By Lubna Hamdan
The star of the Russian version of Donald Trump’s The Apprentice TV show, who counts Vladimir Putin as a regular at his more than 50 restaurants in Moscow, is worth around $300m — more than Gordon Ramsay and Jamie Oliver put together — and has now set his sights on the Gulf
How does Vladimir Putin like his food? Just ask Arkady Novikov.
He’s the 53-year-old Russian restaurateur whose venues host the Russian president as a regular.
Then again, if you own over 50 restaurants in Moscow, someone important is bound to step into one of them.
His name still doesn’t ring a bell? Maybe you’ll recognise the giant sign that spells out NOVIKOV the next time you drive down Sheikh Zayed Road.
The millionaire opened his first Middle Eastern venture in Dubai last month, where it’s receiving only positive reviews.
But if you’re waiting to hear a mind-blowing secret behind his success, don’t hold your breath. “No secret,” says the Russian. “Eta prosta — it’s simple.”
“In a restaurant, there are several factors: number one is good food, then good service, good design, and right location,” he says.
Two minutes into our conversation, one thing is clear: Novikov isn’t interested in talking the talk. He prefers to walk the walk.
Worth over $300m — more than Gordon Ramsay and Jamie Oliver put together — his story is simple: he studied in culinary college for two years and worked his way up the ladder from cook to chef to millionaire.
How did it all start? With a rebuff from McDonald’s.
When the brand opened its first joint in Moscow, Novikov applied for a chef’s job without a clue that it was a burger joint — it was the first of its kind to open up during the Soviet period.
“I saw an ad that said McDonald’s restaurant. I told them I could cook French and Italian food really well,” he says.
Luckily for him, they never called back.
A few years after that, he started what would become an empire of 54 global outlets.
“I worked as a cook first, then I became a chef. When I felt that I was ready to open a business, I opened my own restaurant in 1992,” he says, “This was how many years ago? 30 years ago?”
To be exact, it’s been 23 years since Novikov opened Sirena, Moscow’s first seafood restaurant. He had persuaded a friend to loan him $50,000 for a 50 percent share in the start-up.
After Sirena, Novikov was unstoppable. He was opening restaurant after restaurant before you could say “cheque please”.
In 1994, he opened French eatery Club T followed by Tsarskaya Okhota in 1996, where he famously served dinner to Presidents Boris Yeltsin and Jacques Chirac, from France.
In the same year, he opened a chain of affordable joints, Yolki-Palki, followed by Beloye Solutes Pustyni in 1997 and Biscuit in 2002.
He didn’t stop there.
In 2003, the restaurant tycoon created his own greenhouse farm where he grew and promoted organic production.
Then, in 2005, he took part in the Russian version of Donald Trump’s The Apprentice TV show. Sixteen candidates competed to become CEO of one of the Arkady Novikov Group’s companies, winning an annual contract worth 15 million roubles (back then, just over $500,000).
And in 2011, he did what any famous restaurateur would do — put his name on the door.
“I had a few options in terms of names for the restaurant, but I chose Novikov, because it’s my restaurant and it’s my concept, my food, my design, and my service,” he says.
“We opened Novikov in London then in Moscow and a few days ago in Dubai,” he adds.
The F&B mogul might have chosen London as his second destination following Moscow, but he didn’t choose Dubai. Dubai chose him.
“When we opened in London, everyday someone was calling me or emailing me and asking me ‘why didn’t you open one in Dubai?’ Different business people were asking me that,” he says.
“I was waiting for a while, I just wanted to see how it was going to work in London. And three years after I opened the London branch, I gave the approval to open one in Dubai with Bulldozer Group,” he explains.
The Bulldozer Group, the force behind Sass Café, Toko, and Movida, owns just a couple of the 6,021 outlets that exist in the UAE food and beverage (F&B) market.
According to Euromonitor, a colossal 19,000 new outlets will add to that number by 2019, quadrupling what is currently in the market.
Novikov is well aware of the latter — he did his homework.
“Dubai has a lot of good restaurants and a large variety of brands; that is true. And we could have opened one before. Maybe we jumped out of the train’s last wagon, but I hope that isn’t so,” says the Russian.
“Regardless of that, we went through with this project, and I think everything is going well, although in general it’s early to tell, because it’s only been working for a few days,” he says.
Though only a few days old, Novikov’s creation is already competing with the likes of Zuma and Hakkasan. Weeks before its official opening date, it was already filling most of its 320 seats.
It’s safe to say that Novikov isn’t worried about the competition.
“In Dubai there aren’t a lot of Asian restaurants, even if we have a lot of competition: Zuma, Nobu, Hakkasan, they are our competition.
“But we weren’t afraid of competing with them in London. We decided to compete on who is better, and I’m positive that that’s a good thing,” he says.
It’s worked out well for him so far. In 2006, his restaurant group listed its revenue at $180m — prior to the addition of over a dozen new openings.
