graduated from the Faculty of Economics at the Higher School of Economics in 1999. He is the co-owner and manager of several chains of bars called ‘Honey, I'll call you back’ and ‘Dolls Pistols’, as well as the co-owner and CEO of Hurma Management Group.
Levitsky also teaches in the Restaurant and Club Industry Management programme at the RMA Business School. He lectures on ‘How to Create a Successful Bar Chain Project’, leads a seminar called ‘Secrets of Professional Restaurateurs’ and offers training sessions for new restaurateurs.
He took the ‘Honey, I'll call you back’ chain to Moscow’s suburbs guided by a noble purpose – that every person should have a bar close to home.
‘Everything works as it should if you just do it’
'In 2015, we will celebrate the 20th anniversary of our first graduating class; in 1995, 115 master’s students graduated from HSE. Over the years, some 35,000 people have received an HSE diploma. Our alumni make up a very large and diverse group of people who I am certain are united in their common values and worldview.
Stories have been collected in the 'Success Builder' section about what happens with HSE alumni after graduate – how they build their careers, how they gain recognition in their field, how they handle failure. This section of the site is possibly most useful for those who have just graduated from the university, are still studying, or are going to apply.'
Dmitry Levitsky opened his first bar – Dolls Pistols – almost by accident, as a side hobby. Over time, this ‘side project’ grew and turned into the Hurma Management Group, which helps budding restaurateurs open foodservice establishments and works to develop the bar and restaurant industry in Russia.
Do you consider yourself a professional restaurateur?
I have never considered myself a restaurateur in the pure sense of the term because I have not really worked in the kitchen; rather, I came to the restaurant business as an investor. My restaurant business began with the Dolls Pistols bar, and what’s good is that my team included people who can be called true restaurateurs. They have worked in the kitchen for more than ten years and understand what it means to manage an establishment where people eat. I am a different kind of person altogether, but in the last seven years, I have gotten to know the restaurant business first hand.
Regarding your first experience in the restaurant business, what kinds of difficulties did you have with Pistol Dolls?
By 2008, when I had this idea, I had already had other successful projects. My colleagues said, ‘Let's open a bar,’ and we hired guys who knew something about restaurants, opened our establishment and, generally speaking, did not think about developing it. But that’s how it turned out. Remember, in 2008, during the recession, side businesses weren’t working out very well, and this bar, which I originally conceived as a hobby of sorts, was something I put all my strategic leadership skills into. The business began to develop, other bars opened, and all of this grew into the Hurma Management Group, which opens turnkey restaurants, trains staff, holds seminars and offers advisory services for future restaurateurs. I can say that all the knowledge that we apply and replicate as a company is not mine, but that of the whole team I was able to bring together. I only give direction and tell the team what to do. How to do it is something they know better than me. I am a visionary of sorts.
We don’t have that many bars in the classic sense, so there is no tradition of going to the bar with friends. We are just beginning to hang out in coffee shops and restaurants and even say, 'Let's go sit in a restaurant.'
Say somebody comes to you who wants to open a tavern. What happens next?
A person wants to feed people, but he doesn’t know how it’s done. He orders any number of services that we offer. For example, he may ask for help in some of the early stages of opening, especially in looking for space, signing contracts or training wait staff. Or he can simply write us a check and we’ll tell him to come back six months later to find a working restaurant.
How much time is really needed to open a restaurant – from the initial idea to opening day?
The idea, construction, and start-up are all accomplished fairly quickly depending on the size of the project and the ambitions of whoever is opening the restaurant. But if you are custom ordering everything from France, then, of course, the process can last forever. The most difficult issue is location, which can take about half a year to resolve. Then you need about 3-4 months for construction, after which you can ring up your first check.
As far as I know, you got your first restaurant experience at TGI Fridays, which is based on a foreign restaurant model. Have you applied the skills you gained there in your business? Is there a difference between the Russian business model and the western one in the restaurant industry?
A long time ago, when I was a student at HSE, I really did stand behind the bar at Fridays. There are different models, but all that can be said about the Russian model is that it is a hundred years behind and has not yet emerged as a tradition and part of the restaurant industry. It is still possible to do something with our business, to figure things out as you go. Fridays is a very successful model and a great restaurant, but now it is no longer what it used to be. Foreigners taught us there and my colleagues from the time – guys that I called 10 years later to open a bar with me – had the right set of tools. Of course, Fridays did not invent all of this itself. This is a matter of established, logical management with standards, quality, and good service, which has existed for a long time in the U.S. McDonald’s is really the visionary father of the processes in the restaurant business.
You pour, work hard, and then a drunk person coming out of your establishment and is hit by a car. That's how you become a reluctant accomplice to a murder. The rule of ‘do no harm’ is therefore very important to us.
Does it happen that this tried and true model doesn’t work perfectly in Russia?
It doesn’t work when a Russian person says that it works in America but won’t work here. But when I go to Novosibirsk, I find the same McDonald's that I find in the U.S. The employees say ‘My register is open!’ And you buy the same French fries that you do in New York. The only difference is that our Siberian people are working there. There are effective models of management that lie outside any kind of identity; in fact, these are what I was taught at HSE. A clear statement of purpose, precise monitoring, and motivation – all of this works around the world. Smart business is not a question of identity. In fact, everything works as it should if you just do it.
