How to scale zen luxury, according to Robert De Niro

February 9, 2020, 12:00 PM UTC
The interior courtyard at the Nobu Ryokan Malibu, Calif.
Courtesy of Nobu Hotels

Farmers plant cover crops; athletes cross-train; actors—even the most A-list—brand.

On a Friday last November, Robert De Niro sinks into a cushy, beige couch at Nobu Ryokan, a Japanese style inn in Malibu, Calif., part of the hospitality company he owns with chef Nobu Matsuhisa and film producer Meir Teper. A 16-room compound of imported teak, glass, and stone, sandwiched between the Pacific Coast Highway, and the highway’s namesake, the inn—formerly the site of a 1950s motel—cost approximately as much to build as Mr. De Niro’s latest, Oscar-nominated film, The Irishman, cost to make ($160 million, according to Variety).

It’s the prestige picture of the Nobu portfolio, which includes 42 new Japanese restaurants, 10 hotels, and eight more venues still in development—an expansion plan that requires De Niro, Matsuihisa, and Teper to hunker down in a second floor suite with four members of their executive team so they can get on the same page. Provisions line the counters of a kitchenette: a platter of fruit, a tray of pale green cake.

“Someone had asked us a question,” says De Niro, tenting his fingers. He’s talking about the prospect of expanding into a city about which the group is still on the fence. “We can’t proceed without getting everybody’s approval,” adds Teper.

“We have to be very careful,” De Niro explains. “It was kind of obvious, in the beginning, everybody kept coming to us, asking if we wanted to bring a Nobu restaurant to them, give them the credibility, the cachet.”

An ocean-view room at the Nobu Ryokan in Malibu, Calif.

In 2007, Trevor Horwell—then the chief hotels officer for Hard Rock, now CEO of Nobu Hotels—brought him to San Diego’s Hard Rock Hotel. Hard Rock executives pitched De Niro on plugging a Nobu restaurant into their property. (The first Nobu restaurant opened in New York City’s Tribeca neighborhood in 1993.) “That crystallized my feelings,” De Niro recalls. “Why are we doing this for them? Why aren’t we trying this for ourselves? We’ve earned this right, why are they capitalizing on that? And somebody said, ‘Eh, you don’t want to go into hotels, just stay in your place.’ I said, ‘Why do we have to do that? No. We should try. There’s no downside. Put that out to our prospective partners, and wherever we feel it’s a good, strategic place to be, a certain city, a certain locale, blah, blah, blah.’” 

Strategic partners pay a licensing fee to use the Nobu name. The first Nobu Hotel opened in Las Vegas in 2013 (strategic partner: Caesars Palace). The Malibu ryokan opened in 2017 (strategic partner: Larry Ellison). Now, wannabe strategic partners are coming out of the warm, teak woodwork like so many termites.

Producer Meir Teper, chef Nobu Matsuihisa, and actor Robert De Niro at the Nobu Ryokan Malibu on Nov. 15, 2019.
Courtesy of Nobu Hotels

“The first six months of next year are going to be the busiest time for us,” Horwell says. “We’re opening in London, Warsaw.”

“Chicago,” Teper adds.

“And Barcelona and possibly Riyadh,” Horwell continues. “We go where our customers come from. We have a lot of business from Saudi Arabia. We did a pop-up restaurant in Jeddah, and it was full, absolutely full. Everything there has changed. Before, ladies couldn’t drive. At our pop-up, we had a lady DJ not wearing an abaya. Lady, DJ, not wearing an abaya! That’s three huge things.” But back to the agenda. “So we have five hotels that we’re opening over the course of the next six months,” he says.

“With restaurants,” Teper notes.

“We just have to try and cope with that,” Horwell says. “Bob, you said something yesterday that really resonated with me: ‘Know what you have, because when you let it go, you never get it back.’”

“That’s right,” De Niro says, nodding gravely. “I’ve seen things—we’ve all seen things that all of a sudden become corporatized, or co-opted—that’s not the right word—it’s been bought by a bigger company, and they have a different philosophy. It’s a different management team, and if they have control over it, even the perception will be altered.” He adds, “It’s not a good thing.”

A suite bathroom at the Nobu Ryokan in Malibu, Calif.
Courtesy of Nobu Hotels

But what’s the line between co-opting a place and just kind of zhushing it up? De Niro mentions an upcoming trip to Barbuda, a Caribbean island he first happened on 30 years ago and recently returned to, hoping to plant the Nobu flag. “When I got there, it was just the same,” he says. He pulls up a photo on his iPhone: turquoise water, white sand, not a soul in sight. “We went to find the owners, they were Italians, we got them.”

Negotiations with non-Italian factors—nature, resources—proved more difficult. “Now, we’re doing it very slowly,” De Niro says. “It’ll be kind of a Malibu beach inn with a Nobu pop-up.

“People come in on a boat, for a day trip, see where they want to be,” he adds. What if too many people want to be there? “I don’t know, that’s another kind of conversation,” he says, shrugging his shoulders. “Whatever happens is just to keep this place simple and nice. People go there to really rest—what you traditionally would want to go to a place like that for. So it then has to be, for want of a better word, curated.”

He may speak the language of modern branding, but he leaves the rest to the pros. “I mean, I don’t run it,” the Nobu Hotels business, “day to day,” De Niro clarifies. “These guys all do that. I’m there when I’m needed, but I do get a lot of satisfaction out of it, to say the least. I have to do something for Irishman later, I have to do another something later.”

“Don’t worry, I’m gonna put you in the kitchen one day,” Matsuhisa jokes.

“And then I’ll go in and complain about the flavor of the sauce,” De Niro replies. He mimes tasting something from a spoon. “I’ll say, ‘Oh, no, no, no, no, no.’”

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