Herman Hell: “Don't stand still, keep going”

Herman Hell and his catering group Hell's Kitchen have more than six hundred employees and twelve catering establishments in the Rotterdam region. From traditional pubs (Sijf and Van Zanten) to extravagant concepts (Grace and Zalmhuis) and some iconic classics such as Loos and Westerpaviljoen. He is also co-owner of the chain concept SUGO. Herman was recently named Catering Entrepreneur of the Year 2023. Irene van de Laar meets the Rotterdam host in the Zalmhuis restaurant and talks to him about entrepreneurship now and the future.
Herman Hell
Karoly Effenberger

Text Irene van de Laar
Photography Károly Effenberger

She once competed in the Miss Universe pageants, now she uses her charms to seduce exciting men into an interview for MASTERS. This time, Irene van de Laar focuses on 'Catering Entrepreneur of the Year' Herman Hell.

What makes the Zalmhuis a hotspot?

“Het Zalmhuis has been a household name in Rotterdam and the surrounding area for years. The spectacular view over the IJssel and Maas and the special history of the building - on the location where the largest salmon auction in our country was once located - make it an iconic place. When I operated the building in 2019, the barrel was out, the interior was dated. I got it from scratch completely rebuilt and refreshed, with a distinctive interior. I got a lot of inspiration from catering establishments in England, where a diversity of guests sit next to each other. That's what I wanted: a wide range in terms of target group. That gives a great dynamic. The Zalmhuis also has that. Always a pleasure to be there.”

What was the basis for the start of Hell's Kitchen?

“During my Communications studies, I worked as a waiter in Big Ben. When I graduated, I started an office job, but I felt out of place there. I discovered that there is only one profession with the purest form of communication: catering. I grew up in an entrepreneurial family and had big ideas. Together with a friend, I had set up an internet company during my studies that was doing well. The money that was released from the sale of the company formed the deposit for my first business: De Hofnar Rotterdam. That meant the start of my company, which was called Hell's Kitchen Horeca Group from 2013.”

What is the strategy behind your concepts?

“We have the Local Hero strategy. We first look for good locations and then come up with a format. The position of the terrace is important, but also the possibility of being open seven days a week from morning to late evening. In places where there is a lot of dynamics in the city. We try to be part of people's entrepreneurial, cultural and social lives. That's the great thing about catering: you are where you eat and drink. We are an extension of people's identities. We don't sell food and drinks, we sell feelings. In principle, we are a mirror of people themselves.”

Herman Hell

Corona is over as a health crisis, but do you still feel the economic impact?

“That impact is currently very intense. Because of corona and the energy crisis. The debt burden that we carry with us from the corona crisis as an industry and my company will last another six to seven years. Now that's tough. Back then it was mentally tough and you had to make sure you survived at all costs. I have always said: you can eat the fruit, as long as the tree continues to exist. We still have that tree, but the fruit is gone. It will take years to slowly but surely repay that pain.”

Hell's Kitchen has a broad portfolio of businesses. What is the common DNA?

“We are always a challenging party in everything. That is in our DNA, and also in my character. We always try to go a little further than others. We sell experience. If you have experienced something three times, you like it less. So we always explore the edges to surprise you, innovate and further develop. The advantage of all the different labels we have is that we can put every new idea somewhere, we are not limited by one concept. That's nice."

 

“Happy guests are the ultimate remedy for poor turnover: they spend more, stay longer and come more often”

 

Herman Hell

How do you describe the dynamics of the city of Rotterdam?

“Rotterdam is my home. I was born and raised there and have worked there all my life. The center feels like my backyard. Rotterdam has an open society, it doesn't matter where you come from or who you are. It is a multicultural city. If you live here for a while, you automatically become a Rotterdammer. It's a mini-society, and if you go along with it, all the prejudices and stigmas will automatically apply to you. That is special.”

What awaits the catering industry in 2024?

“In 2024 there is no time to sit back. Due to the staff shortage and the after-effects of corona, we have not yet returned to our old quality level. Our margins? They are also still under pressure for the time being. With more critical guests and all the financial stress that entails. As a catering industry, we are in the corner where the economic blows are falling.”

What course are you following now?

“Happy guests are the ultimate remedy for poor turnover: they spend more, stay longer and come more often. The cash register proves whether your guests appreciate you. So it will be harder work than ever. At the top of my list of resolutions is: making sure my guests are happy.”

How critical is a catering guest in 2024?

“They want the basic values ​​to be in order: your food, drinks and your service level. Nowadays, a guest mainly wants to experience a feeling of luxury. Velvet sofas, good sound, climate control and a comfortable environment. A guest wants to be surprised with entertainment or something extra at the table such as show elements. Every global citizen now views the world through a screen and it is up to us to make your timeline relevant. Otherwise you won't come back.”

