: It is not just about the food. It is everything, the people you are with, the ambiance, everything.
IB: This cannot be replicated.
FB: But this could be a new service that is created and it could represent 20 per cent of the business of a restaurant, maybe more, in future.
IB: One thing that struck me, and now I start to see it more and more is restaurants that are open only for a certain amount of time and do not maximise the use of their rent. I always thought that restaurants could be more than just places where you go to eat. Now, we are seeing restaurants selling their wine selections, making bread, fresh pasta, sauces, their signature dishes. Do you think this is something we might see in future? The restaurant will be more, much more than just a restaurant.
FB: This is already happening in a lot of places especially in Asia. Delivery is something that is common and easy because the workforce is cheaper for economic reasons. But there are restaurants that are developing products that they sell online and this comes as a complement to the business. For now, we have not seen a restaurant as a brand that gives marketing value and delivery becomes the main source of business. I don’t think there is an example yet but it could be something good to develop or to think about.
Business is led by trends. At the moment, more people want to cook at home, they are also enjoying it. So restaurants could develop products, chefs could do more online coaching or sessions with people. There are a lot of opportunities but of course it is time consuming. There is a reason why restaurants close for lunch or weekends and that is because small independent owners do not want to sacrifice personal time. But there could be a different way of working and there are many possibilities for restaurants to adjust and try new things.
The current crisis is a pause. It is a time for people to reflect on what they want to do. Some people want to jump immediately into action which is beautiful and some people will take the time to reflect and I think it is really needed at the moment because the challenge is global and durable. As I said earlier, the F&B industry is a caring industry, there is a lot of passion and emotion, we need to reflect on how we keep that connection among people in a challenging time when people are not able to or more reluctant to go to restaurants. Will this crisis change durably the traditional business model of the restaurant as we know it?
The guides are entering a period where it is difficult to fulfil their mission. It is going to be very challenging. The situation is similar to World War 2 when people could not go to restaurants. This is the current reality.
IB: We are speaking about restaurants. We cannot forget the guides like Michelin, like the World’s 50 Best Restaurants which have cancelled their event this year. What do you think is going to be the future? If independent restaurants are going to close in droves, this is going to have an impact. How do you see the future of guides developing?
FB: For international guides, it is a challenging time just because of the way they and the business works. Michelin are relying now on a team of inspectors, 50 Best is relying on different judges who travel the world going from restaurant to restaurant. These guides are entering into a period where it is difficult to fulfil their mission. It is going to be very challenging. As you know, Michelin has local teams. But with restaurants closed it is impossible to dine in restaurants. I don’t want to make comparisons with the past but the scale of the crisis for F&B might be similar to World War 2 and at that time the guide suspended its publication. This is the current reality.
For local guides which are based in a country or city, and for editors who are within their cities, it is of course easier to handle this crisis even though they cannot go to restaurants for the time being. What I have seen is food critics that they are judging delivery services.
The business model of the Michelin Guide and of the World’s 50 Best with galas, heavy communication and big events is in jeopardy.
IB: I was going to ask you that question actually and I stopped. I have also seen criticism of rating delivery services because it is a different ball game. There are so so many factors that are beyond the control of the restaurant.
FB: I don’t know if it is more or less unfair than rating a restaurant. There are many things that can go wrong in a restaurant, the same as delivery, but some restaurants are already thinking on the way they create a nice delivery experience with special packaging and special attention. There are many things you cannot control in a restaurant and you can also control delivery. If you announce in advance that you are doing it and you are transparent with the rules the feeling of unfairness goes away. But maybe it is too early to rate delivery services.
IB: The World’s 50 Best Restaurants have cancelled their event and Michelin has also cancelled announcements or done them differently in countries like Slovenia and Germany.
FB: The question for these organisations is how to communicate and how to be useful to the community they service. The relationship of guides and chefs is a love hate relationship. Many chefs are happy to be selected by Michelin or the 50 Best but it also creates a lot of pressure. In a crisis where chefs are struggling to survive, the survival of guides will depend on the need of the chefs to be recognised by these guides and how much support they will get from them.
It will be interesting to see if there will be a shift of mentality and to see how the guides can continue to bring value to chefs which is very important.
Maybe they will shift their focus to their markets, to more local teams but it will all depend on how the industry evolves.
These guides are based on a certain model of restaurants. Even for the 50 Best, it is about going to a place, have lavish food, a crazy experience. If that model is to change, the way you rate a restaurant is also going to change. So it is really an interesting time to see how things are going to change and evolve.
IB: I would say that in the whole scheme of things, the World’s 50 Best Restaurants model is more at risk though Michelin has the cost of inspecting restaurants and if there are major changes, that is also a risk to the business model.
FB: With Michelin, what we know is that they have local teams so they can still go once restaurants open. With 50 Best, people are supposed to move from one country to another, it is going to be more difficult unless these people have special passports.
Maybe there will be room for a new type of guide. I always thought that Artificial Intelligence (AI) will transform how we rate restaurants, how the way we as consumers are advised. If we look in the future and progress of AI, there will be a future when through an App you can get a recommendation where to go, what to eat depending on whom you are meeting.
There are ways of doing new types of guides.
IB: So you think this crisis will force a change?
FB: Food has been a very attractive area for a lot of brands. Dining is key to this and I am surprised that big players in tech and data have not come with something in this area. Google bought Zagat a few years ago and nothing came out of this. When you think they have so much information about people, where they are going, where they travel, you would think it would make sense. Maybe they did not find the model or the revenue or they don’t need it. But they could create something in this area. Maybe this is something that will happen.
IB: You are in the consulting business, a food curator. How has the crisis impacted you and what are you thinking for the future also in terms of the services you offer?
FB: At the moment, I am preparing for the future by keeping an eye on trends and talking with various stakeholders from the industry. As a food curator, it is not the time to organise events though I am also preparing for the next edition of Gems and Pearl in Hong Kong (without knowing a date when this will be possible).
It is a time to build things, it is a time to prepare for when people are going to travel again, to dine again, to help chefs and restaurants to think about what they should do and help them to go through that crisis together.
I am building a portfolio of different and new food concepts with a handful of talented chefs to propose to investors who want to build their food offer and bring something new to diners. I am also writing articles that I hope to publish gradually on Food+ Journal.