Zuma has been a popular haunt on the London restaurant scene for five years. Now with a second site opening this week in Hong Kong, Tom Vaughan looks at the motivation and difficulties involved in expanding abroad
Carrying coals to Newcastle. Taking owls to Athens. Selling snow to Eskimos. Now London's Zuma restaurant appears, on first impression, to have created a new entry to this list of idioms: selling rice to China.
But managing director Rainer Becker, who is this week opening a second Zuma restaurant in Hong Kong, says that any doubts about whether it is possible to export a Japanese restaurant to the Far East are ill-founded.
"You can't compare Japanese food to Chinese," says Becker. "Zuma will be marketable in China because the food we serve is changed for the Western palate. It is a spiced-up version of Japanese food, using stronger flavours, which is a characteristic of Chinese food."
From a sourcing perspective, it makes more sense to have a Zuma in Hong Kong than in London. "Some quality products are very hard to find in the UK. Even some of our sashimi is imported from the Far East," he says.
Zuma's expansion will not just be limited to Hong Kong Becker has a list of cities where he believes the concept will work: Miami, Dubai, Las Vegas, New York, even Toyko. "Why not?" asks Becker. "I'd have no problem taking Zuma to Toyko. I'd have to do a lot of homework on it, but I think it would do very well there."
Alongside business partner Arjun Waney, Becker unleashed the hyper-trendy London restaurant on an unsuspecting public in 2002. Its success has been phenomenal, and five years on it still proves a popular destination for the rich and famous, turning over £12m a year.
The intention is to roll out one Zuma abroad per year for the next five years, with the expansion financed by the Waney family, Becker and Zuma's holding company, Azumi. However, deciding which cities these should be in did not prove easy. "I suspect we get more requests to open abroad than most restaurants," says Becker. "Zuma will only work in certain cities, and it's important to get these right."
It's noticeable that Europe has not been targeted. This is for a number of reasons, says Becker. German by birth, and having lived in many different cities in his homeland, he doesn't believe the German market is suited to Zuma. In Berlin, he says, the restaurant would die with the German habit of not eating out on Sunday, Monday and Tuesday. Likewise, Italy isn't best-suited to the concept. "This is just my opinion," he says, "but I think Italians love Japanese food - but only when they are not in Italy. It's just my gut feeling, and you have to believe in a city you are going into."
The key to Zuma is its open kitchen, where, unlike Becker's midmarket Japanese restaurant, Roka, in London's Charlotte Street, every chef is on display. "It needs a large volume of people to create a buzz in Zuma," he says. "If it is busy, then the chefs are busy and there is a brilliant atmosphere. If it is quiet, then some of the chefs will be standing around. Five years on I have not tired of that buzz in London's Zuma."
It is no surprise, then, that the cities targeted are all busy, cosmopolitan metropolises. And it is also no surprise that the Hong Kong site and the potential Dubai site are both near financial districts. "It means we will get a lot of businessmen coming to lunch and, as in London, coming for a drink after work," says Becker. "Then, in Dubai, we are also very close to the hotel area plus both cities have large expat communities who we will target."
In Hong Kong, work researching a site has been done by a relative of Waney's who lives there, but it is not hard to learn of potential sites abroad. "It's all a great deal to do with networking," he says. "Once word spreads that you are thinking of opening in a city, people approach you with possible sites."
The Hong Kong Zuma, which has cost about US$4m (£2m) to set up and will seat 120 at tables and a further 90 round the open kitchen, will have a core launch team of nine, six of whom will have been trained in the London Zuma. The remaining three will be as support during the opening period. Projected turnover for the restaurant is HK$52m (£3.4m).
The intention is to keep the original site as a figurehead of the brand. Management and chefs will be trained in London for a minimum of six months before being given the chance to join international openings. "It wouldn't be fair otherwise," he says. "To get a chef used to the Zuma style and to make him do it in a new opening at the same time would be very hard."
Becker says that the expectation surrounding any new opening means that preparation is essential. "We have to hit the ground running," he says. "Everyone will be expecting Zuma to be great from the first day. Every country has its critics, and unfortunately they don't wait to come and review places."
So, after the five sites, what does the future hold? As Zuma expands, the plan is to roll out Roka with sites earmarked in Macau, Dubai, Scottsdale in Arizona, and a further seven sites in the next 10 years. Becker will be helped with this by a former Roka chef, Nicholas Watts, who will be responsible for food quality abroad.
Becker will divide his time between the various restaurants and will be heavily involved in all the launches. But beyond the five planned sites, he is coy about Zuma's future. "I don't want too many Zumas. I can only do so much myself, but I also want the restaurants to stay special. So this means that, for the moment, there'll be only five sites."
Gordon Ramsay Holdings
Capping site numbers is not something that Gordon Ramsay Holdings (GRH) has been renowned for. To its nine London restaurants and its Dubai and Tokyo consultancy restaurants the company has recently added a London gastropub, with a second in the pipeline, a restaurant in the Boca Raton Resort & Club in Florida, and two restaurants in the London NYC hotel in New York, while work is under way on a second site for Jason Atherton's Maze restaurant due to open in the Marriott Rennaisance hotel in Prague late this autumn.
