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Owners of The Harbour Club: "There is 0 perspective?

Nov 25, 2020

The Harbour Club is known for its large establishments where many Dutch celebrities, soccer players and ?rich kids' come. In normal times there were hundreds of guests dancing on the tables. But now the tables are set, the champagne glasses are polished and no one comes. And that while the restaurant chain was just about to start growing.

An A4 sheet adorns the elevator doors of the BINK36 collective building in The Hague. Due to maintenance, visitors are condemned to the stairwell. Had this inconvenience taken place in another time, the atmosphere on the fifth floor of the former state post office to cut.

The hundreds of hiply dressed and carefully styled visitors to this establishment of The Harbour Club (THC) would then have had to climb seven flights of stairs. As the marketing department invariably emphasizes, the franchise restaurant chain's concept is "purely focused on the experience. Or as Joost Verhoeven (36), branch director of this new shoot, likes to proclaim, and often: ?Atmosphere you can't put in a box? And no, a box you can put this restaurant do not mention.

The 1400-square-foot space is set up like a penthouse; with tall windows, on the walls voluptuous paintings and on the ceiling golden sharks ? it is, after all, a seafood restaurant. Restroom visitors are treated to semi-scurrilous texts and drawings on the doors. This does not drive away patrons, but rather solidifies an online fan base, Verhoeven said: ?Everything here is very instagrammable.

The glut of kitsch helps make The Harbour Club associated with Dutch celebrities, folk singers, soccer players and rich kids from 't Gooi. In a word: show-off.

Since the boisterous departure of one of the founders (see also the box below), the chain is going to carefully adjust that image, through a ?restyling? that should put more emphasis on gastronomy. In addition to the interior, the reformed the organization. ?The corporate culture was one of hatred and envy, but now there is more focus on internal training. Also, the staff now adopts a more humble attitude toward guests. That was quite a job,' acknowledges Richard van Leeuwen (52), co-inventor of the THC concept, which is described as 'high-end dining meets entertainment'.

The changes do not mean that the immature, somewhat bratty character must disappear entirely. ?I see that prevailing perception as challenging rather than a malady. We have to stay naughty too. And make no mistake: boards of directors and entrepreneurs from the Quote 500 also regularly come to eat at our establishments.?

Even unpleasantness with guests can "reflect positively," Verhoeven adds. Like that time when it was reported in the showbiz press that singer Douwe Bob had been turned away from the terrace. ?He was wearing sweatpants ? which is emphatically against our dress code. We took the attention for this as a compliment.?

Van Leeuwen sits down in a corner sofa. The table, like the rest of the hall, is fully set, right down to champagne glasses. Intimi describe the towering Van Leeuwen, who has more than 25 years of hospitality experience, as someone of the background "and the numbers. That attitude also has a practical reason, he tells himself. ?If I shake hands with everyone one evening, they think I am there be again next week?

Girls out

Founded in 2008, The Harbour Club chain now has five locations: in The Hague, Rotterdam and Vinkeveen and two in Amsterdam. Some locations, where there is room for up to about five hundred guests, are in "challenging neighborhoods" that other entrepreneurs would pass for. Like an industrial area on Cruquius Island in Amsterdam East. The owners speak of ?reverse thinking': it's all about accessibility and parking convenience. Van Leeuwen: ?The location in East is a fifteen-minute drive from ?t Gooi, where friends of mine live. Ideal for when they have to walk their girls on Friday nights.?

Another feature of The Harbour Club is that in the evening hours the music volume goes up and the hands can be in the air. From sweet sixteen birthday parties to concerts with deejays, it's all possible. Just not right now.

Now all those big stores are empty. This one in The Hague looks surreal because of its decoration, complete with a metre-high Christmas tree. The blow is extra hard, because The Harbour Club, in particular, was already largely coronaproof without extra investment, Van Leeuwen says. ?The establishment in The Hague alone is so big that you can receive up to 350 people with 1.5 meters distance. So that's not allowed. All the nicer it was that in the months of June to September, partly thanks to the beautiful weather, we still recorded a 15 to 20 percent increase in sales compared to last year."? His explanation is that "guests freed from the couch" stayed longer at the table.

The Harbour Club also has a loyal constituency that is well into the swing of things. Among its clientele are such names as DJ Martin Garrix, Prince Bernhard junior and the now famous TV series Dragons? Den well-known entrepreneurs Pieter Schoen and Michel Perridon. Some guests are now helping their beloved club with advertising. Joost Verhoeven: ?Someone like former professional footballer Robin van Persie then orders a sushi box designed by us, and makes unsolicited photo of that for social media.?

It's a Band-Aid on an ulcerated wound. While The Harbour Club chain's 2019 profits turned and accounted for 14 million euros in sales, the forecast of this year, 20 million euros in sales, in the trash. Van Leeuwen estimates that due to the second closure, the loss of sales this year is 40 percent.

The specter is that the company will revert to the situation of around 2016, when a couple of years in a row saw substantial losses and Rabobank tightened the reins. Still, when profits are made, The Harbour Club must repay loans at an accelerated rate and there is a dividend ban. ? "We don't need that anyway," says Van Leeuwen, with an ad-rem attitude bubbling up more often during the conversation.

