Software is Eating the Catering World

FeaturedSoftware is Eating the Catering World

“The key challenge is to adapt our service to local demand. Clients consume catering services in very different ways in each country.”  Stephane Leguillon, Founder of La Belle Assiette

La Belle Assiette, the French startup that brings a chef to the comfort of your home raised another round of seed funding to diversify its product lines.  Starting as a private chef hire, to make entertaining easier for busy urban professionals, it soon discovered that there was huge demand for catering services that married the artisanal aspects of cooking at home, a chef’s creative input, and the need to entertain at a larger scale.

I sat down with Stephen Leguillon, CEO and co-founder of La Belle Assiette to find out more on the latest round, and what is store for the company in the next 18 months.

I love the concept of entertaining at home. I grew up enjoying great enogastronomic cultures within my family (that is a fancy word for combining amazing wine and home-made food with your family and friends around a table, talking for hours on end).

We have French, German, Portuguese, Italian, Swiss, Dutch, Spanish, and German-Jewish blood running in our veins and as diverse culinary tastes.  We entertain regularly at home, for pleasure and business, and no cuisine is out of our reach, plate, glass, and palate.

Entertaining at home was a requirement for my father in his work as editor-in-chief of the financial newspaper Jornal do Comercio, Jornal do Brasil, Globo TV, and founder and executive producer of major television networks.  Political pundits, economists, and a rainbow of philosophers of different persuasions graced our tables, debating current affairs and the global economy, enjoying meals with wines from producers we knew well.

I later did the same in Paris and New York, gathering friends, colleagues, and professional acquaintances to keep a finger in the pulse of the media and the tech industry.

To break bread, to share a meal, that is at the centre of community building in many cultures, and in my book. Nothing like great food and wine to bond with colleagues and friends.  While a student at Columbia University, and at the same time working long hours at Bloomberg TV and at the UN, I was keen on making time to cook and entertain whenever I could, as my son was little and I would rather have him around, instead of dragging him out in the evening or having to hire a baby-sitter.

Thanksgiving dinners and end of year celebrations were always at our home, to enjoy food and wines from different cultures in the company of my lovely, cosmopolitan, well-travelled friends and acquaintances. When I moved to France I discovered that the French love and value entertaining at home as much as our family did.

There is nothing more pleasurable than sharing great food and wine around intelligent conversation. But then the time it requires, add the hours shopping and cleaning, and entertaining at home can fall wayside, if one leads a busy urban lifestyle.

Enters La Belle Assiette.

A private catering service that will cook, serve the food, and clean? Count me in.

If you do not know what to offer your mother this coming Mother’s Day here is a great option. Get her a La Belle Assiette private chef for a day.  She will love it.  What better way to outdo your siblings and ensure your place in her heart and her will? Just kidding. Not.

Interview with Stephen Leguillon, CEO and co-founder of La Belle Assiette

Maya Plentz: What do you know now that you did not know when you launched?

Stephen Leguillon: I didn’t know how large La Belle Assiette could really be when we launched. At the start, La Belle Assiette was focused on the Private Chef Dining service. Our aim was to make entertaining at home simple, enjoyable and delicious. Private Chef Dining seemed to be the most appropriate service to deliver on that mission. However, over the past 2 years, we’ve seen our clients ask for all sorts of catering services including buffets, canapés, and office lunches. This still matches our mission, but on a much larger scale. With time, La Belle Assiette will be expanding from a relatively niche market of Private Chefs to the huge market of Catering.

MP : What are the plans for expansion?

SL: We are currently expanding our service line to enter the events’ catering industry. Over the next 6 months, La Belle Assiette will launch 4 new catering services: Buffets, Canapé Receptions, Office Lunches and Cooking Classes. To execute this service line expansion, we recently announced that we have raised a further €1.3M in funding, bringing our total funding to €3M. This is a huge task and the current focus of the company.

MP : Who are your main competitors in France and the UK?

SL : We consider every player in the catering industry as a competitor, whether online or offline. However, we’ve identified that this industry is very fragmented, with a lack transparency and is ready to go online. Today, we estimate that under 1% of the catering market sales are booked online. We expect this to change fast, which will radically change the industry’s competitive landscape.

MP : What is your competitive advantage?

SL : Our competitive advantage comes from two key concepts that define La Belle Assiette. First, we determine the prices on our site and the expected level of service for each price point. Only then do we let suppliers (chefs and caterers) create menus which deliver on that price/service ratio.

This means that it becomes very easy for clients to select their budget and view hundreds of menus at that price point. This is a huge innovation in a market that lacks transparency. It also requires La Belle Assiette to operate expensive curation, to make sure the price/quality ratio is respected. It is key to our success and challenging to replicate.

Second, La Belle Assiette works with chefs that create their own menus. Even though we define the prices and expected service level, the food you taste is the chefs’, not a standardised menu that you’ll get at a traditional caterer.

MP : What are the challenges to increase market share abroad, in the UK and US in particular?

SL : We have already expanded in the UK, it is our 2nd largest market after France (where we started). We expect the UK to become our largest market over the next 18/24 months. There are no defined plans for the US yet.

The key challenge is to adapt our service to local demand. Clients consume catering services in very different ways in each country. Sometimes even within a country, clients in different regions have different catering needs. This requires a lot of client contact, listening and learning.

MP : Different markets require different approaches, what are your 3 top tips on scaling to the UK and US markets?

SL : Have a team with local knowledge to expand into a new market, you need to understand it and have an extensive local network.

“Start by doing”. This is actually a core value at La Belle Assiette. We believe that planning only gets you so far, and that you should start by trying to pitch/sell/do rather than over-plan. You’ll get market feedback much faster and that will generate much more value than an extensive plan.

Centralize as much of the operations as possible. Working for the local team responsible for the market expansion is tough. It’s a great help if a lot of the operations are handled centrally at HQ. This enables the local team to focus on generating value and not worry about operations.

For example, at La Belle Assiette, our customer support operations are centralized in Paris, where we have English, French and German speaking team members. Same goes for online advertising, finance etc… Try to keep “local” just execution that requires local market knowledge and/or presence.

MP : What about emerging economies? What are the opportunities and risks in Latin America (Brazil and Argentina), India, China?

SL : There are huge market opportunities for La Belle Assiette in emerging economies. Catering services are developing at a rapid pace as the middle classes expand. However, it would be too early for La Belle Assiette to explore those opportunities, but we’ll get there!