Interview with Henrik Winthers (Restauranteur)

Interview by John Harrison

Henrik Winther has been in Russia for 25 years, quietly revolutionising Moscow’s casual dining scene. I interviewed him and he came out with so much interesting information that I decided not to give the material the usual edit (savage cut), but run it over two issues. This first instalment covers coming to Moscow and working with Rostislav Ordovsky when, as a partner he opened hundreds of restaurants. Editor.

When did you first arrive in Russia?

I arrived exactly 25 years ago. 25 years ago, it was still the Soviet Union, it was very different then, and often people asked me why on earth I would want to come here. To answer that question, I need to return to my family history. My parents are Danish, I was born in Dallas, Texas, and I was brought up in Denmark where I studied until I was 13. I went to school there until my parents decided to move to Southern France, where they opened up a hotel and restaurant there in 1975. Opening up a restaurant as a Scandinavian in southern France, the country of culinary expertise, was most unusual. Little by little, my parents transformed the old police station they bought into a nice little place; that had a number of very nice guest rooms (apart from original cells in the cellar) and some good food, and over the years it actually got better and better. My first job was working in Chateaux de la Chevre d’Or, one of the best restaurants on Côte D’Azur. That was a great learning environment for me of how to run a quality restaurant.

How did you come to go to work in the Soviet Union?

Later on, after living and working in the US for a few years, I returned to France to run my parent’s business as they wished to retire. I did that for a couple of years until 1991, when on a cold, dreary, lonely, lonely day (because there are no guests in The French Riviera in the winter), I was reading the International Herald Tribune, which I read religiously for years and years, and there was a two or three-line ad in there: ‘Looking for a restauranteur for Moscow.’ People were looking for professionals for the Caribbean, for Latin America, for China, for Japan, all over the world, but there had never ever been any mention of anybody looking for anybody in the Soviet Union. So when I saw that, I couldn’t just ignore it. I was curious. So I called him up, and the person I spoke to didn’t want to talk to me unless I sent a resume. I found out that these guys were in the process of opening up a restaurant, and needed a professional to come over and basically be a restauranteur. This was in January, and about two weeks later, they called back and asked, well how about considering the job? I said: “no thank you, I have my own business, I was just curious.” Another month and a half went by, and I got another phone call, and they said: “are you sure that you really would not like to come?” I said yes, I am pretty sure, because nothing had really changed, but nevertheless, the thought of the Soviet Union, Moscow, had started building up in me a little bit, so it wasn’t a complete refusal, so I said: “Ok, let’s talk about it, let’s look into it.” A conversation started, off and on, for a month or two, in late Spring, all of a sudden they said: “come on over, join us.” Again sitting on the French Riviera, the Spring is the time you are preparing to guests to arrive, so I said: “I cannot do it.” So we parted ways, up until the end of August, the time of the Putsch in Yalta, when they called me back and said that: “we have had some delays in construction, how about we renew our discussions?” At the end of August, I said, OK, I’ll come over and have a look. They showed me the restaurant they wanted to open, and showed me a bit of what Moscow is like in those days; where to buy products and where not to buy products, and what kind of life it would be there.

The only reason one would want to come here in those days was adventure. There was no logic or rationale or otherwise that could justify moving to the Soviet Union. In 1991, I remember driving in from the airport, there was not a single street sign, or shop sign, everything was dark, grey, dirty, like the Soviet Union was supposed to look like! But very exciting, because you can imagine, I was moving to a country which at that point in time, had a population of 360 million people and it didn’t have any restaurants, at least of the kind that westerners consider to be restaurants. Here was an opportunity to come over and make restaurants and have no competition. So that’s how it started.

Together with Rostislav, who had opened up Kodak in the Soviet Union in the 1980s, we opened restaurants. He had a problem, selling Kodak products for roubles, but he had to pay his supplier in dollars, there no Dollar/Rouble conversion mechanism existed then. But, he figured out that if he opened up a ‘valuta’ (hard currency) restaurant, he could use the Kodak generated roubles to buy products in the local market for roubles (from Kodak) and the hard currency generated in the restaurant could be used to pay Kodak. Hey presto… he had a viable method for operating his business. That was the motivation for him to get into the restaurant business. That’s how we got going.

The restaurants were mostly for foreigners as they were ‘valuta’ based. Business boomed because the few foreigners that did come here had no options really. You had literally a captured clientele. Then I went back to France and packed up a whole restaurant with chairs and tables and table cloths, wine, salt and pepper, coffee, furniture, food, put it all into a container and shipped it over, because there was goods here in the local market.

You were manging the restaurants then?

I partnered with Rostislav. He was president and he was active in the business, although he was more involved with Kodak. I worked years for 17 years with Rostistav, and I was Chief Operating Officer until I took over presidency and CEO of Rostiks KFC which was a deal with KFC which brought KFC’s fast food operation here. I did that for a couple of years and then I started operating my own business, meaning my own restaurants rather than working for somebody else. By that time, we had opened up about 320 restaurants in Russia, most of them were ‘casual dining’ venues; Planet Sushi, Il Patio, TGI Fridays and Rostiks restaurants.

Really it has been a fabulous experience because we came into virgin territory. To open up a restaurant, you couldn’t buy quality product anywhere, when we needed quality bread, we had to open up a bakery, when we needed to organise food for the restaurants, we had to open up a warehouse and import and distribution business to serve the restaurants, we had to open up a carpentry shop because you couldn’t buy wooden furnishings. We employed a lot of expats then, so we needed lots of personal cars, so we had to open up an automobile maintenance work shop, and so on… You ended up with a large corporate infrastructure The point was, you had to do everything yourself, there was zero infrastructure.