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Michael Sager & Marcis Dzelzainis on why it’s important for a business to challenge the norms

Be one step ahead, if you open a business according to the norms right now, you wont be ahead of the curve for years to come and your business won’t survive the critical 5 year mark. Back in 2012 this meant to open a wine bar with what was back then considered an expensive price […]


Be one step ahead, if you open a business according to the norms right now, you wont be ahead of the curve for years to come and your business won’t survive the critical 5 year mark. Back in 2012 this meant to open a wine bar with what was back then considered an expensive price point in an up and coming area, which allowed us to serve fine wines at cash margins and undercut our competitors in Central London. This was only possible because of the low overheads area we chose to set up shop in. Now this means to try and find new soft drinks, which no one else is working on. Those secrets we cannot currently share, otherwise the big dogs catch wind and do it first…


I had the pleasure of interviewing Michael Sager and Marcis Dzelzainis from Sager + Wilde. Michael Sager, the director of wine bars Sager + Wilde Paradise Row and Sager + Wilde Hackney Road, and his business partner, Marcis Dzelzainis, have no less than six projects on the go. Their influence spread across many areas of London’s on-trade, due to their joint work experience at some of London’s best food and drink establishments, culminating in recently winning Best International Restaurant Bar at 2018 Spirited Awards.


Thank you so much for doing this with us! What inspired you to become a restaurateur?

Michael: The opportunity to connect with people on a global scale, from producers and farmers to joint restaurateurs. To be able to hone my language skills and the possibility of infinite travel and learning. A very rare opportunity and one I couldn’t be more grateful for.

Marcis: Food has always been really important to my family, I grew up in France and was constantly surrounded by great produce and cooking, but was also very lucky as my step-mum (who was a big influence on me food wise) was a big devotee of cooks such as: Sophie Grigson, Jane Grigson, Elizabeth David, Marcella Hazan, so I was very fortunate to eat really well, whilst growing up.

What has your journey been like since first stepping foot in a bar?

Michael: It just hasn’t stopped. My taste keeps changing and evolving and so are the people around me who continue to inspire me. I’ve gone from drinking in them, to now working on their menus, most excitingly with my business partner Marcis Dzelzainis at Bassoon, Corinthia Hotel London.

Marcis: It’s been a rollercoaster, I’ve had the pleasure of working with some of the most incredible people in our industry, and I feel very privileged to be on this journey that has taken me all over the world and still get to call it a job!

Do you have a specialty? If so, what drew you to that type of food?

Michael: Italian food. I have been lucky enough to be brought up in Switzerland and my family took us camping in Italy every summer and autumn, no skiing in winter though. This made me grow to understand and love the boldness yet elegance of Italian cuisine.

Marcis: I’m always blown away by Basque cuisine; I think it even surpasses Italian food in terms of simplicity and respect for ingredients. I’ve been trying to master the classic tortilla, as they make it at Bar Nestor in San Sebastian. I think it’s going to take me years!

Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that happened to you since you became a chef/restaurateur?

Michael: You know what? The last few months have been so crazy that I just don’t believe it is ever going to stop. The best has definitely been being invited to join the VIP area of the Beyoncé and Jay-Z concert the night of the world cup final after the game in Paris. What a night! This only happened via a mutual restaurateur friend from New York but it was certainly memorable.

Marcis: Unfortunately I’m not sure my funniest moments are for the printed press. All I’ll say is that a lot of them took place whilst working at the Quo Vadis members club circa 2009/2010. Possibly the most fun I’ve had working anywhere!

What is your definition of success?

Michael: Freedom. Not having any fear.

Marcis: Absolutely second that: Freedom

What failures have you had along the way? How have they led you to success?

Michael: They continue every day and I love them. To quote Alfred in Batman Begins “Why do we fall? So we can learn to pick ourselves up”

Marcis: I think to truly know success you have to truly experience failure and my failures have been many! But don’t be too hard on yourself, compare yourself to who you were yesterday not who you want to be tomorrow and learn to give yourself a pat on the back from time to time.

Are you working on any new or exciting projects now?

Michael and Marcis: Plenty actually, we’re hugely diversifying. This year alone we are doing the below:

· Opening up a hotel bar at the Corinthia Hotel in Embankment — Bassoon.

· Opening Fare Bar + Canteen in Clerkenwell (@farebarandcanteen).

· Launching an independent spirits bottler label in London (@Destilado_London), starting with 16 expressions of uncertified Agave distillates and 3 sugar cane distillates. To be expanded into infinity.

· Starting a distilled soda label (Paradise Soda Company).

· Opening an art gallery (Alkë).

· Started up a wine import business (@uncharted_wines).

· Started making our own wine (@vigneti_tardis).

What advice do you have for aspiring chefs/restaurateurs?

Michael: Support who’s coming after you, realize that you are not the end or the beginning but simply a link in the chain. Learn from others and start teaching.

Marcis: You have to respect that you are a commercial enterprise and that what you offer has to fulfill a need for the guest, and that requires taking your ego out of the equation. Having personal beliefs and wanting to change the world is not going to achieve anything, if your restaurant is empty. This is something we have learnt from personal experience.

What is the key to creating the perfect dish?

Michael: You would have to ask our chefs, but I believe Balance and understanding zeitgeist at any giving point.

Marcis: Simplicity, the quality of the ingredients and imagination.

It is said that food is a common ground that brings people together. As someone who makes food for a living, what does this saying mean to you?

