From print to plate: The rise of Condé Nast International Restaurants

Having previously been executive chef at the British Embassy in Washington D.C and personal chef to the Prince of Wales, Robinson is well positioned to run this part of the business. I asked him about how the Condé Nast International Restaurant concept began, and what’s in store for the future.

Vogue Lounge Bangkok ()

How did Condé Nast International Restaurants begin?

The restaurant division has been around for four years, but the concept is 12 years old and started with our Vogue Café in Moscow in 2003. Russian restaurateur Arkady Novikov and Jonathan Newhouse [Condé Nast’s chairman and chief executive] agreed to put the Vogue name to one of Novikov’s restaurants in Moscow. The place is incredible, is still operating today, and is more successful than ever. It’s always fully booked and there are long waiting lists – you can’t get a table in the place!

As a result of Vogue Café’s success in Moscow, we realised that this is a good idea – it works.

What happened four years ago?

Condé Nast International Restaurants was born. Vogue Café Moscow was the blueprint, and we still have a great relationship with our partner there. We studied how it works, lessons learned, obstacles overcome. Then we were ready. We set up an operating arm/support mechanism within the company in order to explore the restaurant idea in cities other than Moscow. We never had a structure before, but now we look after the PR/marketing and the financial/operational back up and support.

What we didn’t have then that we have now, is a serious food and beverage ethic. Condé Nast’s magazine portfolio is such an intrinsic part of lifestyle. Where else do we spend time and money? We go out to eat. It’s a perfect fit and a wonderful place to be.

As well as Vogue Café Moscow, we now also have Vogue Cafés in Kiev, Dubai and Vogue Lounge Bangkok, a GQ Bar in Dubai and a Tatler Club in Moscow. Vogue Café Doha will launch at the end of 2015.

How important are your partnerships in this business?

The core of success to Condé Nast International Restaurants is always going to be partnerships. We are very lucky to have great partners. We’ve chosen them, they’ve chosen us, it’s a combination of the two. We’re not looking to expand at 100mph – it’s a very careful thought process. Condé Nast and its brands have been around for a very long time – we cannot afford to risk anything.

The most recent deal, Vogue Café Doha, took a long time. We wanted to make sure it was perfect, make sure we were working with the right people who share our views. They want long-term strategic success, and so do we. Getting it right from the word go is imperative.

The business is managed quite remotely as I’m based in London. Therefore, we have to reach a point where our partners understand the DNA of the brand, what Condé Nast and Vogue (for example) represents, and make sure we empower them to make decisions and be operators without feeling shackled. We try to bring them into the family, fuel them with as much information that we can, whether it’s something simple like sending them a magazine every month. It sounds flippant, but if we make sure they have most current copies of Vogue and give them a reminder of what’s going on, we ensure that they feel part of the family. By the time we get to the opening of the restaurant, they will really feel as though they are part of Condé Nast rather than a licensed partner. The only way for true success is to have these great partnerships.

Once you’ve launched a restaurant, is it easy to maintain success and the partnership?

It’s time consuming and lots of effort goes into it. We have to make sure we share any new information we pick up with all partners. As soon as we learn something new – a solution to a conundrum, for example – we make sure everyone has access to that. It’s like a network. Nobody is competing, because territorially they all sit in different parts of the world and each have their own slice of the pie.

Do you use the magazine brands’ data when researching for new restaurant launches? How involved are the magazine teams in the process?

Yes, we have access to some incredible information from the brands across the board. But it’s easy to get drawn into that and have tunnel vision, e.g. “What does the GQ reader in Britain like to eat?” I have to filter out and rationalise how it’s relevant to other countries, and we have to be smart about it. We get more out of sitting down with the magazine teams and bouncing ideas around. This is how I begin to draft menus, for example. We’re constantly having conversations with them to help us join the dots, be on brand and build a restaurant’s image.

Do you offer your partners brand guidelines?

Yes. We give partners extensive guidelines to help them to master and understand what we’re trying to achieve. It’s literally the first piece of documentation the partner would receive at the start of the relationship.

And we update them twice per year, minimum. This is a great time to use the editorial teams when we’re re-writing, to make sure we get the brand’s tone of voice right and ensure we’re conveying the right message. The magazines evolve just as much as the restaurants, and are always in flux, moving forward.

