A shared boredom with New York nightlife initially brought two young Frenchmen together in an effort to put some buzz into their evenings. Now, more than a decade later, Aymeric Clemente and Remi Laba are partners in a thriving hospitality business, Brand Essence, and the brains behind Bagatelle, a French Mediterranean–inspired destination restaurant in the heart of the Meatpacking District.
Prior to the restaurant’s June 2012 opening, the original Bagatelle restaurant had operated nearby, but closed following a dispute with a former partner that wound its way through the courts.
“We won in court but we had to rebuild,” says Laba. “While we were waiting to resolve the situation, we opened pop-up restaurants all over the world to keep the brand alive and in the forefront.” The pop-ups typically operated from two days to two weeks.
Bagatelle, which not only caters to local crowds but also to an international clientele, was named for a French term that is synonymous with “subtle courtship or flirting with a woman,” says Laba. “There was an old saying: ‘Do the bagatelle.’”
With outposts in Los Angeles, Las Vegas, St. Barth’s island, Sao Paulo, and St. Tropez, and with another soon to open in Miami followed by Dubai and London, the Bagatelle brand is keeping the duo busy.
With its sophisticated following and contemporary, chic décor, Bagatelle often is perceived as trendy. However, the menu and food have been met with critical acclaim.
“Because we are a vibe restaurant, guests are very surprised by the quality of our food,” says Clemente. “With music starting to play around 11 p.m., it can take over the fact we are a great restaurant.”
Open for lunch and dinner with continuous service from 11 a.m., Bagatelle boasts a large bar scene and also attracts a big brunch crowd on weekends.
Best-selling menu items include the Salade Bagatelle, Tartare de Thon Bagatelle—which features ahi tuna tartar, avocado salad, lime soy vinaigrette, and taro chips—and entrées such as Poulet Rôti Entier à la Truffe Pour Deux—a truffled roasted chicken, country-style potatoes, and chicken jus for two, and Steak au Poivre—black angus sirloin steak, homemade pommes frites, and classic cognac peppercorn sauce.
The restaurant, which seats 140 to 180 with another 60 on the terrace, averages two table turns nightly. The 5,000-square-foot space features a sleek, modern feel with vibrant art that changes regularly. Guests stay an average of two and a half hours, which is likely attributable to the open, airy space that is distinctively elegant and inviting.
“The design was meant to give the feel of a Parisian apartment,” says Laba. “We wanted to give people the sense they were in someone’s living room, a place that comes alive.”
The owners say 70 percent of their guests represent repeat business, and 30 percent are first-time visitors.
“One of the biggest lessons we’ve learned in our first year is that our business is made up of regulars, whom we constantly need to pamper and look after,” says Laba. “We can’t sit on our past success. We constantly need to renew ourselves.”
Clemente says food costs run between 30 and 32 percent, but there is an emphasis on quality. “We have a reputation to maintain, and that depends on buying the best products possible.”
At Bagatelle, which caters to an over-35 demographic, several of the dishes are offered family-style. “We serve a few of the dishes like chicken, bone-in ribeye, and large fish to share because it is part of the conviviality,” Clemente says. “This is something that brings people together.”
Since opening the first incarnation of Bagatelle in 2008, Laba has learned that the concept seems to be recession-proof.
“We opened in January of 2008—eight months before the big crisis—and we grew 20 percent despite the crisis,” asserts Laba. “Today we are still growing in revenue and showing a healthy return on investment.”
Laba attributes his good fortune to the restaurant’s “fun and festive” elements. “People are cutting down on vacations or weekend escapes, [but] they are not willing to sacrifice on their daily escapes.”
Ticket averages run $35 at lunch and $75 at dinner without alcohol, and 75 percent of total sales are from beverages, according to Clemente, who is charged with overseeing restaurant operations, while Laba oversees business development.
Despite brisk beverage sales, Clemente does not want his staff to be constantly pushing up ticket averages. “The biggest challenge is to teach a waiter to be a waiter, and not be a salesman,” says Clemente. “We are constantly training our staff. We want them to know we are in the hospitality business. In the restaurant business, one bad mouth will tell 10 people.”