Dutch hospitality group Drie Wijzen Uit Oost has notched up 16 venues in 12 years' time, all of them in Amsterdam. Since 2013, most of their interiors have been designed by Studio Modijefsky. Cofounder Riad Farhat explains how a hospitality entrepreneur can benefit from a financial crisis, the pros and cons of anti-chain thinking and why you should never change a winning designer-client team.

Investing in Times of Crisis
RIAD FARHAT: ‘We opened our first establishment at the beginning of the financial crisis and we only just managed to get a loan from the bank. Many called that bad timing, but in the end, we flourished during the crisis. How? We offered something new at a time when nobody thought it made sense but everybody wanted it. And we chose a location that didn’t have much going for it: at the time Amsterdam-Oost had not yet been gentrified. Because of its accessibility – both in terms of what was on offer and of the interiors, which I designed at that time – our business turned out to be crisis-proof. If people have less money to spend, they become selective. We paid close attention to service, atmosphere, quality, price, and (interior) experience. In our segment – unpopularly called ‘eateries’ – we try to reach the highest level possible and still remain affordable. And that works. Especially at that time it did.’

Pictured is Bar Ramona, Studio Modijefsky's most recent interior for Drie Wijzen Uit Oost.

Anti-Chain Thinking
‘We’re always looking to distinguish ourselves in a neighbourhood. Especially if you operate inside a two-km radius – as we did, especially in the beginning in Amsterdam-Oost – you have to make sure that every location is different. Not only because otherwise you’d be creating your own competition, but also because as an entrepreneur, you have a certain responsibility for the neighbourhood. It’s a combination of different types of people, with different needs and different identities. When I hear someone say, “No way am I going to Bar Bukowski, I think it’s a shithole”, I think that’s perfect! That’s the whole purpose of what we do. We are not for everybody, nor do we want to be. That’s simply not exciting enough. Although it would make my life a lot easier.

Although each location has to feel new and different, we want them to last a long time as well. That’s why we always build sustainably and make sure that we can easily adapt the interiors to a new zeitgeist. That means we use high-quality materials that last and have generous budgets. It’s up to Modijefsky to make the interiors feel both contemporary and timeless. They succeed by referring to the classic bar tradition. Their most recent interior for us – for bar Ramona – has dark wood, stained glass, protective wall panelling and mirror finishes – all vested with a much younger attitude.’

Never underestimate the importance of interior design. It sets you apart from other businesses

Teaming up with Studio Modijefsky

‘Friend and Amsterdam Appelsap Fresh Music Festival cofounder Rogier Smalhout saw us grow and introduced us to Esther Stam, who had recently started Studio Modijefsky and had done the stages and decorations for the festival. She’d also designed a café, which I thought looked pretty cool. We hit it off right away and we decided to do the next project together: Bar Bukowski. That’s how our collaboration started. I’ve strayed a few times; I’ve had to when Studio Modijefsky was booked up. But I keep coming back to them’

Never underestimate the importance of interior design. It sets you apart from other businesses. The interior is simply the first thing customers see when they walk in and it can quickly determine whether people stay to eat and drink.’


Learning from Each Other
‘Esther Stam and the studio have grown as we did and we’ve learned a lot from each other. She taught me about the importance of sight lines and choosing materials and lighting; I taught her how a hospitality venue is run. Very practical things that can – actually, have to – be integrated in the hospitality interior, like staff routes, storage and how to facilitate the efficient running of the bar. These are things that Esther now automatically incorporates into her designs. And the studio also thinks about the graphics. They create a holistic environment that’s valuable, practical and lovely to work in. There’s no need for a brief. It’s an organic, even intuitive, process. We go to a location together and that’s where it all starts. You just have to play a hunch, because that’s ultimately what your guests will do: see if it feels good.'


This is a shortened version of a piece originally featured in our Sep—Oct 2019 issue, Frame 130. For the full interview, purchase a copy here.