Do you target territories where the magazine brands already have a presence?

We run very independently. We all use each other, and have great conversations and a great sharing culture and best practises. But the decisions we make here are wholly focussed towards food and beverage and the restaurants. The magazine territories don’t necessarily influence where we’re going next. We are looking at territories where it would make sense from a restaurant standpoint to be present – it’s a very clear strategy.

Your most recent launch is the Vogue Café in Doha. Where next? And will you extend the concept to other brands?

Looking at our portfolio, we have an incredible suite of magazines. How do you choose? We’re blessed because we have all this in our back pocket. You could transfer them all into a place where you could go and dine – each one has a lifestyle element that you could turn into a food and beverage destination. And it’s exciting to think that that’s potentially on the horizon.

Right now, we’re focussing on three brands – Vogue, GQ and Tatler. We want to demonstrate there’s strength and longevity here. We’re busy fine-tuning, making sure what we have is bullet proof. Because at the end of the day, we never want to open something that’s semi-successful. We’re constantly adjusting and tuning to make sure it’s perfect. The excitement of knowing we’ll get to a point where there’s a demand to add another brand to the portfolio is exciting.

Vogue Café Doha will open at the end of this year, and all being well, so will GQ Bar Almaty. These are our main focus right now.

What does success look like for Condé Nast International Restaurants?

Success is fully booked restaurants, great reviews, a constant stream of return guests and happy staff and teams. We measure that via staff retention. For example, our head chef in Moscow, Yury Rozhkov, has been there since the very start. For me personally, that’s a great measure of success.

And what are your long-term goals?

A good and healthy presence of restaurants in some of the most exciting markets in the world. We’re not looking for global domination and a restaurant in every single city on the planet, but what we are looking for is carefully placed, well thought-out, successfully run restaurants. A lot of that is dictated by the partnerships. If it’s not right, it’s not destined to happen. The great thing is, we’re growing at a pace we feel comfortable with.

Who are your competitors?

Competition is generally within your footfall area of where you sit, and that’s different in every city. In Bangkok, for example, our competitors are immediately next-door, because the city’s traffic is such a nightmare. So your competition is exactly where you are.

Whereas in Dubai, everybody drives, taxis are cheap and the road system is good, so competition spans a wider area. Moscow is more of a walking destination, especially where the Vogue Café is, and there is a string of restaurants around there (all owned by our partners). So, every market is different.

What are your pressure points? What keeps you awake at night?

Our GQ Bar in Dubai recently won a Time Out award for best bar food. What keeps me awake at night is how we maintain that for next year. Maintaining standards and quality is key. I monitor things like Trip Advisor to see where the restaurants are sitting and what’s being said, and am quick to react to any issues.

Although sometimes a challenge, one of the beautiful things about being remote from the restaurants is being able to observe from afar. When you’re directly involved in it, you can adopt tunnel vision and only focus on what you’re doing. I’m lucky because I can see everything from a distance, see potential problems before they arise. Trip Advisor, Facebook, website chatter and activity and following certain people on Instagram are great for monitoring how the restaurants are doing.

Vogue Cafe Dubai ()

Which restaurant is your favourite? Which are you most proud of?

That’s like asking a parent which child is their favourite! I love them all for their own individual qualities, because they’re all quite different. With Vogue-brand extensions, as much as it embodies the brand DNA, we’ve interpreted it slightly different in Vogue Café Moscow, Kiev, Dubai and Vogue Lounge Bangkok because we’ve tailored it for market and demographics. So I can’t really compare. I love them all for what they stand for.

And I’m so proud of Vogue Café for what it’s done in Moscow. It has helped us so much to be where we are today, and even though I wasn’t there 12 years ago, I still look at it with great pride. With Vogue Lounge Bangkok, it’s amazing to see how far we’ve come because there’s been such a massive leap of learning activity processed and applied here. So I’m proud of that and everything in-between.

Anything else you’d like to add?

It’s brave embarking on a new direction, but we’ve found ourselves falling into a nice niche in taking our brand values to restaurants. I’m very proud to be a part of that.

More about Condé Nast International Restaurants.

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