HM on location: Nobu Hospitality gains ground with smart partnerships

From left: Jonathan M. Tisch, Robert De Niro, Nobu Matsuhisa and Meir Teper. Photo credit: Tom Weis/NYUSPS

NEW YORK—During lunch on day two of the 41st annual New York University International Hospitality Industry Investment Conference, Jonathan M. Tisch, chairman/CEO of Loews Hotels & Co., interviewed three men who became unlikely hoteliers: Oscar-winning actor Robert De Niro, celebrity chef/restaurateur Nobuyuki “Nobu” Matsuhisa and producer/investor Meir Teper. While the trio co-founded and co-own Nobu Hospitality Group, the parent company of the Nobu Restaurant chain and the Nobu Hotels brand, none of them started out in the hotel industry.

Today, the team oversees 41 restaurants and nine hotels, with another 10 hotels in various stages of development, with 20 expected to be open by 2021.

Most recently, Nobu Hotel Marbella (Spain) opened in 2018 and Nobu Hotel Los Cabos (Mexico) opened this year. Nobu Hotels are in development for Barcelona, Spain; Riyadh, Saudi Arabia; Chicago; Toronto (where Nobu-branded private residences sold out within three months of hitting the market); São Paulo; Atlanta; Tel Aviv, Israel; and Warsaw, Poland, as well as a second London property due to open in spring 2020. The team is also working on a deal in Kuwait.

Growing the Brand

“We really don’t have a plan,” Teper said of the company’s expansion. What they do have is a corporate ethos: “We run our business as a family business and we want to continue that way.”

The Nobu restaurants have been going strong for 30 years, he noted, and many of the hospitality team members came from that network. That team, said Matsuhisa, has built solid relationships with partners and procurers across the world, and those relationships have made the company successful. “They’re good people and we treat them like family,” Teper said of the team and the partners. “That’s the secret. Keep them close to you and treat them nicely. That’s how we’re able to keep the quality and grow.” The team members know the company’s philosophy and what kind of quality the three partners expect, he added. “That’s why we are consistent in the restaurants. Hopefully, they’ll do the same with the hotels.” 

As a management company, Teper said that the team also is “very, very careful” to find the right investors and owners for each project. “They have to work with us as a family as well,” he said.

“We took advantage of a situation we should have taken advantage of,” De Niro said of the company's growth, while acknowledging that he is “happily surprised” the company has done as well as it has over the last six years. 

The first Nobu Hotel opened in 2013 as a boutique property within Caesars Palace Las Vegas. The Nobu Hotel City of Dreams Manila in the Philippines opened in 2014, Nobu Hotel Miami Beach in 2016, Nobu Ryokan Malibu (Calif.), Nobu Hotel London Shoreditch, Nobu Hotel Ibiza Bay and Nobu Hotel Palo Alto (Calif.) opened in 2017,

As a private company, Teper added, Nobu does not face the same kind of pressure a public business would face, and does not need to open 10 restaurants per year in order to be perceived as successful. Remaining private has given the company the freedom to remain more strategic. “When it’s the right location, the right place and the right deal, then we’ll do it,” Teper said, adding he would like to see a Nobu hotel in New York City someday. De Niro, for his part, is working on a project on 400 acres of Barbuda beachfront that he expects to take up the next several years of his life (allowing time off for his acting “day job,” he quipped). As for the chef who gave his name to the brand, he doesn’t want to say no to any opportunity for the company to grow.

An Interesting Path to Now

Tisch probed how the trio came together in the first place to produce what is considered a powerhouse company. Referring back to his statements from the conference's opening general session on the need for a “rational, coherent national immigration policy,” he asked the men about their backgrounds: De Niro was born in New York City as the descendant of Irish and Italian immigrants; Matsuhisa was born in Saitama, Japan and spent several years in Peru and Alaska before opening the Los Angeles restaurant that put him on the map in 1987; and Teper was born in Tel Aviv, Israel, coming to America as a folk dancer in the 1960s, performing at Catskills resorts before moving to California.

The trio met in the late-1980s when De Niro ate at Nobu’s first California restaurant and encouraged the restaurateur to open an establishment in New York. Teper had invested in De Niro’s first restaurant—the Tribeca Grill—and came forward to support the new endeavor—across the street from where De Niro lived. 

The hospitality brand evolved as hotels sought to include Nobu-branded restaurants to boost their “cachet or credibility,” as De Niro called it. When the team went to San Diego to oversee a Nobu in the city’s Hard Rock hotel, he recalled, the developers asked the trio a number of questions about the hotel as opposed to their restaurant. “We’re not here for Hard Rock, we’re here for Nobu,” he told them, and then asked his partners, “Why are we not at least trying it?”

Trevor Horwell and Struan McKenzie, both of whom had spent years at Como Group and Hard Rock Hotels and Casinos, came onboard as CEO and COO, respectively, of Nobu Hospitality Group, helping the team put deals together and find locations for development.

The overall design aesthetic came from the trio’s frequent travels around the world, and their desire to create a hotel space that had all the elements they wanted. “In a way it was easy because we are known in the restaurant [industry] as giving good service and good food,” Teper said. “We thought we could do the same in hotels—give good service, good food and a comfortable place to stay.”