Arjun Waney has spread his empire of restaurants across the world, but has no plans to open at home
He is an Indian-origin entrepreneur who started out by serving Londoners some traditional Japanese cuisine two decades ago.
Today, he has over 47 restaurants in global cities. He is one of the most successful restaurateurs in the world and yet possibly among the least known. He is Arjun Waney, 82.
The Zuma restaurant, which he cofounded in 2002 with chef Rainer Becker, now has 12 venues, from New York to Abu Dhabi. While their company Azumi owns iconic brands such as Zuma, Roka and Oblix, he also has people eating out of his hands at Coya, Le Petite Maison and the members-only The Arts Club.
In a phone call from London, Waney says the Dubai outlet of Zuma alone makes $30 million a year. The Zuma outlets at Hong Kong and Thailand, he claims, are considered the highest grossing restaurants in the region. The annual turnover of all his restaurants, he says, comes to around £350 million (Rs 3850 crore). Waney’s calendar of restaurant openings is so full till 2026 that he says he cannot accommodate a request for a new project even if someone offers him £20 million. “Not even a pop up,” he adds.
Partition child to obe
Arjun Waney’s has been quite a journey across continents. It began with Partition in 1947 when his family, wrenched from Karachi, moved to Bombay. His father passed away when he was young and his elder brother ensured that he went to study at the University of California, Berkeley, in 1957. Waney says he learnt early in life that he had to think on his feet. In the late 1960s, he started a chain of specialty import stores called Cost Less Imports, inspired by Cost Plus Imports that would later become Pier 1 Imports. "These stores had everything a student or a young couple would want," he recalls. His company — in the US and Europe — was eventually bought by Pier 1 Imports.
Waney says that for a man who had not seen much money in life, he was making a lot. He started a specialty clothing business called Beeba’s Creations in San Diego which turned profitable in no time. Meanwhile, he started an investment fund called First Winchester Investments. "I was playing tennis through the day and making money," he jokes.
In 1995, he returned to London and started Argent Fund Management. It was only after he turned 60 that he became a restaurateur. In 2001, he was at a salon where he told his barber that he would love to open a Japanese restaurant as he rarely gets a table at his favourite Nobu. The barber suggested that he meet chef Rainer Becker, who was also looking to start a restaurant.
A meeting turned into a serious business discussion and in May 2002 the first Zuma opened in Knightsbridge, London. Since then, Waney’s restaurant empire has grown into a conglomerate of multiple outlets and big brands across the globe.
Waney went on to open an affordable Japanese chain called Roka for those who couldn’t pay the Zuma bills, as well as the exclusive The Arts Club in Dover Lane. He says he has always wanted to open niche concept restaurants and will stick to these rather than mass products. He says his concepts — La Petite Maison that serves French Mediterranean; Oblix at The Shard that is known for seasonal, sophisticated food; Etaru that features contemporary Japanese; and Inko Nito that dishes out inventive Japanese — eventually turned into big businesses as these were done right.
Waney says he is very careful whom he partners with. “I take people out for dinner and judge how they treat the receptionist, the waiters... if they value taste. Money is secondary. What matters is the quality of human being,” he says. “I once called off a partnership as the person considered Becker as a mere cook and not a gifted chef.
That’s not how you treat talent,” he says.
For Waney, the simple mantra of life has been you can never have a good crop with bad seeds. The input has to be right—everything flows from there. A good dish, he says, needs good ingredients. He says he will never compromise on quality whatever the compulsions may be.
His passion now is charity and he runs a hospital in Bihar. He was awarded the Order of the British Empire in 2018 for his services in the restaurant space and charity. He says charity shouldn’t be done for glamour but as a duty. It is, he says, one of the best forms of prayer.
Waney, not known to give many interviews, says he is content living a busy life in London with his wife Judith, daughter Devika Mokhtarzadeh, son-in-law and three grandchildren.
Will he ever open a restaurant in India? He says he has been approached by some of the top business families but he doesn’t foresee any of his brands opening here anytime soon. “A high-quality restaurant like ours cannot have good ingredients waiting for customs clearance at the airport,” he says.
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