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Business Profile: Arjun Waney

By Stefan Chomka , 02-Nov-2011
Last updated on 02-Nov-2011 at 10:39 GMT

The relaunch of The Arts Club is just one of a long line of new openings for successful restaurateur Arjun Waney, as he explains in this exclusive interview with Restaurant magazine.

A notoriously private man, Waney keeps his affairs to himself. In the nine years since opening his first restaurant, Zuma, with business partner and chef Rainer Becker, he has conducted only a handful of interviews. “Most people use restaurants as a platform for ego. I don’t really give a damn,” he shrugs. “I try my best to stay out of the limelight.”

It might seem strange, therefore, that with his latest venture, the relaunch of plush private members’ venue The Arts Club in London’s Mayfair , he’s mixing with people who prefer to bathe in it. Actress Gwyneth Paltrow is a shareholder and music man Mark Ronson is also involved. The membership list features names such as Jude Law and Emma Thompson. “People would say to us, the one thing you’re lacking is a private club, so we opened one,” says Waney.

Relaunched after a major refurb in September, The Arts Club is arguably Waney’s biggest project yet. It’s certainly his most expensive, coming in at five times the amount it cost to open the first Zuma. Originally founded by Charles Dickens and Anthony Trollope, the club had lost its way in recent years, but its long and rich history encouraged Waney to return it to its former glory.

Central to this is a vast improvement of the food offer, with Raphael Duntoye, former head chef at La Petite Maison, heading up the kitchen. The menu is wide-reaching and the dining room now features an oyster bar serving dishes such as Boston clam chowder as well as the more standard shellfish.

A passion for food

Waney’s impressive knowledge and passion for good food comes across as we speak: “If something doesn’t taste good the chef will hear from me in 10 seconds,” he assures me. Yet like other restaurateurs in charge of some of London’s finest dining rooms, most notably Richard Caring, food has played only a bit-part in his career.

Born in India, Waney studied at the University of California before starting up successful home furnishing business Pier 1. Selling his share in the company in 1974, and being restricted from competing in the US, he went to Europe and opened more homefurnishing stores, which he later sold to Pier 1. With this new-found wealth he then set up one of the largest programmes for curable blindness in India, which he still runs today. He moved to London in 1995 where he ran a financial fund and in 2000 met Rainer Becker and began discussing opening Zuma.

The switch to restaurants, he explains, came from necessity as much as anything else. “I used to call in for a reservation at Nobu and every time there was a two month wait. I said ‘To hell with you – one day I’m going to open my own Japanese restaurant’, and that was Zuma.”

Zuma’s success has been so great that today it arguably eclipses Nobu and is widely recognised as one of London’s highest-grossing restaurants. Even though it does an impressive 550-600 covers each day, attaining a table isn’t easy: a further 170 try to book but can’t get a seat.

This initial success begat more prosperity. Zuma’s Japanese sibling Roka, which launched in 2004 in Fitzrovia, is equally popular thanks to the stewardship of group executive chef Nic Watt. La Petite Maison, opened in 2007, also turns away numerous guests each night. “I didn’t think in my wildest dreams that La Petite Maison would be as profitable as it is,” he says. “I know really large players and if they saw the numbers that these restaurants do, they would be shocked.”

Such statements shouldn’t be confused with arrogance, however. Waney’s mild manner and openness display a pride in what he has achieved. “It’s a very tough industry and I’m not taking anything for granted,” he adds, almost as a caveat. And with such a strong track record it comes as no surprise that his portfolio continues to expand.

New openings

In addition to The Arts Club, he is busy with a number of new openings, not least Mediterranean-inspired Aurelia and high-end Italian Banca.

Aurelia, opening on the old Mulligan’s of Mayfair site on 6 November after a week-long soft opening, is being launched with his brother, Peter, and restaurateur Giuliano Lotto. Watt will oversee the kitchen and Rosie Yeats- Greenslade, another Roka alumnus, will be installed as head chef.

Banca, a less expensive sidekick to Il Baretto, which Waney owns with Lotto, will open in March, also in Mayfair. “Banca is influenced by places in Portofino and Ravello, two epicentres of good food,” says Waney. “We will be bringing in San Daniele ham but also air-dried venison and swordfish, which will be cut in front of you.”

