Any doubts over La Petite Maison opening in London have vanished in a flood of praise
Arjun Waney smiles the smile of a multi-millionaire restaurateur and financier whose new London venture La Petite Maison ("more or less a bit of fun") has been the surprise critical success of the summer. Within just six weeks of opening, the venue has been packed for lunch and dinner. No mean feat considering, as Waney points out, its natural client base – the mega rich – is still away for the summer.
It's helped of course that several key critics – The Times' Giles Coren and The Independent's Tracey Macleod among them – have had to eat their words. In they trooped, ready to mock the London outpost of the original Nice Petite Maison (an institution frequented by jet-set tastemakers like Liz ‘white jeans' Hurley, Bono and Elton John), only to find that it's "a great restaurant" (Coren) serving food that's "good, rising to excellent" (Macleod).
Even better news is that La Petite Maison has, according to Waney, been "profitable since week one". The 80-cover Mayfair restaurant took even more in its first three weeks than Waney's other success story Roka, which he co-founded with Rainer Becker following their huge success with Zuma. "That's not just an achievement," says Waney. "It's a Herculean task. Profitability went up more in the first four weeks than we would have anticipated happening in six months."
Much of its success comes down not only to glowing press notices but to the magic power of the brand ‘La Petite Maison'. Before Waney got started on his version of it, La Petite Maison was known as a jolly nice Côte d'Azur restaurant serving Niçoise cuisine to the rich and famous.
Overpriced and overhyped maybe, but now it's over here, it's a different thing altogether. Now it promises to transport a little Riviera magic wherever it goes. Dubai and Hong Kong sites have already been earmarked for launch within the next two years (which fits in nicely with the global expansion of Waney's other brands, Roka and Zuma). He thinks it could work in New York, and has already had Nick Nolte call him to beg him to open one in LA.
"In business you need a brand of labels. La Petite Maison – that's a great brand name." The brands have to retain their integrity, however.
"I will never compromise on food quality because that's how you risk longevity in the restaurant business. With God's grace, if the revenue stays as good as it has, we can pay higher costs for food but still attain profitability." Waney has made his millions in the retail business (with Pier 1 Imports Inc. in the USA), so La Petite Maison is a treat for him, hardly his sole income. "To Gordon Ramsay, it's his life, to people like Hakkasan, it's their livelihood. To us, it's not. So when they tell me gross margins haven't come in on food, I say ‘it's all about the quality of the food.'"
A healthy liquor spend has also contributed to the restaurant's financial success so early after its opening. Wine sales from a list that has a whole page-worth of hot weather Provençal Rosés (at Mayfair prices it should be said) have been strong – better than predicted given this year's gloomy Summer weather and the limitations of the venue's relatively small holding bar. Beyond the bread and butter of upbeat food and drink sales, Waney ascribes the successful transition of La Petite Maison to London to his hand-selected staff, insisting that he take credit only for "the idea, the implementation and the finance".
Having made his fortune in retail and investment management, he defers to the expertise of Director Bob Ramchand, Chef Raphael Duntoye (formerly of Zuma), Manager Francesco Mattioli (formerly of Le Caprice and the Walnut Tree Inn, featured in Ramsay's Kitchen Nightmares). He sets considerable store by top personnel at every level.
"When people go [there] they see familiar faces, can say hello to the receptionist and the manager. They can identify that this is their home, their party. That's of paramount importance to La Petite Maison," explains Waney.
"One of the biggest problems in the restaurant business is turnover. I'm a very caring human being, so if I see staff working extra I might take £200 and dole it out. That's paid off well. People don't just leave us."
He's "very hands off" himself, claiming only to have spent three hours at La Petite Maison in its first month. Instead, he empowers others to take decisions; so for example, decisions about the food are made only by Duntoye who is to become a partner in the business. "The final call is always his. You have to give people space to grow."
Another familiar face who has looked over the operation is Rainer Becker, Waney's business partner in Zuma and Roka. Becker's not directly involved in La Petite Maison but Waney still enjoys having his support. Becker, meanwhile, has taken to his partner's solo project very well. "Rainer told me we were going to have to concentrate on the new operations [overseas launches of Zuma and Roka] but I said I wanted to do something on my own just to prove that I can," says Waney with a chuckle. Significantly, La Petite Maison also has the blessing of Nicole Ruby, the host and life behind La Petite Maison in Nice. Waney has known Ruby and the restaurant since 1996 when he bought a home in Cap Ferrat, and had been working on securing her permission to take the concept to London all that time. "Oh! It was like asking Tony Blair to step down," he says. "Worse than that."
Ruby eventually agreed to consult on the London transfer, having fallen in love with Zuma and Roka on a visit to London. She now gets a ‘royalty fee' every year in addition to the lump sum up front, in exchange for consulting on matters likes sourcing olive oil (crucial in a Niçoise restaurant) and finding new recipes and chefs. She won't, however, be seen in action at La Petite Maison, instead appearing periodically to host a table for the likes of Elton John, Catherine Deneuve and local paper, Nice-Matin. London's La Petite Maison shares around 70 per cent of its dishes with the Nice original, but is already acquiring a life of its own. "Raphael's dishes are now being copied over there. Their Pissaladière is heavy and gooey, whereas ours is very flat.
When Nicole first came over she said ‘What eez this? It eez rubbish'; now it's on her menu which is a great compliment. She loves our Scallop and Octopus Salad too. Her tapenade was the one thing she insisted on. Theirs is a fantastic seller, and their trademark, so we went back to that. She was adamant."
As Summer turns into Autumn, the Niçoise restaurant will incorporate new, seasonal dishes to prove it's not a one-summer-wonder.
Waney's already looking forward to the arrival of Belon oysters, langoustines, and some new lamb dishes, as well as Ligurian fish stew, Cioppino, sure to be a huge hit.
With everything going so swimmingly, he'll admit to just one regret: that he didn't sign on the Davies Street site (now occupied by Cipriani, another successful overseas transfer)
when he had the chance. "It would have required a lot of guts to sign that lease. It was double the rent of Zuma," he sighs. "If I had known the revenue stream was going to be as good as it is then I would never not have signed. Now I know how full I am. And how foolish I am."
La Petite Maison, 54 Brooks Mews, London W1, 020 7495 4774 lpmlondon.co.uk
Les petits plats
Pissaladière with Caramelised Onions and Smoked Anchovies; Seabass in Salt Crust with Girolles; Roast Chicken with Foie Gras; Warm Prawns with Olive Oil; Baked Langoustines; Fried Artichokes and Tomatoes; Turbot aux Artichauds Barigoule; Salade Niçoise; Pistachio Soufflé; Tiramisù.