It’s been a decade since Russian owner Arkady Novikov opened the eponymous dual-faceted restaurant on Mayfair’s Berkeley Street. General manager Caroline Taylor, who has worked for restaurants including the Fifth Floor at Harvey Nichols, the OXO Tower and China Tang, has been at the restaurant from its inception and helped establish it as one of the capital’s highest grossing restaurant venues as well as a long-time celebrity hot spot.
How have things been since the lifting of lockdown?
We’re doing really well considering we’ve only got the local market – there are no incoming planes. Monday to Wednesday we are definitely quieter but Thursday to Sunday it’s really good. We’re down 19% on 2019 but that was our biggest year, we made £36m in revenue, so I’m not complaining. Normally throughout the year when the local market is quieter, we have incoming tourists and people from the Arab world. Something is always taking up where another thing drops off, so we’re keen to see things open up again.
There have been two separate restaurants - an Asian and an Italian - at Novikov from the start. How does it work?
They are run separately. Things do overlap, such as reception, reservations, cleaners, but each restaurant has its own cost centre and teams. In the old days there would have been a bit more crossover but there’s less so now. Italians need to be around other Italians and all talk Italian, in the Asian restaurant there is a greater mix of staff.
Do they attract very different kinds of people?
The Asian restaurant has always been the stronger of the two, because it’s the first you see when you walk in, it’s slightly smaller than the Italian and the offer is a bit broader. It’s partially Japanese, partially Chinese whereas Zuma is just Japanese and Hakkasan Chinese, so we offer a bit of everything. The Italian is quite classic and there’s a lot of Italian restaurants in London.
Are you finding staffing a problem?
We’ve got about 270 staff now, but we had 350 - we are 80 staff down since the start of lockdown. The number will go up again but maybe not to 350, although we will need that level of staff once the place is very busy again. It’s a 24-hour a day, seven days a week operation – we shut at 2am and deliveries start at 6am and you’ve got cleaners in the middle. It’s a treadmill. We can cope with the number of staff we’ve got because of the less busy start to the week but we’ll have to see how long that lasts. When we had 350 staff only seven people were born and bred in the UK, and now we have only five. The service industry isn’t something British people want to do. It’s sad. We need a different way of training and getting people in.
You’re a late-night venue, how badly were you affected by last year’s 10pm curfew?
It meant about nine hours a day loss of trading across the restaurants and bar. People are usually splashing the cash at that time. To put it in perspective, when we got our licence 10 years ago the Asian restaurant got a licence til 12am, the Italian til 1am and the bar til 2am, for one reason – kicking out time. It was to stop everyone leaving at the same time. That’s the licence for one venue. And look what [they Government] did, every licenced place kicking out at 10pm.
And what about this year’s lockdown?
We launched a takeaway business because we needed the cashflow and also because we needed to keep the equipment and the extraction working. It’s still going and it’s doing around £2,000 a day, but we did around £25,000 on Mother’s Day. We also started outside dining in April, I remember the first day we did it it was snowing. But we’ve made it work; between December and May we took £1.5m from outdoor dining and takeaway.
Have people’s habits changed as a result of the pandemic?
As well as it being quieter earlier in the week, we’ve noticed that late lunch or early dinner is a real goer. People are coming in at 4pm and 5pm and on the weekends 3pm is when it starts to really gets busy.
Will lunchtime trade in the capital return?
There’s my thoughts and then everybody else’s. [Working from home] might be sustainable for a little while longer but I think what will happen is there will be a massive uproar from the youngsters. All these kids are doing their first jobs since leaving university and are stuck at home working on a computer on their beds while the senior ones are in their lovely big offices at home. These people need to be mentors, that’s what offices are about, and these young kids will put pressure on coming back to the office.
10 years is a good milestone in such a busy part of London for restaurants. How have you made it work?
The restaurant hasn’t changed in this time, the format’s the same. It’s just about reemphasising things and making it better all the time. There’s a lot of work done on maintenance, that costs at least £40,000 a month. And you’ve got to accept that people are going to look elsewhere but whenever we know someone is opening nearby, we do kill our customers with kindness. They can visit somewhere else, but they must come back to us.
And it has remained a favourite among celebrities…
We have a great clientele but it’s not all about the stars. We need bums on seats, we need to be turning tables and be full and have all sorts of people in. We brief on everybody – we’ve got profiles on all our regulars and their likes and dislikes. The stars tend to have their favourite people who look after them, so we always make sure that happens. But there are so many captains of industry from various places who come here, people who I would say are far more interesting than the Daily Mail ones.
Is Arkady hands on with his London restaurant?
Arkady visits every couple of months, although the restrictions have changed this. He’s got a very big input, especially with dishes and he has his particular views on how he wants things. He started as a chef and that’s never gone away from him. He likes everything perfect. Ideally, he would like it all set up and for customers to come in a hover and not touch anything. He keeps us on our toes I assure you.
What will the legacy of Covid be for London restaurants?
It will get back to what it was. People aren’t going to want to miss out on going for lunches and dinners and the lunch trade will return and be a time for doing business again. It will take a bit of time; we’ll have to get past the summer and then in September I think it kickstart the busiest time of the year. We used to have customers who might come nearly every day for a month and then not see them again for a while because they’ve gone off to another home in another country. That’s what I want to get back.