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Reigning kings of dining
Written by: Klára Smolová, Jason Hovet
Photo by: Luminum, Vojtěch Vlk
It has taken fifteen years to instill
the awareness of “haute cuisine” into the local dining scene, and
that accomplishment can be attributed largely to foreign influence.
Today, Prague’s food & beverage industry is a thriving, multifaceted
sector that encompasses catering and many other services.
APART FROM RESTAURANTS offering Czech
cuisine and pizzerias, there was nothing," says Nils Jebens,
owner of Kampa Group, recalling his arrival in Prague. Jebens now
operates five Prague restaurants and one in Bratislava. "That
void enabled us [foreigners] to 'get a foot in the door'," he
adds. While Czechs always liked to eat, during communism's fifty-year
presence they practically forgot how to eat out, not to mention
tasting exotic specialties. "The Czechs' idea of fine dining
didn't get beyond beer pubs with white table cloths," says
Josef Voltr, PR, marketing, and sales manager for the Kolkovna
Group, which comprises five eateries in Prague. "Czechs didn't
have the funding to create this category, so foreigners logically
seized the opportunity - and they hold their positions to this
day," Voltr notes.
Photo by: Vojtěch Vlk
Since then, the face of the food service industry here has changed
beyond recognition. According to 2001 Eurostat data, 90% of the
EU restaurant sector is dominated by small, individual establishments
(often family-owned) employing under ten people. Although such
restaurants also account for 95% of the Czech market, several groups
slowly but surely divided up the Prague market among themselves.
There are four major players in the fine dining segment - Kampa
Group, Zátiší Catering Group, Pálffy Group, and Bacchus Group -
while chains like Kogo, Ambiente, Kolkovna Group, Potrefená husa,
and Pizzeria Coloseum dominate the middle segment. According to
the Czech Republic National Federation of Hotels and Restaurants
(NFHR) research, these middle-segment restaurants are replacing
very inexpensive restaurants in popularity. "The number of
inexpensive restaurants is declining, due, among other things,
to the negative impact of the higher VAT," states Václav Stárek,
NFHR's general secretary.
According to unofficial data, there are almost 1,000 restaurants
in downtown Prague alone. Competition is still growing, but cognoscenti
confirm that there's still room for development in the market,
and there's still a call for some new types of restaurants. And
although the customer base is limited in Prague - unlike in New
York or London - restaurants now firmly established don't compete
very much with each other. "Each restaurant is focused differently
and provides a different type of entertainment," claims Zdeněk
Sirový, the owner of C'est la vie and one of the few Czech entrepreneurs
competing with these groups.
Although the middle-segment groups can't compete with fine dining
in terms of quality, luxury restaurant owners admit they share
customers. People who like to dine in peace at Kampa Park or Barock
also like going out for a quick lunch at Potrefená husa or Kolkovna. "They
don't have premium locations, but they target a broader spectrum
of people," Sirový says. Whether upper or mid-range, venue
quality has truly improved across the board, due in part to the
professionalization of the market. The greatest change occurred
among suppliers. "When I started, I had to fly in some fresh
products - like fish - myself," recalls Tommy Sjöö, owner
of Bacchus Group. Today it's easy to buy everything, from fresh
fish and seasonal delicacies like truffles to the finest wines
from producers around the world. All this is in essence a reflection
on the travel industry - as the number of hotels and restaurants
rises, so does the demand for supply services. This in turn "raises
the bar" on what local restaurateurs have to offer. "Today
you can't just seat the client anywhere, you have to pay attention
to the details in order to surprise them with something," notes
the owner of the Pálffy Group, Roman Řezníček.
How many is enough?
Photo: luminum - d.raub & l.šavrdová
The aforementioned Eurostat data also indicates that restaurant
and hotel chains with over 250 employees account for only 0.1%
of the hospitality industry, yet they create 19% of the jobs
and 23% of total sales within the segment. Indeed, financial
strength is the greatest advantage a group has over individual
establishments. "It brings a good amount of purchasing power," explains
Sanjiv Suri, Zátiší Catering Group's owner, adding that lower
shared costs, for expenses such as marketing, is another advantage.
Besides easier access to bank loans - which are practically off
limits for individuals - groups have better negotiating positions
with suppliers, who may offer advantageous deals. "They
pamper us in terms of both quality and price, because there's
a difference between buying two hundred kilos or two tons of
fresh fish a month," notes co-owner of Kogo, Jovo Savić.
In spite of the widely-held misconception, foreign tourists don't
predominate among luxury restaurants' clientele. "Tourists
are only the icing on the cake," says Bacchus Group's Sjöö.
In fact, most restaurant owners try to draw in locals - and the
more restaurants one owns, the more local diners one can address.