Michael: I couldn’t agree more. I met the majority if not all of my friends through my work. Something I couldn’t be happier with, and we all share this passion.

Marcis: Community and food are inseparable for me personally, I hate exclusion when it comes to food and drink, it should always be about inclusion.

What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became a Chef/restaurateur” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)

Michael:

1. Find the cash

When we opened Sager + Wilde, I thought the budgeted cash would be enough even with a 20% allowance above budget. But reality always catches up with you. Best is to tell your contractors etc one amount to work towards but keep another 50% on top to avoid negative surprises during the build. Not having enough cash flow can jeopardise your relationship with the suppliers, the most important people you have on your side.

2. Challenge the norms

Be one step ahead, if you open a business according to the norms right now, you wont be ahead of the curve for years to come and your business won’t survive the critical 5 year mark. Back in 2012 this meant to open a wine bar with what was back then considered an expensive price point in an up and coming area, which allowed us to serve fine wines at cash margins and undercut our competitors in Central London. This was only possible because of the low overheads area we chose to set up shop in. Now this means to try and find new soft drinks, which no one else is working on. Those secrets we cannot currently share, otherwise the big dogs catch wind and do it first…

3. Be ready to change

If you face a challenge too big to stand up against or ultimately draining your final resources then it is best reinvent yourself. Back in 2015 when we got sued for our Trademark “Mission” by an American company we had to accept that the rebranding to Sager + Wilde was the only way out and suck up the 40k legal costs and subsequent loss of earnings. In order to do that, we have had to completely change our food offering to compete with Brexit pricing. We now have a busier restaurant than ever.

4. Lose all sense of self or arrogance, lose yourself in the service of others

No one wants to work for a selfish idiot, devoid of empathy or altruism. The business is not you and you are not the business. So you have to treat the two very differently. You are an employee of the business, alongside everyone else, and have a role to fulfil. Ultimately your opinion only matters so much. Without the great employees/colleagues I have found on the way, I would have gone out of business over and over.

5. The hard hours can stop, if you want them to, you can find your way into living your best self

This goes back to the fact that you want the business to work for you and not vice versa. Not that I am remotely there yet, but I keep this in the very forefront of my daily thinking. Plenty of amazing entrepreneurs have shared this, so I will keep on pushing and engage all my partners along the way to do the same. We are not martyrs, we are here to learn and teach.

Marcis:

1. Be ready to have people test your assumptions

Putting your ideas out there can be a pretty daunting experience and it’s important to take feedback on board, without construing criticism as a negative. You have to see it as an opportunity to hone your concept before going live. And don’t just open up to people you know are on the same wavelength as you. For instance I always ask my mum what she thinks of certain drink or dishes, as she is not from the restaurant industry and actually her attitude is more in line with the majority of people.

2. Get to grips with financials, knowing someone else is not going to do it for you

It can be really tempting to really on other people to take care of financials, especially if you focus on the more creative aspects of your business. I think doing so is wrong on two fronts:

a) At the end of the day it is your responsibility to understand the financial workings of your business, especially if peoples livelihoods are at stake, financials are actually way less complicated that people make them out and a few rules can really help you make good decisions. For example always try and keep your staff costs below 30% any more and you’re in trouble, your rent shouldn’t be more than 12–15% of your yearly turnover and you cost of sales should be around 25%. Sit down with you accountant or someone who understands financials and get them to explain them to you; you’ll be surprised how forthcoming people are with regards to these matters.

b) If you have a business partner (and I suggest you do), things are much easier if you share the stress of managing financials together and actually you’ll find some decisions easier to make.

3. Cooking at home and cooking in professional kitchen are like chalk and cheese

Trust me if you enjoy cooking at home, professional cooking will ruin it for you. There’s a reason that chefs survive on baked beans, pasta and supper noodles when at home. There’s no shame in being a great cook, some of my favourite recipes were written by cooks not chefs. I use cooking as a way to relax and socialise with family and friends and that is why I stick to making drinks and not working in the kitchen!

4. Be ready for things to be difficult

Nothing worthwhile is ever easy! And it is very easy to say you understand this premise at the beginning of a project, however, it’s half way through when you really start to question what the hell you doing and become convinced it’s all been a massive mistake. Stop take a minute. And this too shall pass. Sometimes it’s best to take time out, relax and come back with a fresh perspective. Again easier said than done. Also, this is when you really need a business partner, who is prepared to listen to your frantic ravings without passing judgement.

5. Be ready for things to be awesome once you push the other-side

There is no better feeling than opening a kick ass venue and genuinely being proud of it. Be prepared to meet some awesome people along the way, many of whom will likely go on to become close friends and even family. It is the best industry in the world and when you are on top it’s an unbeatable feeling.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.

Michael: That is easy, I believe I am trying my very best to do this every day. I literally follow every possible lead or idea, no matter how unrealistic they sound. Just like you said, you never know what it will trigger. I have been incredibly fortunate this far and feel that whatever comes next will get even better.

Marcis: I think we need to go back to flavour, there is too much garnish in both a literal and metaphorical sense. I want to inspire people to really understand flavour in cocktails, the same way Michael has inspired people with wine.

Some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to cook for and why?

Michael: DJ Khaled, he understands building and engaging with a community, and the next generation, like no other.

Marcis: Jeff Goldblum. 10 out of 10 Goldblums. Enough said.

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