© 2014 Kevin Longa Restaurant Noma front sign - Photo taken by Kevin Longa -

#FoodEntrepreneur Friday: How to Avoid Business Failure – Forget What Made You Successful

The food: New Nordic Cuisine

Where to find it: Restaurant Noma, Copenhagen, Denmark


Welcome to another edition of #FoodEntrepreneur Friday, where I serve up an order of international food with a side of insight for entrepreneurs.


Those Danish dining daredevils are at again. This week Noma reclaimed its title as the “Number One Restaurant in the World” by Restaurant Magazine, the annual award considered ‘the Oscars of the food world.’ After three straight years of achieving this honor (2010, 2011, 2012), Restaurant Noma temporarily lost this title to Spain’s Celler de Can Roca in 2013. During this down year, Noma suffered customer food poisoning mishaps and a belief amongst the culinary world that the restaurant’s founding philosophy of new Nordic cuisine had fallen out of style.1

Well, in some respects that was true. Noma was founded upon the pioneering philosophy that the food it served should be sourced hyper-locally within the Nordic region (aka ‘new Nordic cuisine’). Non-Nordic ingredients like tomatoes and pineapples never found themselves on Noma’s menu. This philosophy garnered the restaurant its international fame of 2010-12. The restaurant stretched the meaning of discovering culinary creativity in limitations. However, during 2013 Noma learned what any successful (food) entrepreneur must learn: what made you successful in the past might not make you successful in the future. Their groundbreaking philosophy of new Nordic cuisine was no longer groundbreaking. Noma needed to change and innovate. In fact, for many other (food) businesses, what makes them successful in the past could lead to future business failure.

If a business fails to evolve, adapt and innovate, then it will learn a harsh lesson on how to avoid business failure.

A prime example of a business failing to change comes from the movie Ratatouille. Being a food and film-lover, I devoured the on-screen food story. But what made the movie significant was its message. In the first scene we hear a 5-star Chef Gusteau proclaim the mantra “anyone can cook.” Gusteau embraces the philosophy that anything is possible and success comes from the most unexpected sources. He loves change and innovation. However, after Gusteau dies, his restaurant sinks to 3-stars, and yet its sinister replacement head chef Skinner orders his kitchen to serve ‘more of the same.’ Chef Skinner relies upon Gusteau’s old recipes that made the restaurant famous in the past; he believed that if the recipes pleased the past guests, then they’re good enough for the future guests. Gusteau’s tried-and-true recipes live on, but his legacy of innovation dies.

Gusteau's Restaurant - Ratatouille movie

However, what emerges from Gusteau’s business failure is an unexpected, innovative success. Chef Remy, a rat (of all things!), is the innovative chef and protagonist in Ratatouille. Remy strays from tried-and-true recipes, and his ‘fine-dining’ dish of choice is (of all things!) ‘peasant’ food like France’s ratatouille. His innovative cooking practices converts a skeptical, traditionalist food critic into embracing Remy’s new flavors and recipes. The final shot of the film ends with a long queue of customers eagerly awaiting the chance to try Chef Remy’s innovative, new food.

Over the last year, Restaurant Noma has learned to adapt its new Nordic cuisine philosophy with an increasingly globalized and diverse world. Noma’s food research lab declares that it looks beyond its Nordic borders for culinary inspiration; they embrace diversity. Recently, they served ants and insects—a food resource used in third-worlds, but never consumed as food in the west, let alone considered a ‘delicacy.’ Noma, in some respects, ditched its original formula of success: focusing on hyper-local, Nordic cuisine. They looked to an insect-eating nation (of all things!) like Cambodia for culinary inspiration, while remaining true to a core philosophy: to source its ingredients (such as insects) locally. In fact, in the beginning of 2015, the entire Noma team will relocate to Japan to learn from a food culture halfway around the world.

A 'Welcome to Detroit' sign is seen along 8 Mile Road in Detroit

History constantly proves the rule: if you fail to innovate, then you fail. During the boom years of the auto industry (the late 20th century), Detroit used to represent a global city of success. Back then, the city’s median income was the highest in America. In the early 21st century, Detroit auto companies GM and Chrysler failed to listen to their customer base and innovate. Gas prices rose, and Japanese auto manufacturers created smaller, fuel-efficient cars. Meanwhile Detroit auto companies churned out bigger and bigger cars. Instead of taking seriously new competition from Japan, they staunchly insisted (both to themselves and to their customers) that MADE IN AMERICA automatically meant “best in the world.” This mentality didn’t last long. In 2009 the US government had to loan $77 billion to GM and Chrysler to prop up the companies as they filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. Detroit is now a ghost town. Industry, employment, you-name-it has now abandoned the once-thriving city.


Detroit and its auto companies relied upon past success as a faulty compass that would point them towards the direction of future success. They failed to change and innovate. Even the almighty Roman Empire eventually fell. Never underestimate the hubris that comes with success.

This philosophy of embracing change even applies to you as an individual—not just nations, cities and businesses. Not too long ago, there used to exist a long-term agreement between employee and employers that guaranteed lifelong employment in return for lifelong loyalty. So long as you played nice and worked ‘just enough,’ you moved steadily up the corporate ladder. With the new economic crisis (the worst since the Great Depression), a new performance-based, short-term contract replaces the lifelong employee-employer agreement. Now more than ever you must constantly change, adapt and innovate yourself.

So as Noma enjoys its recent success, I wish the restaurant the best of luck, and I hope it will continue to embrace its best philosophy: innovation.


Photos of innovative (some would even say ‘odd’) dishes served at Noma.

Restaurant Noma - Caramelized milk custard and beat root granite  black current freeze dried tarragon - Kevin Longa -

Caramelized milk custard and beat root granite black current freeze dried tarragon

Restaurant Noma: Stone crab gel made from seaweed and beach mustard and a gel from sorrel - Kevin Longa -

Stone crab gel made from seaweed and beach mustard and a gel from sorrel

Restaurant Noma: grilled pear and aerated pine parfait - Kevin Longa -

Grilled pear and aerated pine parfait

Restaurant Noma: Aebleskiver with pickled cucumber and moiko Fish - Kevin Longa -

Aebleskiver with pickled cucumber and moiko Fish


Read: Why noma redefines creativity and challenges limitations.

Read: How Noma inspires me to write about international food.

Read: The experience of eating live shrimp at Noma.

Read: Another story of a prolific restaurant that fell but retained its core philosophy of innovation as it rebounded.


1 Now, I’m not saying that being first on Restaurant Magazine’s “World’s 50 Best Restaurants” is a mark of success that buries a restaurant ranked second or forty-ninth in stature and culinary significance. Just like all rankings, such as the abysmally flawed college rankings, the “World’s 50 Best Restaurants” rankings are subjective. What is a kick-butt restaurant to a UK magazine (Restaurant Magazine) could be a dull dining experience with a large price tag to another. Yes, sir, sometimes I’ll just have my street food and enjoy it, thank-you-very-much.

2 Trackbacks

  1. […] to content « © 2014 Kevin […]

  2. […] The entrepreneurial modus operandi called ‘lean startup’ argues that every company needs to test, learn and iterate as it grows. Following a rigid business plan only goes so far. Planning can work under environments of relative stability, but in uncertain economic times and rapid change, it is extremely limiting, if not dangerous. Your business will change. The conditions around your business will change. Your customers will change. This means that what made your business successful in the past might not make your business successful in the future. […]

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