From founders on bikes to 700+ caterers in Europe

Start-ups move and change quickly. This post is a brief history of 3 years of product and business model changes at La Belle Assiette. Time flies.

Two weeks ago, Louis Pollet, our Product Manager Intern at La Belle Assiette asked me an intriguing question: “why is that banged-up hipster bicycle with flat tires in the office and never used ?”. Through no fault of his own, Louis didn’t know that our first business model was food delivery and that the bike is a very important memento (you’ll find out below what it means).

The one with the green handles (photo credit: journaldunet)

La Belle Assiette has been active since March 2013. The first team members (Giorgio & I, Thomas, Audrey) are still around. But we’re now a team of 25, we have 3 offices, investors, 700+ partner caterers, thousands of clients.

It is crazy how fast a start-up can change and how far La Belle Assiette has come. However, it is our history that has defined our culture, our vision and our business model. And since this is just the beginning for La Belle Assiette, I feel it’s important to look back and remember. If only to learn and do better in the future.

So here’s a brief history of La Belle Assiette. You’ll learn we went from founders on bikes to building an industry-changing marketplace in 4 steps:

  • Step 1: A marketplace for Chef profiles
  • Step 2: A marketplace to book a private chef menu
  • Step 3: A marketplace for catering services
  • Step 4: A marketplace for the catering industry

It didn’t start with an idea, it started with a market.

In 2012, Giorgio and I joined forces with the same belief: through technology and freelance chefs, we could change the way people experienced catering services. It wasn’t very clear, back in 2012, exactly which service we would be offering to both clients and chefs. But we knew that by using technology to create a distribution channel and building a strong supply of chefs, we could create something great. That’s the simple concept with which we started.

From February 2012 to March 2013, Giorgio and I tested many “experience types”. Always allying freelance Chefs and technology. These “experience types” included delivering dishes prepared by Chefs in their homes (that’s why we have that bicycle in the office!), delivering dishes prepared by Chefs in a central kitchen run by La Belle Assiette, sending Chefs to prepare meals in people’s homes etc… Of course, for each of these tests, everything was booked online.

From this year long testing, we didn’t make any money. But, we learnt that:

  1. If we want to have a scalable model, like really scalable, La Belle Assiette should not handle logistics itself (that bicycle is the reminder that we shouldn’t do logistics!)
  2. It’s a lot harder to sell 20x20€ meals delivered than 1x400€ high end catering service
  3. Quality is key, people won’t pay, even cheap prices, for bad experiences and food
  4. To go mass market, we need to both create new experiences, but also be better, cheaper, faster than substitute experiences. That is hard.
  5. With good tech, we can handle a lot of volume

Step 1: A marketplace for Chef profiles

We therefore decided to focus La Belle Assiette on being a marketplace to book experiences offered by freelance, but vetted, chefs, where the chefs handle the logistics. We launched the site in March 2013 on which the homepage showed 8 experiences (private chef dining, cocktails, corporate, buffets, cooking classes, personal chefs, receptions, brunches) :

Our homepage in 2013

For a given experience, a user would view chef profiles and be able to get in touch with them.

Then we started growing the business. The first step is always the supply — without chefs we can’t sell anything. We went from 10 chefs in Paris to 50 in France between March 2013 and August 2013, when we closed our Angel investment round.

With this new cash, the objective was to continue growing supply. We went from 52 Chefs in August 2013 to 326 in August 2014, so that worked. But we also wanted to show we could build supply internationally, so we went to find Chefs in Belgium, Switzerland and Luxembourg, launching new websites for these new markets.

Selling these 8 experiences and not just focusing on 1 meant we could also build sales by closing some nice large event-catering deals.

Step 2: A marketplace to book a private chef menu

Focus, focus, focus

With that success, we raised a 1.3M€ investment in summer 2014. That financing round was a “Seed” investment. This means that we were still investing cash into adjusting our product and business model. We hadn’t figured it all out. It wasn’t yet perfect.

We had identified what was wrong with our approach. Our model was to have multiple experiences types. But, if we were trying to sell 8 types of experiences, it was impossible to communicate clearly to users — nobody really understood, simply, what we were offering.

We took the tough decision to drop 7 experience types and focus on 1. This happened in October 2014. We focussed on Private Chef dining. “La Belle Assiette is a service that makes entertaining friends at home easy, the Chef cooks in your kitchen and serves plated dishes”.

Our homepage in October 2014

Then, listen to users

By being hyper-focussed, we got really good at selling Private Chef services.

