Antwerp’s De Serre reinvents the catering industry

Summary

Set in the city’s new StartupVillage, the canteen-cum-laboratory harnesses digital technology to give the hospitality sector a much-needed boost

On food and drink in Flanders

It may look like a regular self-serve breakfast-and-lunch joint – albeit a modish one with a wall of plants, handsome parquet floors and an expansive terrace – but take a closer look, and you realise that De Serre has technological innovation at its core.

Customers to the Antwerp eatery order via an app, then help themselves to locally sourced salads and sandwiches. Behind the scenes, everything from payment to stock management runs on software provided by 20 tech partners, including ING.

The restaurant, which is also open to the public, is the brainchild of Dieter Veuelemans of the marketing firm CityCubes and Sebastian Rummens of the hospitality recruitment agency Forganiser, who previously masterminded the pop-up Kaffee van Antwerpen.

Set in a former school that backs onto the Botanical Garden in the south of the city centre, De Serre (The Greenhouse) serves as the restaurant and event venue for StartupVillage, an incubator that leases affordable office space to 70 entrepreneurs on a two-year basis. 

Embrace the data

“We want to help start-ups, obviously,” says Lorenz Lievens, De Serre’s operational manager. “But we also want to be a place where hospitality can grow and digitalise.”

De Serre, which opened earlier this week, can host all kinds of public events thanks to the clever interior, designed by the local studio Pinkeye’s; the bar morphs into a buffet, and plant stands double as reception tables.

The idea is to fully integrate the software so that it runs near automatically. This will produce swathes of data that De Serre plans to analyse to boost profits – turning it into Belgium’s largest data-mining laboratory for catering.

If you digitalise everything the customers can’t see, then you can use the time you save to personalise everything they do see

- Manager Lorenz Lievens

Big data hasn’t really been applied to hospitality, but the founders believe that it could help boost revenue in an industry rocked by a government crackdown on undeclared income.

“Many businesses are scared of that data collection, but we feel that you should embrace it and try to use it,” says Lievens, adding that the demise of numerous Belgian banks is partly due to their failure to grapple with digitalisation.

Insights will be shared with restaurateurs via events and workshops. De Serre will also collaborate with Flanders employment service VDAB to help catering industry employees without a job to update their CVs with digital skills.

Caterers who do make the leap won’t just benefit financially, says Lievens. “If you digitalise everything that the customers can’t see, then you can use the time you save to personalise everything that they do see – and you end up with an even greater layer of actual hospitality.”

Lange Gasthuisstraat 29, Antwerp