He wasn't the first to arrive and he won't be the last to leave, but the gastronomic imprint that Guillermo Trullás, known as Willy, has left on China is incomparable. This Catalan chef, who left a small restaurant in the Barcelona district of Gràcia where he worked, and headed off to Shanghai ahead of the Beijing Olympic Games in 2008, now runs five establishments in Shanghai with something very important in common: they are all profitable. Quite an achievement in a difficult and very competitive market, which has complex regulations and is characterized by a particularly heterogeneous customer base. The history of many foreign businesses that have opened in China has been short.
It seems that establishing himself as the benchmark for Spanish cuisine in the land of Mao is not enough for Trullás. This year he opened two more restaurants in one of the most upmarket areas of Shanghai and is looking toward the United States and Australia. "In 2006 I decided it was time to open my own business but everything in Spain was so inflated that it was impossible," he says. "The following year the opportunity cropped up to work with the winery Torres as a chef at events held as part of the Year of Spain in China and the experience helped me to get to know the market. I saw there was room for a restaurant that refined what was on offer in terms of Spanish cuisine, and the idea of El Willy came to me."
Without doubt, a big factor in his success rests in his choice of partners, a notoriously perilous undertaking in China. "A Japanese man who had a restaurant that had been losing money for two years got in touch with me and we agreed to hook up to open El Willy," he explains. "He put in the money and I managed to make the restaurant turn a profit in three months."
Trullás' laid-back character - with a touch of eccentricity he knows how to exploit - went down well with the local press and public. So much so that it wasn't long before offers started to come in for him to open other establishments.
We haven't found the formula yet for transforming Spanish food into fast food
"I didn't want to pigeonhole myself so I thought I would give free rein to a fascination I had had for some time: Japanese cocktails." However, he was not totally convinced by the Japanese concept of cocktail bars. "They're too boring and I wanted a place with lots of atmosphere. I stuck with the product, which is excellent, hired a Japanese specialist and gave it a little Mediterranean festiveness." In 2009, thanks to an even investment split among three close partners, El Cóctel opened its doors and received rave reviews in Shanghai.
"The quality of the product is essential. With the price range we are in - to eat at El Willy costs about 65 euros a head while you can't have a drink at El Cóctel for less than eight euros - customers are very demanding. So the first ingredient of success is that customers eat well and secondly that the restaurant is well located. You also have to carefully study the peculiarities of the market because the public here is more heterogeneous than in Paris, for example. We have the expatriate community - which accounts for between 40 and 60 percent of our customer base - Chinese who have lived abroad and have returned, and the newly rich locals, who make up about half of our best customers. It's not easy to please everyone." That is why when a waiter takes an order for paella he also tells the kitchen where the customer is from. "The Chinese like everything with less salt, their rice more cooked and the fish well done."
The Chinese are also not particularly keen on vegetables, cold soups or creamy sauces with a milk base. However, oysters imported from France and Iberian ham and one of the specialties of the house - smoked salmon with truffle honey and sour cream - go down very well. "That's why it's essential to have good staff on the floor who know how to recommend to the customer what is more likely to be to their taste," Trullás adds. In a country where the concept of service is relatively new, good staff are not easy to find. "You have to be on top of them all the time as if it were a day-care center." Nonetheless, it's worth the bother. "Some female customers from Hong Kong, among them a director at Standard Chartered Bank, were delighted with El Willy and they proposed that I open a restaurant in their city. No more needed to be said. Trullás found a chef - Álex Martínez Fargas - and in March 2010 Fofo opened to the public. In 16 months, investors got a return on their investment, and Trullás now has a 10-percent share in the market.
His success gave Trullás sufficient economic clout to venture into more ambitious projects. "They offered me a reasonable rent on a place in the Bund [the former foreign colony in Shanghai and the most upmarket area in the city] and I thought it would be a good idea to move El Willy there."
So, Trullás moved his flagship restaurant to the Bund and opened a new place called ElEfante where El Willy was located with less expensive and simpler Mediterranean food while maintaining his tie-up with his Japanese partner. "Now I am the majority owner of El Willy [with a 55-percent stake] and at ElEfante, I provide full management services in exchange for 50 percent of the profits, which is about eight percent of the sales." The two restaurants have secured a base of loyal customers but the road to success was not entirely trouble free.
Bikini, a tiny sandwich bar Trullás opened beneath El Cóctel, caused him problems. "The problem was that people saw it as expensive. We applied the same percentage to the cost of the food but we saw it wasn't working. So we cut our prices without lowering quality," he says. Trullás believes that this is one of the problems with Spanish cuisine. "We haven't found the formula yet for transforming it into fast food, and that makes it difficult for us to compete, for example, with Italian food. Tapas are fine but you have to go beyond that. I see a lot of potential, for example, in Spanish rice dishes." That is why in one of the two other restaurants he plans to open Trullás will experiment with ready-to-go food from El Willy.
Trullás eschews clichés. You will look long and hard to find a photo of a bull in El Willy. "The traditional elements of the country are in the decor, but we want to sell a contemporary image of Spain, not a folkloric one. I don't want the Chinese to think that we go about fighting bulls or dancing flamenco on the street," he said. This also applies to the menu, which has a section of traditional dishes and another for modern ones. "There are still good opportunities in Shanghai, but I don't think it is the place for a Mugaritz [a restaurant in the Basque Country considered to be one of the best in the world], because the Chinese don't feel comfortable with so much formality and they wouldn't understand it."