Bureaucratic wall

Keeping excess organizational fat on board is no luxury in the covid era. The Harbour Club has not escaped the virus either. The company has approximately 1.4 million NOW has received support and has had to let go about 20 people on flex contracts. Out of a workforce of 400, that's not too bad, but the longer the "redeeming word from our scholars at the Binnenhof?" awaits, according to Van Leeuwen, the greater the likelihood of more layoffs.

Negotiations with financiers and landlords are referred to, somewhat sarcastically, it seems, as "immensely fun. ?It is difficult, but in the end even recently agreements have been reached where everyone is helped. The crazy thing is that government agencies are the hardest to do. Everyone gives discounts or helps their partner, but the City of Amsterdam ...? Van Leeuwen and Verhoeven sigh, thinking about a bureaucratic wall they are trying to break down: about tax deferral for ?a piece of quay wall? at one of their terraces. ?One asks the society to grant each other leniency, but itself does not cooperate in any way. Scandalous.

Van Leeuwen also sits on industry associations, which regularly discuss actions to be taken. That almost led to a big statement, he agrees. ?The idea was to revolt collectively, but from a hundred-man mobile unit go you don't win this contest.? The hospitality industry sometimes feels like a meek sheep being led to the slaughter, but there is no alternative. Van Leeuwen hears from colleagues who, after publicly biting off their teeth, were suddenly confronted with incognito special investigating officers in their case.

Not that the THC men deny the worrisome figures about the spread of the virus. But it feels like an injustice to them that the hospitality industry is being "punished," while according to the RIVM still less than 4 percent of infections nationwide to that can be traced, Van Leeuwen said. ?The second closure, in October, came harder as a result. The spirit was just right, with the development of new concepts. But right now there is zero perspective."?

Many roosters

The word "experience" falls again. In relation to the entrepreneurial profession, but also to the execution of the métier. Down to the simplest details. Van Leeuwen: ?If in a crowded business a customer comes in and I am sitting at a table eating, I am on to put that person ahead of you. That makes sense, but it doesn't always happen. There are a lot of roosters running around in this business you know!?

Then the name of John de Jong, the other The Harbour Club founder, who is regarded in the industry as the antithesis of the quieter Van Leeuwen, comes up: a man full of bravado and lavish ambition. In 2014, De Jong sold his stake in the chain. He had over a million in arrears with a mortgage lender. His eventual departure is noted by Van Leeuwen categorized under the heading of ?closed war history?

The divorce was not just about money. ?I don't want to dwell on it too long. What I can say is that John was perhaps more concerned with himself than with the continuity of the company, and the people who worked for him."?


Newly minted partner Joost Verhoeven, employed at The Harbour Club since 2012 and before that manager at Hilton in Amsterdam, seems of a different ilk. ?The age difference between us is obviously greater,' he teases, which leads to slightly furrowed brows at Van Leeuwen. Colleagues say Verhoeven is a hands- on mentality and is good with the pencil. The creator of concepts and case layouts?" said a manager friend.

Van Leeuwen acknowledges that he is ?more of the strategy and legal stuff? but does not think a sharp division of labor is crucial. ?I have seen many people come along ?on one person after were successful companions. The crux is that with and works for each other. I had a good feeling about Joost: he inspires others to go the extra mile, and reasons everything from the point of view of the guest experience, without forgetting the turnover.

Yet things almost went wrong. After the departure of De Jong, who went on with his own business, Verhoeven resigned. ?A dad-and-mom story developed, like in a divorce: who goes with one, who with the other? At that point I thought it was time to start for myself."?

Van Leeuwen hastily made him an offer to become co-owner of part of the revamped THC empire. Verhoeven felt honored, but still had to find money to buy in. ?Then I sold my house within a week. Said Richard, "But we haven't signed anything yet! To which I exclaimed, "No, but then it's already done."? Van Leeuwen summarizes the anecdote in own words, "His balls immediately went on the chopping block."?

Now Verhoeven is renting a house. He says he has no regrets, even now that the industry is in distress. ?It's rotten somewhere and unreal, but I'm not lying awake over this?

The partners are looking ahead to 2021, for which "multiple scenarios" have been created. Realism clashes with optimism. Verhoeven thinks the company can be off again in January. Van Leeuwen had until secretly hoping that one of the country's biggest birthday celebrations would provide solace. ?I really thought we would be allowed more with St. Nicholas. Why? This situation just can't be sustained much longer.?

However, the fact that Health Minister Hugo de Jonge did not mention anything about the reopening of the hospitality industry at the last press conference in November does not yet make the men uneasy, because: “In the current circumstances, we can hold out until April 1.�

New locations

Meanwhile, the duo continues to make new plans. For example, The Harbour Club wants to introduce a service where chefs cook at people's homes and wants to start working with "surprise packages" that employers can give staff as gifts. The expansion strategy initiated before corona also remains in the picture. ?We have two locations in the southern Netherlands in mind, and are in talks with the Mariott hotel chain about cooperation.? Retrieved from currently there is a construction with Apollo Hotels, which franchisee is from branches in Amsterdam-Zuid and Vinkeveen.

It sounds pretty and hopeful. But even the calm-looking Van Leeuwen knows the future is shaky. Under the surface, emotions continue to fight for precedence. ?Look, of course sometimes you boil inside in these times. I do think that we have a better future than the pinch around the corner, but clearly there is a lot at stake in the period ahead.?

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