Entrepreneurial inspiration can often strike in the least likely environments.
For Elizabeth Menke, a career-changing moment came in 2014 while browsing the aisles of a European food festival — she spotted a handsomely produced book that served as a quasi-passport to the local restaurants. Patrons would have their “passport” stamped and receive special deals at the eateries within the book.
“I didn’t recall seeing something like that in the United States, and I thought there might be a market for it,” said Menke, who fixated on this idea even though her previous professional endeavors had nothing to do with either publishing or the food trade. “My background is investment backing, specifically working with small and medium-size companies in organizing and financing their businesses, and helping them with strategic issues. I had started a small business related to that.”
Menke, who was living abroad at the time, returned to Connecticut in 2015 and quickly began laying the foundation of what would become Entrée Nous, a Weston-based publishing company that produced books featuring profiles of local restaurants.
When a party for two arrives at one of the participating restaurants, the book is stamped and one guest receives a complimentary entrée.
Menke admitted that the potential for this European concept was not immediately recognized stateside.
“We do have a bit of education to do here,” she said. “It is a new product and not everybody understands immediately what the book is about. But after discussions, people are readily convinced — especially any business owner that understands their financial statements and feels every dollar going in and out of their restaurant.”
And, of course, the idea of using a book as a marketing tool might strike the Snapchat crowd as being a bit too 20th century.
“Old school, isn’t it?” admitted Menke with a gentle laugh, adding that the digital environment is part of her business plan. “We’re trying to combine the two. We’re in the process of developing a web-based application so our book holders don’t necessarily have to bring the book with them to the restaurant — there is a web-based validation when they use the book.”
Still, she focused on the high-end quality aspects of the book’s design, with thick glossy paper, a ribbon page holder and handsome art direction.
“In this digital age, design has become even more important, and the average American is even more sensitive to design aspects,” she said. “There is a lot of emphasis on the design of the book. And when giving a gift, either as thank-you gift or an end-of-the-year school gift, it’s always nice to have something beautiful in your hands to present to somebody.”
Menke focused on 12 high-end restaurants in Fairfield County for her first edition.
“It’s a great food scene,” Menke said. “We’re not far from the city and we’ve seemed to attract a great many restaurant owners.”
The first edition was published with a shelf-life from November 2015 to December 2016. The second edition will overlap, from its debut next month with a shelf-life through the end of 2017. Two restaurants featured in the first edition — Artisan in Southport and Elm in New Canaan — are returning, along with 10 new destinations that Menke plans to unveil in early November. There will also be a new twist: readers that visit all 12 restaurants in the 2017 edition will receive what Menke described as “a little surprise.”
Entrée Nous is also attracting attention as a corporate incentive gift. Real estate brokers have been very receptive to it, offering it as a thank-you gift to clients.
Moving forward, Menke aims to take Entrée Nous to other major markets with a diverse restaurant selection — and a 2017 edition is being readied for Minnesota’s Minneapolis-St. Paul market.
“One of the things we liked about this business model is that it is very scalable,” she said.
But as with any successful start up, Menke sometimes finds herself overwhelmed coping with too much of a good thing.
“There are only 24 hours in the day and there is only so much to do,” she admitted. “For the first edition, we were focused on three questions: Are restaurants interested in this? Are customers interested in this? And can we actually get a book put together? The answer to all three was yes, so this year we are more focused on the experience of bringing high-quality repeat customers to the restaurants and introducing fine dining experiences to our readers.”