CEO interview: Sven Koch

Azumi Group CEO Sven Koch on the importance of training

Azumi Group CEO Sven Koch
Azumi Group CEO Sven Koch

Azumi Group CEO Sven Koch in conversation with Devina Divecha about the Group’s focus on training, and why the Middle East is next for Roka

Sven Koch was named chief executive officer of Azumi Group, two years after he joined the company in 2011. At the time of his appointment, Koch’s main objective was to focus on the company’s planned global expansion. Since his time at the helm, Koch has been busy. One strategic move on Azumi’s part has been to “split” the company’s operations, whereby one team focuses on Roka’s operations and expansion, with a second team doing the same for Zuma and Oblix.

Koch explains: “We are in an expansion mode. Roka and Zuma were too similar at one point, so that’s why we split into two different teams.” In light of this, both teams within the mother company are being streamlined, especially with regard to purchasing systems.

When I met Koch, he was scouting locations for two Roka openings in the UAE — both of which will be in Dubai, and will open within the next 18-24 months. He doesn’t think this is oversaturating the market with the brand, as he sees the concept very much as a “neighbourhood eatery”. When I suggested that perhaps the restaurants would be located in very different parts of the city, he agreed. This is narrowed down further with the caveat that the outlets have to be licensed.

This is not the brand’s first international location; the Group previously opened in Hong Kong in 2008, but closed. Koch explains: “Indeed, we opened Roka Hong Kong in 2008 outside the UK, but we had to close because the environment around the restaurant changed. We currently are looking at another location though. At present, Roka Dubai will be our first international outpost outside our four Roka restaurants in London.”

Asked about how Roka and Zuma would differentiate themselves from each other, Koch goes back to the point he made about the management teams being separated to ensure no overlap takes place. He also adds: “You don’t see it on the surface but the food is quite different in Roka; it’s a different cooking method and style.

“Another thing Roka doesn’t have is a very big bar — there is usually a small holding bar. And it doesn’t have a sushi counter. The energy of the place surrounds the robata. It always has a big robata in the middle of the restaurant.”

When queried about the other brands, he reveals there are no plans as of now to expand Oblix’s global footprint, with Las Vegas and Los Angeles next on the charts for Zuma after its New York opening in January 2015.

With a lot of organic growth, which Koch admits to, the company has seen a consequent increase in the number of employees. Since the first Zuma opened in London in 2002, the Azumi Group has always maintained a policy of ‘promotion from within’, and it’s something Koch is keen to assert is still the case.

Many staff members who joined the group at its opening remain with the company, working at various international branches. All senior staff and management are still sent to London to experience Azumi’s founding restaurants as part of their in-house training.

Koch says finding “good people who can carry the brand” remains a challenge. He asserts: “Right now we’re hiring from within, promoting people, and if not, we have to pick people from outside. Especially in the United States because visas are a challenge. We hire them in the US, bring them to London and train them, so they can spread the energy and the DNA of Zuma to the new location.

“The head chef, bar manager and the GM usually go to London for at least three months for training. And if it’s a new chef, at least six months training.

“Because we’re growing right now, it’s important that we keep the DNA of Zuma, the DNA of Rainer and Arjun [Rainer Becker and Arjun Waney, co-founders of Zuma].”

What does he look for when hiring people? “It’s a tricky question. A straightforward answer would be that we’re looking for somebody who’s coming from the background of quality, because as you know, we’re a quality-driven company.”

This refers to quality when it comes to working with food and drink, and service, but also, Koch says, in potential. “That means the person would start at a lower point but then we would train them, and bring them up. That probably takes longer, but at the end of the day, the beauty is that they repay you with loyalty.

“It’s a two-way street, it’s how you treat people and invest in them. Because of our expansion, we can give them career paths as well. So they’re not just stuck in one place; they can come out with us and see the world.”

Even though Azumi has restaurants all over the world, the group owns and operates every single one. There is no desire or discussion at present to look at franchising. And the last few years have seen the company grow with regard to the number of outlets on a global scale; Koch estimates it is growing at the rate of “one Zuma a year, and one to one-and-a-half Roka a year”.

“Think about it, you only have one chance to open up. You only have one shot so you better do it right. That’s why we put our resources into it, that’s why we send our team down there for an opening. We just focus on one restaurant at a particular time, to make sure it’s a great opening, that customers are happy and that they return,” Koch concludes.

The Azumi brands

Influenced by Rainer Becker’s time in New York, Oblix is located on the 32nd floor of The Shard London, and offers a New York grill-inspired menu in both the restaurant and Oblix Bar and Lounge.

Zuma was co-founded by Rainer Becker and Arjun Waney in 2002. Zuma London, the first restaurant to open, remains the brand’s flagship. All of its management and chefs are extensively trained in London before working in Zuma’s international locations.

A second restaurant concept that grew from the robata grill introduced to Europe by Rainer Becker, Roka opened in London Charlotte Street in 2004. Now it has three more locations: London Canary Wharf, London Mayfair, and London Aldwych.

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