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Everyone's opening a restaurant!

By Anoothi Vishal
March 16, 2005 06:33 IST
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The national ambition in the united states of Bihar, as the joke goes, is to make it to the civil services. In stark contrast, ambitions and passions in Delhi, Mumbai and Bangalore run considerably shallower.

After all, heavyweight babus here are deemed much lower on the pecking order than, say, VJs, RJs and Indian Idols.

But the truly 'with it' -- even those with legit full-time jobs as techies, traders, tycoons, actors, cricketers, socialites and rich daddies' poor little princesses -- are all aiming at finding quite another identity for themselves: as restaurateurs.

The epidemic may not have reached Sir Terrence Conran's prediction that one in every two people wants to open a restaurant, but it's getting there.

In the last two years, urban India has become pockmarked by kitchens big and small, dishing out everything from kebabs to kimchi, spaghetti to sushi. India, according to varied estimates, boasts of almost 20 lakh restaurants, not counting the zillions of dhabas that have fallen off the map.

The National Capital Region alone is estimated to have around 2,200 licensed outlets, Mumbai 1,500 and Bangalore, the third big foodie town in the country, another 300-400. The business of eating out clearly has never been bigger, with restaurants, according to an NDTV figure, affording jobs to almost 7 million people.

But as wannabe entrepreneurs of indifferent ability pour in sometimes ridiculous sums of money to milk this demand, it's not all a rosy picture. If there's a restaurant opening every day, there's one closing every two days.

'Concepts' change even as you blink; restaurant turn into 'clubs,' then 'lounges' faster than you can pick up that Martini glass. And menus get rewritten with equally alarming alacrity: Italian one day, TGIF lifts the next; finally, all good intentions giving way to safe kebabs and dal makhni.

In the fledgling market, the mortality rate for new restaurants is dismal. Last year, according to some estimates, 60-70 per cent shut shop in Delhi alone. This year, says food consultant Marut Sikka, "It is going to be higher."

High profile launches and Rs 4.5 crore (Rs 45 million) investments are no guarantees that a venture will take off. Mall capital Gurgaon is a prime example where dozens of fine dining restaurants paying astronomical rents wait for customers who'll never show up.

The only ones to have made any money are fast food outlets or those food consultants who'd sold such expensive concepts in the first place to clueless restaurateurs with more money than sense.

The million rupee question then is: what makes a restaurant tick? Why does an Olive or Shalom in Delhi, Seijo or Mezzo Mezzo in Mumbai, or the Blue Bar in Bangalore succeed when so many others falter and fail? Why do the Indigos and the Divas show no signs of fraying?

And why, oh why, do we continue to throng to a Bukhara with its hopelessly uncomfortable seating rather than sink into satin and silk bolster-enhanced splendours of newer, plusher Mantras-turned-Casablancas?

Food consultant Sikka is persuaded to call it the 'X'-factor. "The moment you enter a Shalom, or Olive, you know it will work; on the other hand, places like Athena or Forum or Mantra won't," he elaborates.

Sikka's formula for success? A score of 80 per cent in food, service and ambience each, "and excelling in any one. Look at Olive: the food is good but not superlative, the service good, the ambience superb." Mumbai-import Olive indeed has been, unexpectedly enough, Delhi's biggest success.

Ritu Dalmia, owner and chef, Diva, Delhi's most acclaimed stand-alone restaurant, has another take. "The product should be right," she says. Food is the bottomline but "product" includes everything, "food, financial viability, clarity about the market."

Dalmia should know. Many, many years ago, as a young, first-timer, she burnt her fingers with a restaurant called Mezza Luna, much ahead of its times -- and a flop. Dalmia sold it, went off to London and came back a wiser woman.

The big debate in food circles these days is food vs packaging, substance vs style. "Concept restaurants succeed," say Sonia and Manu Mohindra, the consultant couple with possibly the largest number of projects in the country.

A mid-level restaurant can be set up for about Rs 40-50 lakh but in reality, it is not unusual for a new venture to spend a couple of crores in order to set up a "different" -- that much-abused word -- 'concept' restaurant.