Speaking about bars, there’s Kamchatka, for example, which visitors from Europe really like. Do we have our own Russian bar culture?
bars ‘Honey, I’ll call you back’ locations have opened in Moscow, as well as one each in Samara, Khanty-Mansiysk and Chita.
The bar tradition is that you go to a restaurant for an evening meal and then move to the bar where you spend several hours in conversation and crowds. The bar doesn’t have serious food – probably just snacks – because everyone is full. We don’t have that many bars in the classic sense, so there is no tradition of going to the bar with friends. We are just beginning to hang out in coffee shops and restaurants and even say, ‘Let's go sit in a restaurant.’ Restaurants often cease to be restaurants when they put sofas in the room, bring in DJs and turn into some sort of a club with a scatter-brained menu.
Regarding Kamchatka, I’ll say this. It’s not hard to run a successful bar if you sell dirt-cheap vodka, beer and food. It all started well. Cultured people would go there to drink, but with time, a distinct crowd of degenerates pushed everyone out. If I have price tags like Kamchatka, I will be jam-packed every day, but what kind of people will be there?
Does that mean that price is the basis for success?
As with any business, with bars you have the opportunity to analyze your strengths and think about what you want to take. The main thing is to understand why. Some people take a low price, some special types of crowds, others music, atmosphere and service. There are always pedals you want to push, and if Kamchatka originally chose price, then let it be. That’s the easiest way.
The laws of management in the restaurant business are not very different from management laws in any other business. Everything comes from your guests. When we opened the Dolls Pistols we wrote out two pages of notes about what our target audience should be. Once you have your target audience, you work on prices, the menu, the music, and everything that you want to give people. Don’t try to make it for everyone. Not everyone will like it, which is normal. Some people go to Kruzhka while others go to the Mercedes Bar. What’s important is that everything is harmonious. After that, the more correctly you work on your concept, the more success you will have. In bars, more than in any other business, the atmosphere of the place is important. You should come here and feel comfortable around people who are like you. Why do we need face control in an establishment? So the people are the same and nobody keeps anyone else from relaxing. So price should also be a factor that brings you the right audience.
Is it easy to manage a target audience of drinkers?
In Russia - no, because the responsible sale of alcohol is not practised as such here. If you sell alcohol, you should do so very carefully. You pour, try, and then a drunk person coming out of your establishment and gets hit by a car. That's how you become a reluctant accomplice to a murder. The rule of ‘do no harm’ is therefore very important to us. Every month we hold training sessions where we tell new employees how to behave with consumers of alcohol. I don’t recall any serious fights in our establishments, but as a rule, this a matter of shift managers, bartenders and face control all doing their jobs right to anticipate such situations, because sorting it out later is very difficult.
people pass through Dolls Pistols from Friday night into Saturday.
How do you choose employees who can manage such responsibility?
Every Thursday we have a ‘contest’ where all candidates are given various tasks. This is often an acting contest of sorts because one interview does not often tell you a lot about a person. We need to look at candidates from different angles and find out how sociable, open, and smiling they are. Then the training begins. For 12 days, future employees live on a schedule. For example, on the first day they only carry dishes, and on the second begin to say ‘Hello!’ Then they have to pass a test on the menu and our standards. If they don’t manage, we give them a week to retake it.
You’ve planned to open a chain of ‘Honey, I’ll call you back’ bars in Moscow’s far suburbs. How are these bars going to be different from the ones in the centre?
The story of bars in the suburbs is very close and personal to me. There really aren’t enough places where you can sit and have a beer near your home. Our intentions were noble, but we didn’t consider the format quite enough, because the format of ‘Honey, I’ll call you back’ didn’t work for these neighbourhoods. In the centre, we bring in one type of clientele, but outside the centre people have different interests. We closed one of the locations in Strogino, but that was more due to technical reasons. In the Solntsevo district, it’s being reformatted. It won’t be ‘Honey, I’ll call you back’, but rather a bar that’s aimed at local residents and their interests. The third bar, on Leninsky Prospekt, is working out well. But we’ve stopped expanding in the suburbs and have opened a new ‘Honey, I’ll call you back’ on Pyatnitskaya.
The right music is the basis for our atmosphere. Grigory Leps, Ivan Dorn and Justin Bieber? No thank you. I’m sure you have heard about our parties. We like to have fun, but in a cultured way.
How does your advertising strategy in the suburbs differ from what you do in the centre of Moscow?
This turned out to be one of our biggest problems. In the centre, we got going without any advertising. But out in the suburbs, our Russian nature dominates. No one talks to one another, no one says hello. There’s no such thing as getting home from work and calling your neighbour to go to the bar to drink beer. People out in the suburbs don’t communicate, so to communicate with them all you have are billboards. The story with friends of friends doesn’t work out in the suburbs because some friends live in Solntsevo, others at Rechnoy Vokzal, and we all go to the centre to hang out. In Moscow, everything takes place in the centre: work, communication and recreation. But the main thing that I took away for myself is that managing one restaurant in the suburbs is ten times harder than ten in the centre, and one establishment in the centre can earn more than three times as much money as three in the suburbs.
How did the education you received at HSE help you in following through on your business idea?
It put my head in the right place in terms of managing any organization. I began operating with the right notions. My education has proven useful completely. I was not a top-performing student, but I got the basis of managing a business. I understand advertising, accounting, vision and any other aspect of business. I talk with businesspeople who don’t have such an education, and it’s very difficult for them to manage in terms of structure. But I’ve had these things embedded in my head since I was still going to class.