The night awaits you
— I first came to Russia when the winds of perestroika were blowing, and the country was turning away from the socialist model of development. Moscow seemed to me to be a pretty grey place. The streets at that time were poorly lit. But its sheer size made an impression on me: towering buildings, sweeping boulevards! I came to do business. And, straight away, I threw myself into my work.
I came to do business. And, straight away, I threw myself into my work.
The country was undergoing rapid and radical reform. Based on what used to be USSR Gosteleradio (the State Committee for Television and Radio Broadcasting), the TV company Ostankino was born. New channels came into being: Channel One Ostankino, RTR, МТК and 2х2, ТV-6 Moscow… ТV was becoming commercialised at a rate of knots. A company of media brokers invited me to come and set up selling of advertising space on TV. I also ran the programme scheduling on RTR: I put on serials like soap operas, and programmes like “Football without Borders”. The market had only just taken shape, and working in it was insanely interesting. Russia was readily taking on board anything new. People were very up-front with no “hidden agenda”.
About Hans Koeleman
Amsterdam native and marketing professional. Came to Moscow in 1989. Worked in Russian television selling advertising space and was involved in programme scheduling. 1992: set up the advertising agency AMS, offering the full range of marketing services. 2000: opened the bar De Nachtwacht in Patriarch’s Ponds, central Moscow.
— What struck you most of all?
— At the time, there were still no mobile phones, and to phone abroad you had to go to the central telegraph office, book a call and then wait for a further three or four days until the line was free. We had to play the system. We’d bring little gifts for the girls operating the phones: imported lipstick and underwear. And they started to connect us much quicker with Holland.
— When was it that you started your own business?
— I was moving in media circles and had an extensive database at my disposal. I started putting on various marketing events. Things took off, and in 1992 I established the agency AMS. We provided the full range of advertising services and were involved in organising and conducting marketing and other public events. We also took part in projects for opening bars and restaurants. Some of our clients were the City Space bar at the Swiss Hotel, the Stanislavsky restaurant, and the “One for the Road” cafe. By then, we had garnered a fair amount of experience. In putting on exhibitions, we had carried out building work. Our experts drew up all the necessary paperwork and selected the buildings.
— Were there any problems with renting premises?
— We opened the Stanislavsky between 1994 and 1995. At the time, we paid $5,000 for 600 square metres a year. In Moscow these days, everybody knows the word “realtor”, and rent prices are now simply sky-high – they have gone up by 10–12 times.
In Moscow these days, everybody knows the word “realtor”, and rent prices are now simply sky-high.
— Are Russian partners reliable?
— Yes, you can count on them. Signing the contract and drawing up the invoice take up a lot of time. But, once all the “papers” have been sorted out, the money is transferred immediately. No problems there. There is a lot more bureaucracy in Holland than there is here.
— Where did the idea of opening your own bar come from?
— Following the crisis of 1998, the market for our company contracted. We mainly organised events and exhibitions. My Russian partner had his own premises in a very old building in Patriarch’s Ponds. He didn’t know what do with this property, so I suggested that he open a bar there. There were absolutely no problems regarding the documentation. That is just what our agency AMS specialises in. The difficulties arose from elsewhere. We had to carry out extensive plumbing work. There had been a tourist agency located there before. We had to fit out a kitchen.
There is a lot more bureaucracy in Holland than there is here.
I didn’t rush to enlist the help of a designer: I did all the interiors myself. You could say that De Nachtwacht is a little corner of Amsterdam, a typical small bar, of which in Holland there are many. All the furniture was made by local craftsmen. The only things I brought from Amsterdam were the prints and the bar counter “with a history”. It’s Belgian and is over 150 years old. I wanted to create a particular ambience in the bar. Not like the one in Russian ones: you order something, eat it, and go. The concept behind my establishment is that of a “local” where everyone knows each other and talks to each other.
You could say that De Nachtwacht is a little corner of Amsterdam, a typical small bar, of which in Holland there are many.
— Why did you call the bar “The Night Watch”?