While interesting concepts revolving around a cuisine may succeed -- a 'Calcutta' restaurant, a broadly-defined 'south Indian, non-veg' Swagath, or a spa restaurant like Taika in Bangalore -- gimmicks fail once the customer gets bored of the pageantry.

A 'bed' lounge, a 'ship' restaurant, a 'Raj-cuisine' diner serving desi khana, or even celebrity-driven places like Tendulkar's or Sourav's. Huge investments here go not towards establishing a credible kitchen but towards PR parties and establishing the place as eye candy.

On the other hand, some of the biggest successes have been good-looking places. Olive in Delhi, voted by Condé Nast Traveler as one of the most beauteous, is a prime example. In Bangalore, the recently redone Blue Bar at Taj Westend recreates a Goan ambience and has the right buzz and the right patrons (à la Gautam Singhania).

Besides, you still have classics like Spice Route with its splendid murals created by Rajeev Sethi almost eight years ago almost beating the shelf life allowed to stylish, top-end (as opposed to purely food-driven, value-for-money) restaurants. But though the prime motivation to visit these places would be eye candy, that's backed by some real candy too.

When there's no substance, restaurants tumble like the proverbial houses of cards. You only have to look at the unrescuable Ajay Jadeja-owned Senso in Delhi that opened and shut a couple of years ago, or more recently Mickanos in Mumbai, and now the vacuously pretty Mantra-turned-Casablanca, or Athena, Delhi.

"People say we're putting so many crores in creating the most beautiful restaurant you've ever seen, and when I ask them what are you serving, they say, 'We'll think of that later'," says Dalmia.

"People who know nothing about food start these ventures. If you don't know how to hold a pen, how will you write?" questions Baba Ling, the Mumbai restaurateur with two successful ventures in Delhi.

For these restaurateurs, the bottomline is food. At the hugely popular Big Chill Cafe, Delhi, the owners were so convinced of the need to make it a food destination, they consciously avoided setting shop in a market.

"We had a small budget of Rs 8 lakh (Rs 800,000) but knew we had to be in an area where people came looking for us." The mom and pop operation runs on the premise that you can't go wrong with good cuisine and generous portions. The story is the same for Bernardo's, Delhi's only Goan restaurant, also located in a residential area.

Cres Fernandes, owner, says, "People actively seek us out. We started very small, our place leaked in the monsoon." Today, they have to turn people away.

These are sensible, small-scale models that'll not go wrong. Rather like a Moti Mahal or Trishna. Another ingredient for success, their owners emphasise, is a passion for food and a personalised approach. Ling still gets up at five every morning and sleeps past midnight. "I work 365 days a year, no holidays."

Jayram Banan, the runaway kid who went on to establish his Rs 30 crore (Rs 300 million) Sagar chain of restaurants, still stands at the door welcoming guests. And there are warnings against relying too much on consultants.

Sudha Kukreja of Ploof, a seafood restaurant that has pushed the envelope in a market stereotyped by butter chicken, says, "You've to be involved at every step, from the concept planning to production to marketing and delivery. If you hire a consultant, who hires the chef and designs the menu and then leaves in three months, you're left to do it all by yourself."

The fad of the moment is large ventures, often by misguided people with spare cash seeking glamour. They fail, typically investing huge sums in interiors, committing to high rentals on inflated sales assumptions, and finally having to scrimp on either quality or quantity of food.

But that's not a universal condition, at least according to Moshe Shek, celebrity chef and restaurateur: "If I open a restaurant, that's a huge investment and I want to know exactly where my money is going. But in Delhi, it seems they have the money to throw around -- everyone is opening restaurants, regardless of what kind of food they sell or how much they know about the business," Shek is scathing.

The Mohindras' formula: "If your investment is greater than the projected profits for two years, you'll not survive."

Shipping tycoon Vikram Thapar, who opened his seafood Tigerbay in Bangalore with much fanfare, failed spectacularly for lack of personal attention. The biggest bust of the season in Delhi, Forum, set up by high profile scions of big industrial houses led by Dabur's Amit Burman, became a space for Page 3-wallahs.

The restaurant lexicon

Restaurant: A place with real food.