Sjöö, who has already opened 16 restaurants in his career, is convinced
that, "If you create one restaurant well, the more likely
customers will be willing to try another one of yours." Sirový
of C'est la vie has a contrasting opinion, insisting that such
a scheme is basically competing with yourself. "With a chain
it's hard to stick with the basic idea and keep a watchful eye
on each restaurant," Sirový says, claiming that he doesn't
want another restaurant. "I think a chain can't work in fine
dining. If you look at the Michelin Guide, none of the restaurants
in the highest category have sister establishments," he explains.
On the other hand, as Josef Voltr of Kolkovna Group points out: "If
the concept's good and it becomes popular it can expand - even
to other countries". Which is precisely what his group is
planning. After several successful years of operating Kolkovna,
Celnice, and Olympia, it is starting a franchise system with an
eye to expansion into Europe within four or five years. The company
switched to a joint-stock legal entity, and its owners don't currently
intervene in the daily operation of individual establishments,
concentrating instead on developing the company. Tomáš Karpíšek,
owner of the popular Ambiente franchise, has a similar approach. "One
of franchising's big advantages is you don't have to take part
in daily operations; you have time to be creative and innovative," he
opines. Kampa Group doesn't have a franchise system, but Jebens
works on a related principle. He delegates daily management responsibilities
and devotes himself to making improvements, following trends, and
creating new concepts.
Recipe for success
So what are the magical ingredients that make a successful restaurant? "There
are three: environment, food, and service," insists Řezníček. "A
good location, a view, and the option of sitting outdoors also
help," adds Jebens. Savić, Kogo's owner, stresses fresh, high-quality
ingredients. And although food is naturally the most important
factor, Karpíšek points out that when a restaurant is rated, its
atmosphere takes on greater significance. Therefore he first creates
the menu and then adapts the atmosphere accordingly - everything
from wine glasses to decorations. And many restaurant owners work
with renowned designers. "Today restaurants spend the most
on architects and artists to custom-create everything - interior,
plates, glasses, etc," says Řezníček.
However, what all this progress means is that it's also a lot harder
to open a new restaurant today than ten years ago. Not only do
you need more starting capital, you also have to comply with stricter
regulations and face greater competition. Sirový, who opened C'est
la vie in 2002, confirms this. "It's much more complicated
to find a good venue, and it takes longer to get established, because
there are more good restaurants. I had the advantage of finding
a good location, but I had to provide high quality right from the
beginning, so as to meet expectations," he says. One ongoing
question is whether the (now developed) local market can accommodate
more concepts, venues, and restaurateurs. "It's still possible
to be successful [with a new restaurant]," insists Karpíšek,
pointing to the dining scenes in New York and London, where new
ideas are always being born.
Kampa Group - Nils Jebens: The viking
by Vojtěch Vlk
At first there was Kampa
Park - a restaurant named after the well-known Prague quarter
and park. It was the offspring of two partners, Norwegian
Nils Jebens and Tommy Sjöö from Sweden. Today they are
competitors, each with several establishments to their
JEBENS KEPT KAMPA PARK, as he did with Le Monde in Bratislava.
Gradually he added Square, Hergetova cihelna, Bazaar, and
La Provence. The restaurants are intentionally different
from each other, not only in design but also in cuisine and
target group. Kampa Park remains the flagship, a classic
fine dining restaurant that serves many foreign and VIP guests.
Square is a café-restaurant, Hergetova cihelna is a large
restaurant and a trendy lounge and serves a broad spectrum
of clientele. The latest of Jebens's acquisitions last year
were Bazaar on Nerudova Street and La Provence, formerly
a restaurant and tapas bar and today a typical French brasserie.
Both establishments cater to tourists and local upper-middle-class
I wanted to establish a corporation. When you have one restaurant
you essentially do everything yourself, but with a bigger
company and several establishments you can hire top professionals
to help you," says Jebens. Another advantage comes from
shared risks. The destructive flood of August 2002 laid to
waste not only Kampa Park but also Hergetova cihelna, which
was just about to open. "If we hadn't had the cash flow
from Le Monde and Square, it would have been a lot harder
to restore everything to its original condition. So in this
sense growth turned out to be a good strategy," Jebens
Kampa Group has 250 employees, and Jebens says six restaurants
are enough. Stable operations allow him to finance projects
through bank loans. However, he admits that if he had known
the effects of EU accession on cash flow and the associated
VAT change in the catering industry from 5% to 19%, he would
probably have considered growing less rapidly. "Suddenly
the VAT was nearly quadrupled, which was murderous. You can't
immediately pass on the costs to the customer, so for some
time you have to take it out of your profit," Jebens
says angrily. "Fortunately, we had 'a bit of meat on
the bone', or we wouldn't have been able to survive."
photo by luminum - d.raub & l.šavrdová
Restaurants owners have to think hard about how to find
and keep customers amidst heavy competition. That's why the segment
now makes use of the latest marketing strategies.
