New York, SUA – these days, it seems like every celebrity is launching a lifestyle brand. But what it does it take to not just use star power to get some initial press and to really keep a company going for a quarter of a century.
That’s a question we posed to business partners Robert “Also An Oscar Winning Actor” De Niro and Chef Nobu Matsuhisa, whose Nobu restaurant and hotel brand turned 25 years old in 2019.
Taking no for an answer
It started, like so many celebrity romances, in Los Angels, De Niro ate at Matsuhisa’s restaurant there and immediately fall in love.
“The food was amazing”, De Niro remembers. “Japanese food traditionally in New York and in my experience even in London was very by the book, but it wasn’t what Nobu was doing”. He immediately reached out to the chef and offered to help Matsuhia open a second outpost of his restaurant in Manhattan.
Initially, the chef said no – not something that a celebrity is used to hearing. But that only made. De Niro respect Matsuhia more.
Matsuhisa is a perfectionist and wanted to make sure that the L.A. restaurant was in great shape before expanding. And, eventually, he said yes. The pair, along with their business partner Meir Teper, opened a Nobu in New York City and then a third in London.
Other cities soon followed: Las Vegas, Cape Town, Mexico City, Beijing.
The next move was in 2013, with the expansion into Nobu Hotels. There are nine, including the Nobu Ryokan in Malibu, which also has a working farm.
The tree partners brought in British-born Trevor Horwell, a veteran of Hyatt and Como, to run to run the hospitality side of the operation.
What’s in a name?
As De Niro explains, a famous name can get people through the door once. But if the business isn’t up to par, customers won’t come back.
Many celebrity ventures can go one of two ways: the stars put their name on a project collect checks and walk away; or A-listers get in over their head and refuse to listen to others.
De Niro, to his credit, is neither of these. He knows that his star power will get people interested in the brand, but relies on experts – Teper on business. Horwell on hotels and of course Matsuhisa on food – to do what they do best. During interviews, he will often direct questions to his colleagues or decline to answer because someone else is more knowledgeable.
“Many times, Nobu says if you had to divide (it up), what is more important, service or food? He would say 60% service, 40% food. Because people remember service”, says Teper.
The colleagues took that same approach from the restaurant to the rooms.
Taper continues: “We adapted the same philosophy for the hotel which is, I think the most important thing is the service. You call for room service, you don’t want to wait an hour until you get your breakfast or cup of coffee. You can have the most beautiful hotel room, the most beautiful furniture and if you wait a long time for service, that’s the only thing you remember”.
For Matsuhisa, having his name on the side of a building took some getting used to. But now? De Niro teases, “He always complains it’s not spelled right, it should be bigger”.
How does a 25-year-old celebrate a birthday? In the case of Nobu the brand, it goes to another level.
The brand has announced the first Nobu residences, which will be built on top of the existing Nobu property in Toronto by 2021.