Gillian Thomson, operations director for GRH, believes that, if staff training is right, there shouldn't be a reason to cap the number of international sites a company owns.
"As a company grows, so you bring in more people to manage it," she says. "Luckily, in Gordon Ramsay Holdings we have this breadth of talent that can oversee developments on Gordon's behalf. Chefs like Jason Atherton and Angela Hartnett are managing sites abroad just as they have done in London, and beneath them is emerging a third generation of talent who can carry on the company's expansion."
The two restaurants in the London NYC hotel are both closely based on two prior successes from the Ramsay portfolio: Gordon Ramsay at the London is inspired by the group's London flagship restaurant in Royal Hospital Road, while the London Bar takes its basis from London's Maze restaurant.
The idea of moving concepts abroad makes sense, says Thomson, as it means staff are versed in the standards and ideas behind a new opening. In total, 18 out of the 65-strong opening team in the kitchen at the London were from UK Ramsay restaurants.
And while a concept can be tweaked depending on what produce is available, what the working-hour regulations are and so on, the most important decision is to ensure the concept fits the destination.
"For example," says Thomson. "We are looking at a site in Los Angeles, but out there the climate is warmer, the people are much more trendy and body-conscious, so a heavier, more formal restaurant probably wouldn't work."
Does this mean that other Ramsay restaurants such as the Boxwood Café or La Noisette might be copied internationally? "This is definitely something we are looking at," says Thomson.
London is still very much the hub of the organisation. Sauce Communications, the PR agency that deals with GRH in London, devises strategy and communicates with the US agency responsible for the New York restaurants.
However, having a London base does not make it difficult to control standards abroad. "The team is exceptionally capable in itself and we run conference calls, daily log books, mystery guests," says Thomson. "In the worst-case scenario, even if we spoke to a restaurant in LA at 10 o'clock at night, someone could be there by 2pm the next day."
D&D London (formerly Conran Restaurants) is one of the most successful English restaurant companies to have expanded abroad in recent years, and joint managing director David Loewi agrees with Becker that, for a restaurant to be successful abroad, you must be inspired by the location. "It's about believing in your convictions and doing it because you will enjoy it there," he says.
The company owns modern European restaurant Alcazar in Paris runs a joint venture in Copenhagen called Custom House, which consists of three restaurants serving Japanese, Italian and bar and grill food and has a similar arrangement in Toyko, where it jointly runs two restaurants, serving Mediterranean and modern British food respectively, as well as a deli.
The Continental market can be a lot tighter than the UK, with a higher labour percentage cost and a lower average spend. "It can be very difficult in Europe," says Loewi. "Taxes on labour are high, as are national insurance contributions. You have to do your homework, and you have to be good. There might be tighter margins, but at the end of the day it is just like anywhere else - you have to ensure a high turnover."
Rather than exporting staff, Loewi says the key to entering a market abroad is to employ local people. "We have Danish and Japanese partners in the Copenhagen and Tokyo restaurants, and in Paris we have a Parisian general manager who runs a lot of the business," he says. Unlike Ramsay in New York, where many of the waiting staff are British, almost all the D&D staff in Paris are locals.
The process of buying abroad is not so different from opening in London, says Loewi. It is a case of finding a building, stamping an individual mark on it and ensuring the restaurant fits the location. "For example, in Japan we scaled down the size of all the dishes and altered the style of service," he says.
As much as possible, the company tries to let managers run each restaurant as an individual business. "Obviously, we visit to make sure standards are kept up. It's hard to be as hands-off as we might like, but even in our London restaurants we empower managers," says Loewi.
While Becker agrees that, with the right staff in place, a business will look after itself, he is sure that the openings in the near future will not allow him time back in the Zuma kitchen. "I'm not spending as much time behind the stove as I would like. I haven't been there for 18 months now," he says. "But in the coming years I will be travelling a lot and seeing sites abroad. It's not so much checking up on them, because I know we have the quality. I'm confident with the fact that if the food and the site are good, a restaurant will be successful."
Antony Worrall Thompson in New York
One of the first British restaurateurs to try his hand abroad, Antony Worrall Thompson opened a version of his London nouvelle cuisine restaurant Ménage à Trois in New York in 1984 alongside hotel company the Taj Group. Worrall Thompson also took the concept to Melbourne and Stockholm. None of the sites lasted more than four years, as nouvelle cuisine dropped out of fashion, but Worrall Thompson insists that New York remains the hardest city to crack.
"You have to be there the whole time promoting your restaurant or they forget about you," he says. "They hop from trend to trend very quickly. If I went in again, I would ensure I had someone with a massive personality front of house. It goes a long way out there. In Stockholm and Melbourne they have more laid-back attitudes, but New York is notoriously hard."
He also has a word of warning about knowing your location. "We were in the hotel district, and I thought it would be great as people would just walk there. But I didn't realise that nobody walked for fear of getting mugged. They just hopped into a taxi and went to a destination. You really have to know everything about a place."