"TODAY THERE's a marked move to direct marketing," says
Josef Voltr, the PR, marketing, and sales manager for Kolkovna
Group. After recently joining Kolkovna, one of his first projects
was the Kolkovna Friends club, which is based on a simple principle
- a client registers, and when he reaches a tab of CZK 5,000 he
gets a silver card (later a gold one), which entitles him to a
discount. The club may gradually take on retail partners from whom
the customer also gets discounts.
Today nearly everyone uses some sort of loyalty program. For instance,
Nils Jebens, the owner of Kampa Group, has a "loyalty program" with
a database of thousands of clients, so he can readily find out
in which of the group's restaurants they last ate and what they
had. "It allows us to know our customers perfectly and give
them what they want," Jebens explains. Roman Řezníček of Pálffy
Group takes a similar approach. His loyal clients can become Club
d'Or members and enjoy a discount of 10-20% off their tabs. Nevertheless,
Řezníček stresses that he doesn't want to organize his clients
in any way. "It rather involves spontaneous communication
with my customers," he says. Loyalty can also be evaluated
by another, more discreet approach that predominates in fine dining. "I
prefer personal contact with customers on the homey restaurant
model. To greet them, or occasionally have the house pay the bill
as a gesture of respect," says Zdeněk Sirový, owner of the
C'est la vie restaurant on Kampa.
However, Sirový adds that it's almost impossible to do business
without advertising these days. "But it has to be well targeted," he
emphasizes. For example, the Ambiente group almost always advertises
in women's magazines. "Our research indicates that it's mainly
women who decide where to go for dinner," says the group's
owner, Tomáš Karpíšek. Ambiente's own loyalty program is four years
old and has about 500 members (including firms) who enjoy discounts
of up to 50%. Last year they also established an internet club
for members to enjoy contests, recipes, and special offers.
Jason Hovet, Klára Smolová
Bacchus Group - Tommy Sjöö: Following
a gut feeling
by luminum - d.raub & l.šavrdová
When asked for his strategy for success, Tommy Sjöö
points to the staff running around his restaurants. "It
doesn't matter what you do, you have to create a good team
and be a leader," he says. In sport, business or life, "the
ingredients are very much the same," he adds.
This is one thing he's learned in 15 years of running restaurants in Prague-and
abroad-through his company, Bacchus Group. The 51-year-old Swede, who had been
visiting the country since 1979 as an amateur golfer, came to Prague after
1989 - after selling a flourishing construction business in his native country
- and quickly landed the opportunity to run the restaurants at Obecní dům.
He knew then that a restaurant group was what he wanted. "That was the
original plan from the beginning," he explains. Out of the 16 restaurants
he has created throughout the years, currently Sjöö has five, four of which
are in Prague - Barock, Pravda (with a sister establishment in Spain), Hot,
and Mercedes Forum Café.
He approaches each restaurant differently. For example, for Pravda he wanted
to build an eclectic menu with a taste of the world; the result is one dish
from more than a dozen countries around the globe. "A lot of people say
you can't be good in all this kind of food - but I think we can," he insists.
He also brings an Asian influence to Hot and is currently reworking Barock
to focus on simple, but filling, food. When starting a new place, Sjöö says
he just asks himself what he wants or where he would personally like to eat.
In marketing, he also relies on this approach. "I have some strategy,
but I go mostly on feeling," Sjöö says. Over the years, the group has
sporadically organized events and trips, thrown parties, held tastings and
taught food courses. "The best marketing is always to have a good product
and give the guest more than they expect," he notes. "It sounds simple
but isn't always easy to do." That's where his 200-strong team comes in
again. "It's not me," he says, "but the people around me who
are making the restaurants successful."
This doesn't means Sjöö has a hands-off management style. He says he is hanging
around his restaurants whenever he is in Prague - which is the large majority
of time. In the end, though, restaurants for the Swede aren't just a business. "For
me it's not work," he says sincerely. "I do it because I love it,
because it's a pleasure."
Pálffy Group - Roman Řezníček:
Paying attention to details
Roman Řezníček, Pálffy Group's owner, is one of the
few Czechs who's managed to build and maintain a position in
Prague's fine dining segment, which is mostly occupied by foreigners.
This 35-year-old Moravian started out at a time when he and
the public still had a lot to learn about first-rate gastronomy.
He bet mainly on high quality, discretion, top-quality staff,
photo by vojtěch vlk
Pálffy Group, named after the first restaurant, Pálffy
Palác, today includes the U Zlaté studně restaurant, just
below the castle and boasting one of the most beautiful views
of Prague, Sovovy Mlýny on Kampa, and the Mecca musical club.