A major evolution in our marketplace then happened. We learnt from our users that, despite what our team thought, users were more interested in what they are eating than who is cooking.

Up to then, booking on La Belle Assiette would involve:

  1. entering your location and a date for your meal
  2. seeing a list of available chefs and choosing one
  3. seeing the chef’s menus and booking one
Select a chef, then see their menus.

So, in March 2015, we released a new version of our site. Instead of selling chef profiles, we’d sell menus:

  1. enter your location and a date for your meal
  2. see a list of menus of the available chefs. choose a menu and book
View and book menus

This was a major change and the first step in the creation of our taxonomy-driven marketplace (dedicated post here). La Belle Assiette became a marketplace for products (chefs were selling their menus on our platform, not their profiles to search for leads).

Step 3: A marketplace for catering services

A critical decision

Focussing on one service and listening to our users enabled us to become European leaders in the Private Chef market. We had created a method to digitalise this catering service.

In the summer of 2015, we took some time to look forward. We faced a critical decision. La Belle Assiette could now either:

  • Plan #1: Continue focussing just on Private Chef. Bring this service to as many as possible, over a long period of time because we’ll have to continue educating users. This meant creating a medium-sized and good tech business, focussing and winning in a niche. Or,
  • Plan #2: Use what we learnt from Private Chefs and expand further into the catering market. This implied taking on more risk, but potentially bringing value to a 18Bn€ market and therefore, having a much larger impact.

By September 2015, we decided to expand our service line (Plan #2). In October 2015, we raised another 1.3M€ seed round. Note: this was once again a “Seed” round, we were going to continue working on our product. The objective was to expand our service line. We wanted to prove that La Belle Assiette’s infrastructure (Catering Suppliers + marketplace + tech) could be used to sell other catering services (on top of Private Chef). Our mission was to be the world’s largest caterer.

Launching Buffet

Between October and December 2015, we iterated fast to test new fully-branded catering services (buffets, canapés delivery, cooking classes etc…). These services would be executed by our freelance catering suppliers and we would sell via our website. Our aim was to become a huge caterer, utilising our marketplace model to generate scale.

In February 2016, we launched our first full branded service : Buffet. It was built on top of our marketplace and supplier community.

Our Buffet page, in February 2016

Understanding we can bring a lot more to the catering market

Demand for buffets accelerated, whilst Private Chef Dining continued to grow. Excellent.

But, we understood that we could create even more value. Our strategy was to brand and control catering services. However, Catering Suppliers (chefs, caterers, artisans, restaurants, bakeries, deli’s etc…) already provide these services every day with their own clients, so why create our own? Was this where we’d add value?

Catering Suppliers just don’t have the expertise to sell and organise their business. They don’t know how to go online. And users just want to book online and trust the caterer they are booking from.

We concluded that:

Our value is technology and online distribution, not running catering services.

Step 4: A marketplace for the catering industry

In May 2016, I realigned our vision on building the online distribution marketplace for the Catering Industry. We don’t create catering services, we just let Suppliers sell their existing services online. We divided the industry into 3 segments : Private Chef, Catering Delivery, Events Catering. We decided to focus on Private Chef (already executed) and Catering Delivery (our current next step).

Instead of building branded catering services, we are focussing on being the platform on which the whole catering industry will distribute itself online (just like we had done for Private Chef Dining). And on this platform, we’ll sell online all the catering services already offered offline by all Catering Suppliers. We’ll enable these suppliers to go online and build a sustainable business.

In June 2016, we launched an entire new part of our platform to distribute Catering Delivery. On it, consumers and companies can book all catering delivery products, from all the local catering suppliers (chefs, caterers, restaurants, deli’s, bakeries, butchers etc…).

Our Catering Delivery homepage, in June 2016

What’s next

La Belle Assiette’s vision is clear: we’re the marketplace for the 18bn€ catering industry (that’s just Europe, we’ll of course go further).

Within a few years:

  • Catering Suppliers worldwide will distribute all their catering services (Private Chef, Catering Delivery, Events Catering) online, through La Belle Assiette.
  • Users will be able to discover, trust and book all their catering needs online.
  • Catering Suppliers will administer their business through La Belle Assiette’s tools.

Times flies — it feels like we started the company a few months ago. But looking back, it’s clear we’ve covered a lot of ground which we should not forget. So there you go Louis, you now know why we have that hipster bicycle with flat tires in the office. And why we’ll never use it again.