Rainer Becker and Arjun Waney on how they plan to keep the quality high and get the staff in place as they get ready to take Roka and Zuma worldwide
Rainer Becker has probably thanked his hairdresser more than a few times. I'm not talking about him showing appreciation for the way they manage to work a boyish wave into his crop, but rather because Becker met his backer through his Knightsbridge barber.
"I'd left the Carlton Tower," Becker recalls, where he'd worked as executive chef for Hyatt to relaunch its Rib Room and Oyster Bar, "but I'd kept my hairdresser there and I was getting my hair cut and they asked me what I was doing. I explained I was looking for an investor for my own restaurant. They said they knew somebody who wanted to open a restaurant but didn't know how, and that was Arjun."
The Arjun in question was Arjun Waney, who had first made his fortune in the US through his chain of Pier 1 Imports stores.
"I called him that day, we met that week, and right away there was a great synergy," says Becker. "We got just got on straight away, we didn't talk about details, there was no paperwork involved, we just started work."
Seven years after they first met, the pair that once shared no more a than a hairdresser now share the running of two extremely – both critically and commercially – successful London restaurants in Zuma, which opened in Knightsbridge in May 2002, and Roka, which opened in Charlotte Street in July 2004. Both of which fulfil what Waney describes as their original aim – to fill a place in the market for a modern Japanese restaurant that was "like Nobu but different", with Becker admitting that Nobu paved the way for Zuma and Roka by "Educating the British market when it came to modern Japanese restaurants." This education was one that Becker was more than qualified to further, having spent six years as executive chef at Park Hyatt in Tokyo from 1992 to 1998.
All of this, however, is not to mention the initial involvement in Zuma of Divia Lalvani, a friend of Waney's daughters, who originally approached Waney for help in opening the restaurant. A rather beautiful society girl, she fronted Zuma in the early days before selling her shares in July 2003. There was talk of her opening a healthy fast food chain before she married Joel Cadbury last April.
Becker and Waney started 2007 by announcing plans to take both brands to Asia, the US and the Middle East. Zuma will open at The Landmark development in Hong Kong in May this year, with further branches in New York and Miami mooted. Roka, meanwhile, will open in Macau in early August this year and in Scottsdale, Arizona in December, with contracts yet to be signed on further outlets in Las Vegas, Dubai and Istanbul.
Sat together in the early evening at a rapidly filling Zuma, Becker and Waney cut an ostensibly odd – if thoroughly Cosmopolitan – couple, the seventy-something Indian businessman and the forty-something German chef, sharing a table at the bar of a modern Japanese restaurant.
"The beauty of working with Arjun is that he loves food and understands food," says Becker.
"He doesn't come from a traditional investor's background where it's just all about squeezing the margins. At the beginning we never sat down and made a business plan. We just seemed to trust each other for some reason, that's the sort of relationship we have."
All of which sounds like what you'd expect from a chef/restaurateur talking about the man that has bankrolled his business, but the thing is, when you listen to Waney you get the impression he's genuinely on Becker's side.
Reading between the lines, and through the potted biogs on financial websites, it's fair to say that Waney doesn't need to be involved in restaurants, or, as Becker puts it, "Arjun doesn't need the money, his drive is doing business."
"Most of my life these days is spent giving away money I made in the States," explains Waney, his philanthropy including helping to fund Mission for Vision, which provides treatment for curable blindness in India.
Although he will admit he was initially in more of a hurry to take the restaurants abroad, he's been happy to do things at Becker's pace. "You can build the Taj Mahal, but if the food ain't good, people aren't going come back, and to get that consistency and structure in place takes time," he says. "Look, we've been approached by large hotel chains that have said ‘let us have Roka as one brand and Zuma as another brand', and if this was only a commercial transaction, if we only wanted to do it for the money, then we would sell those brands now. Why should we take the risk of opening these restaurants?
They're not cheap propositions; they cost millions of pounds."
Becker feels confident that he now has the infrastructure in place for the planned worldwide expansion. "You can't expand too early. For me, a restaurant takes at least two years to become stable," he says. "When you open, it's busy, so you can't get everything completely right, then, at six months, it works, and that's when you start fine tuning. Then after one year, if you continue to grow, only then can you relax slightly and tell yourself you've got something right, and continue to tweak things.