Currently, the businessman plans to take over Monaco, New York and Miami.
Nevertheless, he prides himself on Dubai.
“We’re very proud to have opened this restaurant in Dubai. And if it’s going to work well, we’re going to be very happy.
“I think Dubai’s food and beverage market is very good, it has a lot of good restaurants with amazing food. Dubai is the world’s centre of hotels, so it’s very important for us,” he says, adding that he will look at a greater expansion in the GCC if the right venues and partners come along.
“Call me in three, four, maybe six months. Call me and I will tell you,” he laughs.
One thing he does discuss is his decision to steer away from Russian cuisine in countries abroad and serve Asian and Italian instead.
“Those are the two most popular kitchens in general,” he says.
“With regards to Russian cuisine, I love it. And I eat it every day. But it’s so special and it’s an acquired taste. We have to do something which is in demand and which we’re good at.”
Novikov is good at a lot of things, which is why he can afford to vacation in Gianni Versace’s Villa Fontanelle in Italy, which he bought for $52m a few years back.
“Now I’m on vacation, in Sardinia in Italy with my family. Family is the most important thing for a successful businessman.
“For the past 20 years, every year we come here, we swim and go on the yacht,” he says.
That’s not a bad life for a cook who got rejected by McDonald’s, but Russia’s greatest restaurateur has certainly come a long way since then.
“I doubt that anyone believed that I would succeed back then, but now there is a memorial board in my college that says ‘Arkady Novikov graduated from here’.”
Meet five other Russians making headlines around the world.
59-year-old Lisin is the eighth richest man in Russia, with an estimated net worth of $10.7bn. He made his wealth from steel, railways and cargo logistics. He is the chairman and majority shareholder of one of the four largest steel companies in Russia, Novolipetsk (NLMK). Lisin’s first job was a mechanic in a Soviet coal mine. Upon graduating from the Siberian Metallurgical Institute, he worked as a steel worker at Tulachermet Metals Works. There, he rose through the ranks from section manager to deputy chief engineer. In 1992, he joined trading group Trans-World Group, which came to dominate Russia’s aluminium and steel exports. When the partners split in 2000, Lisin received a majority stake in Novolipetsk steel mill, today the biggest steel producer in Russia. He also controls Universal Cargo Logistics Holding.
The son of mill workers, Mordashov is now worth $13.2bn. The 49-year-old is the main shareholder and CEO of Severstal, the giant Russian conglomerate with interests in metal, energy, and mining companies. Having graduated from the Leningrad Engineering-Economical Institute, he started his career as a finance director of a steel mill. One day, the plant’s elderly director asked him to secure shares to safeguard them from an outsider. He then bought most of them for himself. In 2013, he also bought 50 percent shares of Tele2 Russia, the fourth-largest cellular operator in the country. In addition, he is a shareholder of Bank Rossiya. Mordashov is a philanthropist and sponsors multiple charities and sports clubs, such as the Dynamo Moscow women’s volleyball side and the Russian national male chess team. Growing up, Mordashov’s family bought food with coupons and were only allowed 400g of sausages and 200g of butter each month. He is now Russia’s 11th richest person.
Russia’s richest person, worth $13.9bn, made his fortune together with then-business partner Mikhail Prokhorov by taking control of metal giant Norilsk Nickel and oil company Sidanco through the controversial “loans-for-shares” auctions. In 1993, they created Uneximbank, which became a platform for the holding company, Interros. In 2008, the two went their separate ways and Potanin became sole owner of Interros. The 54-year-old is a former employee of the Ministry of Foreign Economic Relations. He previously served as a deputy prime minister of the economy and as a partner to George Soros in telecom monopoly Svyazinvest. Potanin owns 30 percent of Russian nickel giant Norilsk Nickel. He is an art enthusiast and acts as the chairman of the board of trustees of the State Hermitage, Russia’s largest art museum.
Worth $7.2bn, 48-year-old Galitsky is the founder and CEO of Russia’s biggest supermarket chain and cosmetics retailer, Magnit. Galitsky first created the firm as a perfume and beauty supply wholesaler only a year after graduating from the Economics Faculty of Kuban State University.
In 2006, the company went public and was valued at $1.9bn. His other investments contain agriculture and advertising. Galitsky also owns football team FC Krasnodar.
The 43-year-old magnate is the founder and former owner of MDM Bank. Worth $8.8bn, Melnichenko was the business partner of billionaire Sergei Popov. The two founded fertiliser producer Eurochem, coal producer Suek, power generator SGK and pipe exporter TMK. In 2006, the partners split their assets. Melnichenko now has a 92.2 percent stake in each of Eurochem, Suek and SGK. He started his career in the early 1990s with a chain of currency-exchange booths. He also has a megayacht, A, that resembles a submarine and is reportedly worth $250m. Melnichenko is also an art collector with a collection including pieces by Claude Monet.