— I wanted there to be a link with Amsterdam and with something international. Holland is associated around the world with flowers and painting. One of Rembrandt’s most famous paintings is “The company of Captain Frans Banninck Cocq and Lieutenant Willem van Ruytenburgh prepare to march out”, which for the last two centuries has gone by the name of “The Night Watch”. In my opinion, it is a suitable name. All the more so, as it is also possible to translate it from the Dutch as “The Night Awaits you”.
A barman should never have empty hands
On the wall in Hans Koeleman’s bar hangs a copy of the painting, lending the establishment its own particular rhythm: defenders of the city, Amsterdammer fusiliers. Essentially: a company of militiamen is pouring out onto the square, pikes and muskets glint, a drum is beating…
Work in the bar, too, is sometimes just as busy. The landlord relates how he chose his staff:
Aleksey Tikhonov, independent business analyst:
Due to the fall in the value of the Russian currency, the number of visits to Moscow bars will undoubtedly decrease in the short term. Nevertheless, certain negative factors exerting a negative influence on the general level of consumer demand in the capital could in reality have a positive effect on the bar visits statistics. For example, a reduction in out-of-town tourism will undoubtedly have a positive influence on the bar visits statistics. In other words, strange as it may seem, bars could become a sort of “Giffen good”, the demand for which increases in spit of an overall fall in purchasing capacity. In the medium and long term, the basic structural factors such as the increase in the population of Moscow and the surrounding area (several-fold, according to official predictions), the war against motor vehicles, which will inevitably lead to an increase in the number of people who are able to consume spirits, and the growth of internal tourism due to the fact that transport services have become relatively cheaper, will exert their influence.
In the foreseeable future, the general catering services market is hardly likely to be a “zero-sum game”, when the appearance of a new player means an inevitable loss of consumers by a competitor. Allowing for the general dynamic of the growth of the city’s population, demand is still significantly ahead of supply. The “growing super-city” factor and the rise in the number of its inhabitants will undoubtedly facilitate an increase in the demand for all kinds of franchises, as is happening, for example, in New York, which Moscow, in its main parameters, resembles far more than any European capital. This does not remove the possibility of setting up a business aimed at serving “local customers” in one of the nearest housing estates. To all appearances, the owners of the capital’s main franchises are hastily reducing the number of niche brands they promote. This strategy could be really successful.
— The bar here is quite small. Two chefs and two barmen, well, waiters, work on shifts. Finding the right people was fairly difficult. The main thing that we need is for them to be young and able to cope with a lot of physical exertion. And also to have a certain innate sense. For example, someone comes up to you and orders a beer, then a second… But by the third time, you should already be asking them: “Same again?” That kind of sense you have to be born with.
When I was recruiting staff, I looked at how tidy they were, how they smelt, and suggested a trial run working in the bar on a Friday night when we are at our busiest. The main criterion for being selected was: a barman should never have empty hands. If he comes out from behind the bar to, let’s say, bring a menu, then, on the way back he should grab either an ashtray or an empty dish or glass. If a barman goes back behind the bar with empty hands, then I make a note of it. If it happens again, then I will let them go.
I have Russians working for me. On the whole, they are students. They start off working a half-day, then they go full-time.
— What do barmen in Moscow get paid on average?
— 1500–2000 roubles a day. It’s a decent rate. On the other hand, many landlords take people for a trial period and pay them the minimum. And then, after three months, however well they did their job, they sack them, and then train up new people on the same miserable money.
— Who are your customers?
— Mainly Dutch people living near by, but also Moscow residents and visitors to the city. We have a lot of regulars ranging from students to senior managers. An eminent plastic surgeon looks in. There were four friends from a large multinational, but since the sanctions, we haven’t seen anything of them.
I try to welcome all of my customers and chat to them, and many of them become my friends.
I try to welcome all of my customers and chat to them, and many of them become my friends.
There are a lot of good bars in Moscow but there is only one like mine!
— Which drinks and snacks is there the greatest demand for?