The plan was never just to open another one and another one – it was always get it right, get it smooth, get it running and then see if we can go on to the next level. By the time everything had started working well with both Zuma and Roka, I was in a position where I could step back and not be there everyday and everything still operates in the same way. Obviously I'm still meeting with people and dealing with them, but we have a strong team across the two restaurants and I thought ‘Now we're ready to go overseas.'"
The decision not to follow the original branch of Zuma with a second was taken after they had abandoned plans to open a Zuma in Moscow. "We said let's do Roka because the Barbeque was so popular at Zuma and I wanted to open a restaurant in the West End, but I didn't want to copy Zuma," explains Becker.
"Maybe business-wise it would have made more sense, but for your own satisfaction it's always nice to create something different – you get a buzz out of that."
To Becker the two brands remain quite distinct.
"Zuma is a far more complicated concept than Roka, and I think Zuma is, at the very most, only a once-a-year proposition in terms of more branches, because you need the right site. You have three open kitchens, and although it looks simple the whole thing is very complicated to put together. But Roka is just about the barbeque and the restaurant," he says. "It's not just that the menu at Zuma is more complicated.
It's more about the whole feeling that it has and you need to get the feeling right. For Roka it's about a completely different feeling you can almost put a Roka anywhere because it's easier to recreate. "Zuma is a bar, three kitchens and a private dining room and you have three open kitchens and you need to have the right chefs.
We couldn't, for example, do a Zuma in Scottsdale if we wanted to, because we couldn't find enough sushi chefs. But the barbeque food, after a bit of training, almost anyone can do."
The expansion will also allow Becker to place and reward loyal staff from Roka and Zuma. "I know it's going well and that the formula is right because a lot of people want to stay in the company and want to grow with us," he says.
"You only can grow if you can create something new, otherwise you end up training people for a year, developing them and then they go and work for someone else."
One of those that will do well from the expansion is Nic Watt, Head Chef at Roka, who is to be given equity in the company and become Chief Operating Officer in charge of the rollout of the Roka brand. "I first employed him at the Park Hyatt in Tokyo and and he worked with me at the Carlton Tower before he opened Roka,"
says Becker. "I trust him because he's very, very talented, and I need him because I don't want to have to be flying around the world like a lunatic."
To that end he has also appointed a Hong Kong based GM that will focus on the Asian side of operations.
Just under five years of Zuma and almost two of Roka have left Becker with what he feels is enough cooking talent for the task in hand. "The Head Chef in Hong Kong worked at Zuma in London for five months, the Sous Chef two years and the Second Sous Chef for one and a half years. We are very, very comfortable," he says. "Of course, finding the right general manager is very important, but, to me, finding the right chefs is even more important, and all of the key chefs we will use in the future will come from London."
When it comes to finding suppliers and sourcing ingredients across the world, Becker has been putting to good use his old chef connections from his years with Hyatt, who can point him in the right direction, "I still know a lot of Executive chefs around the world," he says, "you're good to people they're good to you. It's almost ten years since I left Hyatt, but I still have contacts across the world."
So is there anything that he is worried about in opening so many new restaurants?
"The same thing as always," he says, "That when the doors open I can be sure the right quality is going to be there on the plate."
1988 – 1991: Chef de Cuisine, Hyatt Regency Hotel, Cologne.
1991 – 1992: Executive Chef, Park Hyatt Hotel, Sydney.
1992 – 1998: Executive Chef, Park Hyatt, Tokyo.
1998 – 2002: Executive Chef, Hyatt Carlton Tower, London – Oversaw re-launch of Rib Room and Oyster Bar.
2002 May: Opened Zuma, Knightsbridge, London.
2004 July Opened Roka, Charlotte Street, London.
2007, May: Landmark development, Hong Kong.
TBC New York, Miami Roka Roll-out
2007, Dec, Scottsdale, Arizona.
2007, Aug, Macau.
TBC Istanbul, Dubai and Las Vegas