Thanks to companies like Uber and Lyft, almost anyone can access private car service, a luxury once reserved for the ultra-rich, with the touch of a button. Today’s “sharing economy”—also referred to as the “gig economy”—has already disrupted quite a few markets (think Airbnb, Zipcar, and Lending Club, a peer-to-peer loan company), and the hospitality industry is no exception. Popping up everywhere are startups that connect chefs with consumers, effectively delivering on-call private chef services to the hungry masses. That’s right, now almost anyone can have a private chef, too.
If the idea of hiring a private chef seems extravagant, consider the idea that these startups are selling: for a set fee, paid upfront when booked online, a bona fide chef will come to your home, prepare a restaurant-quality, multi-course meal, and clean up before leaving. Their pitch? If you dine out regularly, it’s not so extravagant to hire a personal chef, because it will save you time, and perhaps even money: restaurant prices are high, as are the costs of transportation and parking—not to mention inflated wine list pricing—and a babysitter’s hourly rate for couples looking to enjoy a decent meal sans kids.
While sites like Cookening, EatWith, and MealSharing focus on communal dining, allowing travelers and foodies to join local dinner parties hosted by chefs, companies like the Paris-based La Belle Assiette and ChefXChange call themselves “chef marketplaces,” connecting chefs with consumers looking to dine or entertain in their own homes. What all of these business models have in common, however, is what’s missing from the classic culinary equation: the restaurant. Hence, the disruption.
Stephen Leguillon, La Belle Assiette co-founder and CEO
La Belle Assiette’s co-founder and CEO, Stephen Leguillon recently chatted with hosco.plus about the rising trend. “I always had a deep fascination with the food industry,” he says. Although the 27-year-old entrepreneur has a professional background in banking and an MSc in Management, he is no stranger to the F&B sector, having previously launched Appetise.com, a UK-based online food delivery company. “We launched La Belle Assiette with one service—private chef dining—which existed but wasn’t very popular,” says Leguillon. “So my idea was to take that and bring it to everyone, as it was kind of a high-end niche. Then we grew.” An LBA private chef now starts at €35 per person in Paris, and the company offers services in six different countries and works with around 700 different chefs globally.
Just who are those chefs? La Belle Assiette hires 100 percent of its chefs not as employees but as freelancers, many of them supplementing their incomes from traditional restaurants and other establishments. “All of the chefs that we work with are curated,” says Leguillon. The process involves what LBA calls a validation dinner, where a prospective chef’s tasting menu is put it through a jury, who decides first if the chef is good enough to be featured on the site and then at which price point. Reviews are featured prominently on the LBA site, so prospective clients can check out what former clients have to say about individual chefs. The company says it only works with professional chefs, although rare exceptions are made, according to Sophie Krebs, the company’s Vice President of Marketing. Officially no legal licenses or certificates are required, but La Belle Assiette asks the chefs to respect the hygiene codes and practices of the country they are working in, which is verified during their validation dinner. However, with new “sharing economy” legislation just starting to kick in and affect other sectors, it will be interesting to see what lies ahead in terms of regulation in the on-demand chef sector.
As mentioned earlier, La Belle Assiette is Leguillon’s second foray into the F&B sector, and he has an affinity for what he sees as a “broken” industry. “The economics of the food industry are broken, and I am out to fix that,” he says. “So few restaurants are successful, and even if they are, so few make a lot of money. The industry’s legacy is built on economies that aren’t what they are today,” adding that a century ago, rents were lower, labor was cheaper, and hygiene and sanitation regulation was less rigid. “Today, the industry is ripe for disruption,” he says, and explains that it’s being seen mostly in the food delivery and carry-out startups that are emerging at a quick rate. “We are providing alternatives for caterers and chefs to do what they do best and present to customers. They do worse on the business and selling end, so becoming our partner allows them to do what they do best—cooking and entertaining.”
Not convinced? Indeed, if you love dining out and think that the vision that Leguillon presents of the traditional restaurant model is a bit macabre, you would not be alone. While people do love the comfort of their own homes, they also love escaping them, going out and socializing. For Pierre Secretan, chef and owner of Geneva’s L’Epicentre restaurant, startups like La Belle Assiette do not pose a threat to the traditional restaurant model. “It’s not the same psychological approach,” he says. “Lack of time, lack of savoir-faire, this is different than saying: ‘Tonight we are going out.’” Secretan has worked as a private chef at a point during his career, and he says that although it is possible to make a living this way in cities with large populations like Berlin, New York, and London, it is less viable “in cities where you are limited by inhabitants.”
However, Jevrem Simic, a chef who worked with LBA in Switzerland and France, agrees that the company’s organizational role is quite beneficial for chefs who may not have the money or time to do publicity for themselves. “They take their percentage, but there is a reason for that,” he says. “They have people working there who are working for the chefs.” His favorite part of the LBA gig? The immediate feedback from clients. “When you are a cook you are just sending plates out, so you don’t have that contact with the customers,” he says.
So who is the average chef-on-demand customer? “We really have two,” says Leguillon, “and it’s reflected in the price points.” He notes that for the lower price points, clients range from around 28 to 35 years old. For the higher price points, it’s a 40-plus crowd who are hosting regularly, or for a special occasion. “The strategy behind the different levels of pricing is so that the service is accessible to everyone,” he says, and compares his strategy to Uber’s. “They launched with expensive cars, but then offered different cars with the same service.”
Marie-Aude Millet learned about La Belle Assiette from a colleague, after the two found themselves discussing all of the inconvenient aspects of dining out: high prices, time sacrifice, noise level. She has since used the service twice, at two different price points. “We just wanted to eat well, but at home, at ease, and enjoy the garden as a family,” she says, recalling the first time she hired a personal chef while on holiday. The second time was in Paris, where she and her husband hosted a dinner with three other couples, each with two children in tow, who ate in a different room with a shared babysitter. “As we had eight kids between us,” she points out, “we would have each had to pay a babysitter.”
The best part of Millet’s experience? After the food, it was the cost savings, which were reallocated to the wine pairings. “This way we drank better wine,” she notes. “Wine that would have been two to three times as expensive in a restaurant.” Her only hesitation to using the service was the potential discomfort of having a stranger in her home. “You think it’s going to be awkward, having someone in your kitchen, like maybe you won’t have everything he needs” she says. “But the chef really knows what he is doing. Even in a little Parisian kitchen.”
Will the chef marketplace business model implode or will it gain critical momentum and become a lasting trend? Only time will tell, but much seems to ride on market saturation levels, demand, and consumer willingness to book home services regularly instead of dining out. While conclusions remain unsure, it will be interesting to observe if these tech-driven firms have the potential to become an obstacle to the hospitality industry, and in turn if the hospitality industry will embrace and profit from the sharing model.