— Wine and Dutch beer. As for snacks, it’s satay – that’s chicken in a spicy peanut sauce, bitterballen – little balls with meat stew inside them, deep-fried, but the main one is barrelled, slightly salted herring. They are served with onion cut into rings, and you eat them like so: you take one end of the fillet, tilt your head back, and drop it whole into your mouth. But ever since the sanctions there have been problems concerning the herring.
— Can you not replace them with Russian, far eastern herring?
— Dutch herring are not like any other herring in the world. They are small but very tasty and oily.
— What would say about the competition?
— There are a lot of good bars in Moscow but there is only one like mine! It is a little corner of Amsterdam. On Sundays, people come in to watch the football. In the evenings, they sing Dutch songs in unison. It is, essentially, a club with very much a Dutch sing-along atmosphere.
— How would your job differ if you had the same bar in Amsterdam?
— The number of customers would be roughly the same. The income, too. The one thing is that the tax situation in Russia is better.
The tax situation in Russia is better.
— Which brings in the most money: your company or the bar?
— The bar is like a hobby, like a club. This place is too small to bring in a lot of money. The main income comes from the company which employs 12 people. They are lawyers, designers, builders. At the moment, for example, we are opening a 1,000 square metre restaurant. We are carrying out market research, working up the concept and the design. I also use “De Nachtwacht” as my office: it’s a good marketing vehicle for AMS.
Simon Connolly, manager of City Space bar&lounge:
The crisis caused by sanctions and general instability does of course influence the clients’ purchasing power. All businesses being paid in roubles are now losing income, but our client base is not noticeably reduced. People have to eat and drink, even in times of crisis. Obviously there is strong competition between bars and restaurants in the Moscow market, but the capital’s market is big enough for new players always to find a place, including in our sector. You just have to act professionally. The general concept of an establishment, its “unique face”, is extremely important. Niche-filling conceptual bars have the best prospects from the point of view of entering the market, and do not require record investments. Nevertheless, quite a bit is required: redecorating the interior, fitting out the rooms and paying staff. It is desirable to offer visitors some sort of cultural programme. And of course, it is one thing to open an establishment in the centre, and quite another to do so not even on the outskirts, but simply in one of the non-central districts. In the first case, what is required is prestige and premium appeal, so that people will come from all over Moscow; in the second, relying on footfall customers, everything can be done more simply. In such a case you only need a small sum, about 1-2 million roubles, to open.
Here, human relations are very important: not at all like it is with us in Holland
— How do you perceive the mentality of Russian people?
— People here vary a lot. There are many different nationalities living in this country. In 1991, I went on a long journey from Rostov-on-Don to the Caucasus. In the mountains live the most hospitable people. I wasn’t sober there for a single day, and I tried as many new dishes as I could.
— Is it really necessary to know the Russian language to be able to work in Russia?
— Obviously, it is best if you are going to be speaking to your work colleagues and clients in Russian. I regret not spending enough time learning Russian. I had lessons but didn’t show much enthusiasm for it. When I was working in television, everybody spoke in English.
— What would you compare working in Russia with?
— With a roller-coaster: one minute you are hurtling downwards at a crazy speed, then you are flying upwards just as quickly.
— What do you like and dislike most about Russia?
— Any foreigner will tell you that the best thing the Russians have are: the women! But I don’t like the traffic jams.
— Do you have any favourite places in Moscow?
— The Hermitage Garden, and Patriarch’s Ponds, where my bar is. This is where the novel “Master and Margerita” by Mikhail Bulgakov is set. Here, in winter, there was one of the most popular ice rinks in Moscow, where Lev Tolstoy used to bring his daughters skating. Now, my children skate on the ponds.
— Is it worth coming to Moscow to start your own business?
— If you have the time and the money, then, yes, it is worth it. You can do a lot in Russia. The people are welcoming. I’m struck by the friendship which blossoms between people here. Here, human relations are very important: not at all like it is with us in Holland.
Foreigners should know: it is possible to become attached to Russia “with all your heart”. I, for example, when I leave the country, start to miss it after two weeks. It draws me back. I already couldn’t live anywhere else.