Let us eat bread: Russian businessman Arkady Novikov talks to Citywealth about Novikov

Date: 18 Nov 2012


Arkady Novikov, who has made many hundreds of millions selling food to his fellow Russians, has more than fifty restaurants to his name and seven thousand people working for him.

Now in his first venture into the UK, he has turned his passion and foodie business acumen to conquering the London market. With a new venture in Berkeley Street, Mayfair called Novikov, he has two restaurants, Asian and Italian, and a lounge lizard bar strictly for the W1 sophisticats amongst you.

I ask Novikov why he would do this now, when the UK economy is struggling to keep its eyes open and business expenses have been clipped like a birds wings to stop flight. Novikov is unfazed and looks pleased with himself. “It has always been a dream to have a restaurant in London for many reasons. First, the London market is much bigger than Russia and, second, London has a lot of visitors who want to eat out. The idea of having a restaurant here also makes me happy. It’s exciting to be in London.‚Äù

His greatest challenge is not speaking English, which makes him a bit unusual. Imagine pitching a business idea to a financier where you didn’t speak a word of the language of the country you were going to operate in? Thankfully he doesn’t have to do this. Instead he just read a book on “How to live in England‚Äù and since then has achieved his dream of owning a London restaurant which rivals anything we have here for décor and food quality although, as he says, “We are a work in progress.‚Äù This says something about his drive for perfection and his ability to go where no man has gone before. He could be labelled a restaurant Neil Armstrong. Novikov, twisting his Jade bracelets, explains, “This isn’t an easy venture. There is a lot of competition in London and we have a big restaurant to fill which is not ideal for a start-up. We can’t rest. We have to improve our service all the time. People have high expectations of us.‚Äù

Novikov, who counts Bill Clinton and Vladimir Putin as clients, continues by saying, “We need to have time to see what the perception of the restaurants and bar is. Once we have that then we can decide what will happen here.‚Äù

Novikov started in the business twenty years ago and it seems everything he has touched has turned to gold. He says it took him four or five months to be successful in his first venture where he started with a canteen serving fish. “It was tough. Russia was struggling through a crisis but I wanted to prove to myself I could be successful.‚Äù which he did.

His magic, which undoubtedly he has, he attributes to always being honest with his business partners and restaurant guests. “I also ask for God’s blessing,‚Äù says Novikov.

As to his life outside work Novikov, collects Jade and shows me the bracelet he has been twisting around his wrist. On the reception serving area to the right of the restaurant in the lobby when you walk in to Novikov, he says there is also a substantial piece of jade. I suspect as with the Chinese these are auspicious items. He has also started collecting a deceased Russian painter with forty pictures in his clutches and loves travelling, design and thinking. “My job is also my hobby,‚Äù smiles Novikov. “It was my life until ten years ago then I changed. Now I would say I have a job and I like to view each project like a painter would when painting a picture, only concentrating on one at a time. I admire Hockney, who has developed his world and his art. His new paintings are about light and sun. It seems he has had a change of mind-set and perhaps has become more spiritual. I feel like that. I feel softer and calmer, more relaxed.‚Äù

The rules he lives by include having long relationships with everyone in business and friends and loving his family. He likes harmony and having passion for his work. He says he now knows that resting is also very important, something he has only learned in the last five years.

Successful entrepreneurs often talk about an instinct about a deal or a person, so I ask if this applies to him. He says yes. “I ‘see’ whether something or someone will work or not. People often approach me to open restaurants. I can just look at a person and say yes or no.‚Äù As to whether he will go into Asia, the answer is also a simple “no‚Äù. “I don’t want to spend my whole life opening restaurants. There are more interesting things to do than this.‚Äù

Novikov continues, “A true restaurateur should have only two restaurants; after that you become a businessman.‚Äù Despite this he loves combining being a restaurateur with business because he loves working on the details like lighting, flowers and displays of fresh produce but he also understands that with so many restaurants he can’t do everything or the overall business would suffer. “A conductor has to be with his orchestra. I just listen to the records to see where the grooves are.‚Äù he says, whilst taking a second to eye up the customers and staff in the restaurant.

Entrepreneurial drive

Novikov attributes his drive to a difficult childhood but also thinks sometimes success is in the genes. “My mother was a quick and intelligent woman,‚Äù he adds. “I love the restaurant business because I know in a year and a half I can have built something substantial. “It’s quick and creative, like her.‚Äù

The Wild East

The Russian business economy has been nicknamed the Wild East suggesting a bows and arrows war zone but Novikov says this is not the case and every business person adjusts to the trading environment. “Some things are easier and some more difficult. You just need to know the rules,‚Äù he explains. “Professionally I don’t see obstacles. “If you own a building and want a restaurant, no-one will stop you but there is obviously bureaucracy everywhere. Personally I have only one problem with a building being refused a licence which is on appeal. We suspect someone else wants the site.‚Äù

Favourite foods

“One thing I don’t eat is raw oysters. I don’t like strong tasting food,‚Äù says Novikov, but he eats everything else. “I like Chinese and Indian food and just ate a sea urchin at the restaurant! Bread is my favourite food. I can leave all other food but bread, no. I adore it and think about it constantly. French bread is the best in my opinion.‚Äù

Formula for success

“You need to “feel it‚Äù; to understand each restaurant or customer. Pancakes or sausages work but only in the right venue for the right audience. I make a judgement based on a feeling.‚Äù

What does he think about the British?

“It is too early for me to make a judgement about how the British customer is but the British understand food and know a lot about it. It is a culinary capital. Lots of guests are criticizing the food but they are coming back again and again so we are pleased about that and we want to improve what we do with their help.‚Äù

The secret of going from chef to businessman

“There are examples with Alain Ducasse and Joel Robuchon. Most are probably born with the skills but a restaurateur can develop business acumen.”

Who would he like to have dinner with?

The Queen

What animal would he be?

“In the past, I thought a dog but now I would be a lion because I want to always be the boss and to be free. Freedom is the more important thing a person can have. “

His agricultural business, a 15 acre farm – big future plans?

“No. It will grow but it is difficult in Russia. We don’t have sunshine. It’s profitable but the weather is not good to advance this concept. We just grow white strawberries, tomatoes and cucumbers.‚Äù

Chef hot list

Tom Aikens is on his hot list with his new restaurant in Chelsea. “Like Hockney, Aikens has changed his style and his way of cooking. It is simple but intense and delicate. It is almost like surgery, you cannot dissect what he is doing. He is a talented chef. I called him to congratulate him on his new venture.‚Äù

Quote about life

“You need to live, so you are never ashamed that you wasted your life. You need to be happy and it doesn’t matter what you are doing but be happy. When I think about my children, I want them to help in the business but it is more important that they are happy and feel free even if they decide not to join me.‚Äù

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