If that wasn’t enough to keep the 72-year-old busy, yet another project is on the horizon, due to launch one month after Banca at 118 Piccadilly.

Called Villa Rose, although this is subject to change – “I don’t particularly like the name so we are still arguing over it” – its emphasis will be on south American and Latin American food. The chefs have already been dispatched to Peru for inspiration and from there will visit Caracas.

Beef will come from Uruguay – “it almost tastes like kobe beef” – chickens will be cooked on spits over charcoal and hickory chips and corn tortillas will be made on site. In keeping with the Waney oeuvre, dishes will be of a sharing nature.

Beyond that he has other ideas, including his take on a Chinese restaurant, although expansion may slow. “If I were 20 years younger I’d probably be a real restaurant magnate, but I don’t have the appetite for the amount of stress it would bring.”

Posh but profitable

To the outsider, Waney’s success appears to have been built on serving food to celebrities and the well-heeled of Mayfair at prices they can well afford. Indeed, the economic downturn has had little impact on his businesses; what has been lost in average spend has been made up in numbers. This factor alone has no doubt been a catalyst for the raft of openings in the pipeline.

But (if you’ll forgive the Reggie Perrinism) Waney didn’t get where he is today solely by virtue of opening up in posh locations. Much of his restaurants’ success has been down to a sharing-plate policy well ahead of its time. “If you go to Restaurant Gordon Ramsay you can’t share food. But at my restaurants if there’s five people you can order fried squid, gravlax, even a steak cut into five so everybody can take a piece. Why should we be restricted? It was full marks to Rainer, I won’t take any credit for something I didn’t think of.”

Waney is also a shrewd businessman. Although his restaurants are in expensive locations, they are certainly not vanity projects. With Banca he dealt directly with property group Grosvenor – “We’re not paying any middle-men or extra premiums and have very good ground rent,” – and until Aurelia he had never paid any site premiums. “We did pay through the nose for Aurelia,” he admits. “It was close to £850,000 including legal fees just to obtain the lease.” But it will be worth it, he adds: “At the end of the day if you believe in a concept and have got the right people on board it will pay for itself.”

Having the right staff is something Waney has worked hard on, and he intends to keep them. “Rainer cannot leave because he owns as much stock as I do in Zuma; he’s locked in for life. Raphael cannot leave because of the compensation package he gets and because he’s a shareholder.” There is, however, talk of Watt returning to New Zealand, but Waney is trying to persuade him to stay.

“If I could keep him I wouldn’t hesitate to pay him the largest salary in the industry. He’s one of the best.”

If Watt goes, does he have a contingency plan on who’s going to run Roka? “We’ve already got the people in place. Hamish Brown [current head chef] is fantastic. Soon he will be the Nic Watt of the entire Roka group.”

Present-day issues

Looking too far into the future isn’t on Waney’s mind; there are more immediate issues, in particular at The Arts Club. “We’re not nightclub people and we are struggling with it,” he admits. “It’s full but I don’t think it makes money as yet. The membership income (£1,200 joining fee, £1,500 annual membership fee) will be a backbone to support the restaurant.”

The celebrity element has also not been without issue. A friend of Paltrow’s got upset when he waited at the bar for half an hour without being attended to. “That’s not the kind of service we provide. I felt very embarrassed,” he says. “I got a very caustic email from Gwyneth saying ‘First get everything right before I start sending in my celebrity friends’. Give us another 30 days and we’ll have the place working like our other restaurants.”

The club owner has even had his power over the membership list rescinded. “Initially we were selling to bankers because that’s where our connections are, but we have become more discriminating. It goes through a committee. They told me categorically ‘You may be the owner, but you’re no longer authorised to give membership’. The power has been seized from me,” he grins.

It is maybe this aspect of his character, above all others, that is the overriding secret of Waney’s success – a lack of dogma, a generosity of spirit and likability that has formed close relationships with staff and customers. Although admittedly, the revelation comes as a blow. I may have been invited to the inner sanctum of Waney’s home but it means there’s no chance of rubbing shoulders with Gwyneth and co any time soon.

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