What trends will we see?

“I see in my own city Rotterdam that there is less and less room for different types of catering establishments. The cafes on the corner make way for fast casual business, mono concepts, and chain concepts such as Loetje, or for high-end business. Our society is increasingly focused on special and exclusive or cheap and abundant. The middle segment will therefore have an even harder time and will increasingly disappear from the street scene.”

You were named Catering Entrepreneur of the Year during the Entree Awards 2023. What does this award mean to you?

“If you are an entrepreneur, this is perhaps the best appreciation you can receive in my industry. Especially because it is an industry that I have a lot of feeling for and am very proud of. I love my profession and it is very nice that you have been given a role model. This award is a kind of recognition of that. It is great that I can help the catering sector to further develop. How do I make a difference? Hell's Kitchen's business is unique at the front and at the back it is managed by a well-organized back office with synergy between staff, data, purchasing and software, among other things. In addition, I seize opportunities at the right time and move with the current spirit of the times.”

Last year you opened a new nightclub: The Grit. What does this club add to Rotterdam nightlife?

“The Rotterdam nightlife mainly consisted of party cafes or techno cellars. There was nothing left in between. The Grit is in between at the top of the market. It is a very nice place, a friendly environment where everyone feels safe. It is also the best insulated club in the Netherlands. By the way, you can only enter if you are 23 years old. There are already many businesses in the city for this younger target group. We wanted to appeal to the target group above that.”

Herman Hell

How do you enrich yourself with knowledge and inspiration?

“I often look at new things in England and love going to Paris. In Paris, the Paris Society Group develops the most impressive clubs, restaurants, events and hotels. They are a very big player. I have seen restaurants and clubs there, that are really next level: Gigi, CoCo, Girafe, Raspoutine, they are establishments with very high quality interiors, entertainment and F&B. What they have achieved is very impressive.”

What have been the most important learning moments for you so far?

“In any case, I am someone who is self-taught and learns everything in practice. I think I can sense very well what the atmosphere and vibe is in a business. A concept must be correct from A to Z. You learn that gradually, and eventually I can make an analysis very quickly. As an entrepreneur, I have learned the most during corona times. My business was always growing, but overnight everything changed. The word crisis management could not be found in any of our manuals. If you have to close the doors, these are very hard lessons. It's simple: resistance makes you strong. Compare it with the gym, where you always have to look for a heavier dumbbell. Professionally, I try to look for a heavier dumbbell every year to get stronger. The most important thing is that you do something in your life that you really enjoy, then you will automatically become good at it.”

Entrepreneurship is only interesting if you can grow. At sometime?

"At sometime. It is more or less already in the word entrepreneurship: don't stand still, but keep going. I see a company as a living organism. For example, you can grow in turnover, in quality, experience or in size. Growing is fun, otherwise you get into a rut. It's good to go off the beaten path, that's where the energy needed for growth lies. In my opinion, we also employ many good employees because we are a growing company. This offers opportunities and makes it attractive.”

Herman Hell

You started out as a glass collector, three decades later you are the owner of twelve catering establishments. To what extent has the catering dream now been fulfilled?

“I didn't start out wanting to stay small. The idea has always been to do new fun things, which automatically makes you bigger and better. You work hard every day and you always get a little closer. I've never really had a big end goal. Let me take a spiritual tack: it is not about the destination, but the journey somewhere.”

MASTERS Magazine

This article is from MASTERS Magazine. How passion, craftsmanship and enthusiasm can excite the senses. That is the common thread of the spring edition of MASTERS, which takes you through many catering entrepreneurs: from the big winner of the recent Michelin ceremony, Jurgen van der Zalm van Vinkeles, to 'Horecatering Entrepreneur of the Year' Herman Hell. Speaking of Michelin: what is actually the impact of the green star, which saw the light of day in 2021? MASTERS posed that question to six prominent chefs. During a business lunch in Bridges restaurant, Dennis Albada Jelgersma explains how he farms as a winegrower and celebrates life: “Not with a block of cheese and a lukewarm pipe.” The appetizing creations in Culinaire Couture prove that a good outfit is like a feast for the eyes. David Yarrow's fascinating photography is also a feast for the eyes. We get into the Lucid Air Touring to experience whether the electric car can have the same effect on the senses as the combustion engine. And we enter heaven for audiophiles: Bang & Olufsen Brussee. In short: plenty of stimuli for the reading buds. A song to enjoy!

Order MASTERS Magazine #57 here