Business View Magazine interviews Steven Elefant, Chief Development Officer, Ville-Marie Collection, as part of our Top Franchise Opportunities series.
Ville-Marie Collection is a cutting-edge hospitality company specializing in multi-dimensional dining and drinking experiences, and gourmet, fast-casual, take-away boutiques. From its home in culturally colorful Montreal, Ville-Marie Collection owns, operates, franchises, consults, and manages businesses and venues across North America, Europe, and the Middle East. Ville-Marie Collection is also a proud supporter of Cedars Can Support, helping cancer patients and their families, one person at a time.
Speaking with Steven Elefant, Chief Development Officer of Ville-Marie Collection and one of three owner-operator partners of this fascinating company, we discovered many sides and much substance contributing to its success and growing momentum.
Elefant relates: “Ville-Marie Collection is the off-shoot of Stambac International, a company put together to offer restaurant franchising and consulting services, globally. We had originally 18 to 20 partners in the company, and a couple of years ago, three Canadian partners – our CEO Brian Bendix, our COO Christopher Nacos, and I – decided to do a management buyout and rebrand the company as Ville-Marie Collection. With less partners involved, we were more nimble and able to operate and make decisions in a rapid manner.”
At present, Ville-Marie Collection has two locations of L’Atelier d’Argentine – their Argentinian steakhouse concept; an iconic Montreal restaurant known as Wienstein & Gavino’s (Italian/Mediterranean); and Decca 77, a more upscale terroir with local French influence.
“We also have a restaurant known as Xavier Artisan, our first foray into the quick service market,” says Elefant. “We feature artisanal sandwiches, salads, soups, coffees, etc. These are also located in the Montreal area. Aside from that, Ville-Marie does franchising. We’re offering franchises for both L’Atelier d’Argentine and Xavier Artisan. We also have a consulting component to our company, where we act as consultants and create brands for third parties.”
An unusual business model, indeed, and one that makes Ville-Marie Collection an exciting place to work. Having many channels in the hospitality field enables the company to offer a wide range of services to guests and clients. Currently, everything is corporate-owned, but they’ve recently started offering franchises on the quick service side, plus L’Atelier d’Argentine and Wienstein & Gavino’s brands.
Elefant explains, “We’ve been meeting with a myriad of different types of potential franchisees. Some are franchisees for other brands, who are looking to extend their business model and get out of their one-target, niche market. For example, if someone’s in the QSR (Quick Service Restaurant) market with a large hamburger chain, they’re very interested in our Xavier Artisan brand because it gives their guests a healthy option. With Millennials today, the market is changing – everyone’s looking for healthier choices. So, this is the type of franchisees we’re speaking to for this particular brand.”
For other brands, good restaurant experience is absolutely required. Elefant is up front about the L’Atelier d’Argentine and Wienstein & Gavino’s brands, saying “I don’t believe they can be run by someone with just management experience. You need to understand the restaurant industry. On the service side, to go back to the Xavier Artisan, if there was somebody who passed certain parameters we have – with no experience – we would certainly train them. It’s a much simpler operation than a full-scale restaurant.”
Ville-Marie Collection is presently in discussions with various prospects throughout the U.S. and Canada, as well as Europe and the Middle East, where they have franchising experience for some other brands with their European partners. They speak several languages within the company, understand the culture of many countries, and are doing their best to expand in a controlled fashion.
Elefant notes, “Ideally, in the next year, we’re looking to open between five and ten locations in North America, and possibly two to three overseas. We want to control the growth. We’re not looking to open 100 units at once, because we feel the resources required to do that many correctly, and do training, would not serve potential franchisees adequately. We want to give our full attention. We want to be there for each and every opening. We want to ensure everything is done according to our protocol.”
Competition in the North American market isn’t an issue. Ville-Marie Collection is too busy developing their own brands, running their own entities, offering franchising and consulting services, and brand creation for third parties. They’ve also put together a detailed ten-year growth plan and budget. “Ten years up the road, we expect everybody in North America to be aware of our various brands,” says Elefant. “The Xavier Artisan brand – there’s no reason it couldn’t become like Starbucks or McDonald’s, where you have one on almost every corner. We’ve had fantastic comments on the décor, the feel of the place, speed of service. And not only the taste of the food, but the quality – the benefits of not using artificial ingredients.”