Lounge: Good cocktails and music at decibels that allow you to converse without having to scream into the ear of your companion. Warning: Best to go home and eat.

Lounge-restaurant: A place that aspires to a decent bite, especially in the north where people do want to eat with their scotch.

Lounge-bar: Confused. Lounges should have a bar.

Resto-bar: Outdated. 'Restaurant-cum-bar' of the '80s for the gnoramus. In any case, all restaurants have bars these days so why advertise?

Bed lounge: Gimmicky. It's okay to sink into the cushions but do you really want to sleep?

Club: To dance the night away. More for the young and young at heart (ageing filmstars!).

"They thought if between them they knew 200 people who came and partied they'd make it," says a scoffing industry-watcher.

Getting into the party business may bring in revenue during a lean season and there's the free publicity, of course, but it's a strategy bound to fail in the long run. First, the restaurant gets downgraded to a "banquet hall" and guests only get to sample banquet food, not your real offerings. Two, there's the danger of overkill.

In a market where most put the shelf-life of a liquor-centric place at barely two years, too much partying can tire the restaurant/lounge-restaurant/lounge/ pub too fast.

Some, however, know how to navigate the tightrope. For Olive in Delhi, partying judiciously helped. "We used it as a conscious strategy for the first six-eight months," says owner A D Singh. Hosting events, the promoters reasoned, would show off their product to the right kind of guests.

The ploy succeeded though ever since Olive has been hosting fewer events. But how do you know how much is too much? Singh grins: "That is the secret of being a good restaurateur". Touché.

On the A-List

Among all those restaurants that have buckled under, there are a few that have stood out.

The A-list of all the new, stylish places you can check out, without counting those in the five-star category -- though the likes of Wasabi at the Taj, Mumbai, and 360o at The Oberoi, Delhi, have pushed the envelope.

But hotels too are focussing anew on their F&B ever since its revenue ratio to rooms has shot up to 45:55 as opposed to the 30:70 previously.

Olive, Delhi: For years, Olive, Indigo and Athena have been the three biggest grossers in Mumbai. But when Olive set eyes on Delhi last year, no one really gave it a chance.

The restaurant has beaten odds and doomsday predictions and is now deemed even better than the original -- the location undoubtedly is. Excellent ambience, has the right buzz and people, besides fairly good pizzas.

By the way, the focus, unlike in Mumbai, here is on the restaurant, not the bar. The latter is limited -- only women, and only by invitation, can be members.

Seijo and The Soul Dish, Mumbai: Despite an ill-advised attempt by the municipal corporation at razing the "illegal" mezzanine floor of this three-month-old Bandra restaurant, it continues to rock. Popular as much for its Bollywood crowd as for its Asian cuisine.

Ploof, Delhi: The capital was a fowl city till Ploof proved otherwise with its seafood. Smart and no-fuss.

Taika, Bangalore: Spa-style cuisine, restaurants and lounges are touted as the next big thing in India. The only place where this is (successfully) happening though is in Bangalore.

Opened by the same people (Pat and husband Amarditta Biswas) behind Cosmo Village, the first lounge bar in the city is a first of its kind.

Shalom, Delhi: Once again a good-looking lounge but with some great food (Mediterranean) too. The Sangria is definitely addictive.

Tamarind, Kolkata: South Cal didn't quite know what Chettinad was till this. Regulars include Jagmohan Dalmiya.


I don't know why people like Suniel Shetty and Sachin Tendulkar are opening restaurants. It'll be difficult for them to survive because you can't afford to lose the quality of your food. -- Manav Sharma, Ploof

We didn't have much success with Mantra because it went down the club route. The clubbing crowd doesn't have much loyalty. -- Aman Bedi, Casablanca

Some high-flying people get together without knowing about the business and hire food consultants. They think it is easy but they spoil the market for all of us. -- Baba Ling, Imperial Garden

I heard some time ago that someone had opened a Greek restaurant in Delhi. Now who, in this restaurant, is Greek? Who has been to Greece? What is the point of opening a Greek restaurant then? -- Moshe Shek, Oliva

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Anoothi Vishal
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