Focus on your one key thing and you’ll have an excellent business

Saturday March 11 2017

French chef Alain Passard, the head of L'Arpege restaurant in Paris, France, which has a Michelin three-star rating, in the country on July 9, 2014. PHOTO | JEAN-FRANCOIS MONIER | AFP

French chef Alain Passard, the head of L'Arpege restaurant in Paris, France, which has a Michelin three-star rating, in the country on July 9, 2014. PHOTO | JEAN-FRANCOIS MONIER | AFP 

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The Michelin star is a time-honoured guide to excellence in restaurant business. Way back in the 1920s, the Michelin brothers recruited a team of mystery diners – or restaurant inspectors – to visit and review restaurants anonymously. In 1926, the Michelin Guide began to award stars for fine dining establishments, initially marking them only with a single star. Later, a hierarchy of zero, one, two, and three stars was introduced.

The guide now rates more than 40,000 establishments in 24 territories across three continents, and more than 30 million Michelin Guides have been sold worldwide.

Getting a Michelin star is no joke. It makes and breaks reputations. It is controversial. Those who get one face intense pressure never to lose it. Those who don’t have to strive obsessively to get it – and are often outraged when they are overlooked year after year.

Over the years, the Michelin Guide has faced many accusations: of being too focused on French cooking as the supposed pinnacle of cuisine; of being in thrall to celebrity chefs; of ignoring simpler food. To stay relevant, the Guide has had to broaden its remit to embrace many more tastes. Japan is now second to France in the total number of starred restaurants.

But here’s the surprise: the Michelin Guide has started recognising even very humble enterprises. Ramen and dim-sum restaurants in Hong Kong and Tokyo, and popular hawker joints in Singapore, have been awarded stars. These eateries serve food for just a few dollars, making them the cheapest Michelin-starred restaurants in the world.


Wait, can such basic mass-market enterprises be worthy of stars given to very refined chefs? Of course they can. It should come as no surprise. The only surprise is how long it took Michelin to get there. The Guide itself will tell you: “Stars are awarded to restaurants based on the quality of their food alone.” All other things – service, ambience, and others – are secondary.

And that is the truth of the matter. We all go to restaurants for the full experience, and friendly and efficient service, a great location or setting, and beautiful decor all matter. But what is the one thing that a great restaurant must deliver? Great-tasting food.

If the food is just mediocre, no amount of service refinement or expensive furnishings will make any difference. If your food isn’t up to scratch, you don’t have a great restaurant. Great food is the one thing every restaurant aspiring to greatness must deliver. The other elements of user experience are important add-ons, but they’re not vital. That is why we have the phenomenon of hawker stalls winning Michelin stars. They are tiny, basic affairs and you have to queue up to get anything – but the food is to die for.

So if you want to start a seriously good restaurant, you have to focus on seriously good food. Without that, you just have a venue, not a restaurant.


And so it is with other lines of business. What is the one thing a bank must have, without which it isn’t a bank? Trust. No amount of fancy digital products or snazzy looking branches or ever-smiling employees can help a bank where trust is broken. If you think your bank will misuse your money, it ceases to be a bank.

What is the one thing that an Internet service provider must offer, above everything else? Reliability. The Internet is nothing if it isn’t always on. The fastest speeds are meaningless if they disappear from time to time. The best Internet connection is invisible and unnoticed – it just allows you to get on with your life. And yet Internet service providers are often preoccupied with marketing, pricing and packaging rather than with the heart of their business.

What’s the one thing for insurance companies? Faith that they will pay up when trouble strikes. For hotels building long-term relationships? Hospitality, in the original meaning of the word. For professional advisors? Their clients’ success.

All these things are the “must-haves”, the absolute essentials. You build your business around your one thing as the core. The “nice to have” are layered on. They matter, but never as much as the one thing does. Without your one thing, you don’t have a business. Do you know what yours is?