Suppliers are important partners. “Without a proper supply chain and a good relationship with our suppliers the business cannot prosper. One can almost argue that a good supplier is more important than a good client. Because without the supplier, you don’t have the client. We have a broad supply chain, although much of the core product is the same in a lot of our businesses. By controlling our purchasing, we give fewer suppliers larger chunks of the pie, to make it more interesting for them and more cost effective for us.”
The total number of employees is close to 200, fluctuating with the seasons. Payroll declines significantly during the quiet winter months, and expands in the summer when outdoor terraces are up and everyone’s outside enjoying the great weather. A high-traffic location is crucial in the quick service market. For the other restaurants, location is important, too, but if you have a great brand and a great product at a fair price, people don’t mind travelling out of the city center; the quick service market is all about convenience.
Director of Marketing, Adam Axler, addresses the strategy for marketing Ville-Marie’s more upscale brands. “It’s a mix of traditional and digital marketing. But the lion’s share is digital. In addition to social media, we have a strong SEO strategy, as well as an ad word strategy. We keep the content on our websites and blogs fresh to build links and keep our stats high on Google. We also work with travel and review sites and tourism organizations that help bring awareness. And we take part in local community marketing. From a franchising perspective, it’s really digital – e-blasts and some e-zine advertorials, along with membership sites such as the Canadian Franchise Association and other e-based generators. We continue on to a public relation stage, both local and global, to bring a complete 360-degree campaign together.”
Elefant adds, “The brands we operate are all market leaders in their segment. They offer intriguing menus you won’t find anywhere else in terms of items and preparation. And we try to stay authentic. L’Atelier d’Argentine is not your typical steakhouse. We refer to it as “the next generation, female-friendly steakhouse,” because most steakhouses are old men’s clubs, where the décor is big thick leather chairs, wood panel, and not very inviting to a female guest. The atmosphere in our restaurants is completely opposite. If you go to Buenos Aires to a contemporary, modern restaurant, that would be a similar experience you get with us. What’s interesting is, we opened the first L’Atelier just over four years ago, and even though it’s a steakhouse, approximately 65 percent of our guests are female.”
L’Atelier d’Argentine is the only restaurant brand in Canada to offer Argentinian beef on the menu, along with USDA or Canadian Prime beef. Chefs hail from Buenos Aires or elsewhere in Argentina, and 15 percent of the menu is non-meat items, including vegetarian and gluten-free options, poultry and fish.
The Xavier Artisan brand is something special. Elefant says he’s travelled the world and never seen anything like it. “We offer phenomenal salads and sandwiches, and an exclusive mix of organic coffee that we control from plantation right through roasting. People say it’s the best they’ve ever had. Our ice creams are homemade. No preservatives, no artificial coloring additives. Whatever is made that day is sold that day – or given to a local food bank. Nothing is held overnight, so everything is fresh. We also make homemade soups. One is a bold soup, the other a simple soup, and they change daily.”
Xavier Artisan is designed to resemble an early 19th-century pharmacy – comforting and old-fashioned, with all the modern requirements hidden. Every table has access to a plug and USB port for charging electronic devices. You won’t see a cash register. Just tap your debit or credit card at the checkout counter. There is also a wonderful app for delivery orders within a geographical region of the store. Or, if you’re in the store and the line’s too long, you can order on the app, walk to the front, pick up your order, and pay by app if you forget your wallet. No need to reload a card on your phone, the app is directly linked to your credit card. It’s an easy download from Google Play or the Apple app store, and it’s free.
Axler adds, “We’ve recently launched a catering initiative for Xavier Artisan to bring cohesion to the app with a delicious healthy food experience for our guests, as well as convenience. Our goal moving forward is to embrace why we do what we do, not only the offering but the reason behind it. It’s important to get across the ‘why’ aspects: Why we use certain ingredients, procedures and techniques; in essence, to ensure an unmatched dining experience for our guests.”
AT A GLANCE
WHO: Ville-Marie Collection
WHAT: Boutique hospitality company with cutting edge dining and gourmet fast-casual venues across North America, Europe, and the Middle East
WHERE: Based in Montreal, Quebec