The basis of the Pálffy Palác concept is international haute
cuisine in an exclusive, discreet environment. Although a
hotel-restaurant, U Zlaté studně is Řezníček's premium establishment,
for which he hopes to get a Michelin rating one day.
All three restaurants have very attractive locations in downtown
Prague. "I think an original, interesting location accounts
for 30% of success," Řezníček stresses. He says that
today's customers are much more demanding as to the environment,
and that you have to pay lots of attention to details. The
staff is also important. "My remuneration system is
set up as if each employee were my partner. Each restaurant
has a set profit goal, and depending on how well it does,
the staff either gets a bonus or has its pay docked," Řezníček
explains. "I send managers for internships abroad, and
I give them paid vacations to clear out their heads."
Řezníček literally started from scratch, and once thought
he'd open a new restaurant each year. He's since changed
his mind. "Fully devoting yourself to two or three projects
is better than being unable to manage excessively fast growth," opines
the owner. "I want to frequent my restaurants, to talk
with guests, get to know them, and I want to provide the
finest dining, but I don't want to be a slave to my business," he
Group - Sanjiv Suri: Cooking up new strategies
photo by vojtěch vlk
The Zátiší Catering Group operates upscale restaurants
Bellevue, Mlýnec and V Zátiší, as well as Prague's biggest
catering outfit and the elegant event space, Circle Line.
What has the group's owner, Sanjiv Suri, placed the greatest
emphasis on in his 15 years of experience? Training.
The basis is the group's in-house training manual, which
has a strong focus on the customer. It also calls for staff
to take responsibility for customer visits and to work
to make each visit unique. It must be effective, as Suri
claims most staff have been around roughly 10 years and
turnover never tops 10%.
To attract customers, Suri has only recently created a
marketing department - a team of two people. "Marketing
has always been word-of-mouth," he says. As part of
a new effort to concentrate on dining atmosphere, all his
venues will all get an interior makeover within the next
year. "Our strength has always been on the food and
personnel side," Suri claims.
The group - including the catering division - has six executive
chefs, and several well-known chefs have spent time in
the kitchen, most notably Carlo Bernardini. "This
definitely helps," Suri says, adding the effect is
felt both internally and externally. On the one hand, it
can motivate staff to reach a higher level, what he calls
the "ripple effect". Naturally, a well-known
chef will also get new clientele's attention.
Another attention-getter is the catering group, which Suri
began in 1998, and which today brings in half of the group's
revenues. "Catering is a totally different business
than restaurants," he points out. He learned this
when some big events - like the International Monetary
Fund meeting - came and gave his team a crash course in
catering large events.
Learning and evolving, however, are some of the keys to
the restaurant business. Could he repeat his success if
he were to start today? "I don't know," Suri
ponders, "but I would definitely give it a try."
the main course
photo by dorothea
"Staff is crucial," says Kampa Group's
owner, Nils Jebens. In a sector where high employee fluctuation
is a grim reality, keeping the best people is one of
a restaurateur's main concerns.
"RESEARCH SHOWS that customers mostly do not come
back to a restaurant because of problems with staff," notes
Jebens. Co-owner of Kogo restaurants, Jovo Savić, adds
to this: "If you don't care about your business, neither
will your employees." Every day you can find him running
around his restaurant working as a waiter, receiving supplies,
solving problems, and welcoming regular customers. "I
work together with my staff, after hours we drink together.
I pay them well and I think it shows on how they work," Savić
Performance bonuses and profit sharing are indeed common
ways to motivate staff. For example, senior staff at Zátiší
Catering Group participate in the latter, while the rest
of the team can receive bonuses when they reach a certain
sales level or even cost level. However, as Bacchus' Sjöö
says, "Money is not the only motivation." Like
other restaurateurs, Sjöö thinks training and eduction
Zátiší Group even produces its own manual on how to treat
customers. It also stresses empowerment - that is, giving
staff free reign over how best to satisfy guests, to do
the extra things to make their visit memorable. "If
no one is looking over their shoulder, they take more responsibility," says
group owner Sanjiv Suri. For instance, once a guest so
admired the wine glasses that one waiter arranged for her
to bring them home.
Training within a group can also vary from venue to venue.
Ambiente group has a number of different styles under its
umbrella. At its Italian restaurants, for example, the
training centers around wine, so some staff were sent to
Italy and sommeliers were employed to teach about matching
wines to food and other skills. At the Cafe Savoy, however,
owner Tomáš Karpíšek sees atmosphere as being key, so training
focuses on communication and making customers feel comfortable.
Jason Hovet, Klára Smolová