Avant Garde Hospitality, which runs the Caperberry and Fava resturants in Bangalore, is co-owned and run by Chef Abhijit Saha who has been rated as one of the top 10 chefs of the country by a famous magazine. Roshna Chandran recounts the story of chef Saha and explores how he has managed to turn his two restaurants into a runaway success
Avant Garde Hospitality (AGH), a young and dynamic company incorporated in 2008 in Bangalore, has interests in the restaurant business, catering as well as food & beverage consulting. Headed by Chef Abhijit Saha along with Shruti Shibulal and Shruti Saha, it currently owns and operates two premium restaurants in Bangalore – Caperberry and Fava.
Before starting his restaurant operations, Chef Saha invested `25 lakh to set up a full-fledged lab-cum-kitchen. This included state-of-the-art equipment to try out new cooking techniques. Caperberry was opened 12 months later with an investment of around `4 crores. Located in the heart of downtown Bangalore, it is a destination with many different dimensions and showcases avant garde European cuisine enhanced by elements of molecular gastronomy.
Saha incurs a monthly rent of about Rs 4 lakh on the restaurant. His rentals are fixed for a period of 6 to 9 years but include an escalation clause every two years. Caperberry’s monthly turnover ranges between Rs 35–40 lakh. Fava, on the other hand, is a chic Mediterranean restaurant and lounge bar with private dining and fine food.
Working in the F&B industry for 18 years helped Saha set up his own venture. He rose from the ranks of a kitchen assistant to being the boss of his own restaurants. He was involved in setting up the very first boutique hotel in India, The Manor in Delhi, with an attached modern European cuisine restaurant called 77. Saha also spent around eight years at the Park Hotel in Bangalore to set up Italia and Monsoon restaurants. Working at the Park taught him different aspects of the restaurant and hotel management operations in the areas of kitchen planning, recruitment of personnel, training and creating menus.
Molecular gastronomy is one of the key elements at Caperberry and maintaining the highest international quality is the USP that helps to bring a difference in customer experience. “First, my idea was to create a very good company rather than just a restaurant. I believe that when you set up a good company, then you automatically get good people, and good people are the foundation for setting up good restaurants,” says Saha.
Caperberry And Fava
Caperberry, established in March 2009, is a signature restaurant. It was recently rated as the “Best stand-alone Restaurant in India” at the Time Out Food Awards 2011. The premium concept sprawls across an area of 5,800 sq.ft., with the front occupying 3,300 sq.ft. and the back area about 2,200 sq.ft. “The idea was not to start a restaurant but a restaurant company which would make a significant difference in the way food and beverages are looked into, not just in Bangalore but in the entire country,” says Saha.
Fava is located at the tony arcade called The Collection in the UB City, Bangalore. It offers diners an opportunity to truly experience the varied cuisines of the Mediterranean region. The restaurant has a total area of 5,500 sq.ft. The back area is 1,500 sq.ft. while the front area occupies 3,500 sq.ft. According to Saha, the increase in the turnover of the restaurant was not dependant on the size of the outlet, but on smart media campaign and word-of-mouth from customers who liked to dine at the restaurant with menus from the Mediterranean region. Saha expects a turnover of around Rs 40–50 lakh per month from Fava.
“A customer who walks into a restaurant such as Caperberry is obviously coming for a particular kind of food where they expect something more exotic than what they would expect from, say, Fava. At Fava, customers can walk in with comfort and ease and find things which they are very comfortable in ordering,” says he.
Saha says that normally, a restaurant should start breaking even from the very first or second month of operations. “Whenever a new restaurant opens, there is always an excitement in the market to visit the new place. Now, there are many means of communication for consumers to know about a new restaurant opening. The media is also very active in giving space and mileage to new restaurants, so if you are able to do that well, then by the second month you should be able to break even operationally,” he explains.
“The first month takes time but the momentum picks up from the second month itself. If your product is good and you are able to provide customers with good service, they will start coming in and then the word of mouth will spread out that this fantastic restaurant has just opened. However, there is no fixed time for any restaurant to break even. It may take 20 years or it may never break even at all. It can also take two years and sometimes even three months.”
According to Saha, the attitude of the customers has not changed much in India or at least not much to his liking since the old days. The customer response to the upcoming new restaurants in India has been a mixed bag. In order to stay relevant to customers’ demand, Caperberry has also undergone a lot of changes.
Says Saha: “Many people who came to the outlet felt that the portion size was too small, so we have looked into changing this to a great extent. Most customers also felt that they were completely unfamiliar with the Mediterranean or Continental dishes being served, something which I had failed to anticipate. So that was one of the areas in which we had to really alter our menus to make them in tune with the people’s expectations. Now we also have a menu which is good in portions.”
Saha has noticed that the mind-set of Indian customers has not changed much in terms of gastronomy. According to him, Indians are still not very innovative at trying out new dishes from around the world and prefer to stick to their regular tried-and-tested menus. So a conscious effort has to be made to make sure that a restaurant serving novel dishes is accommodating enough to make the Indian customers feel comfortable. India also brings to the table a diverse customer mix with different tastes and likings, which all adds up to the challenge of running a restaurant.
“It is very common to find in India a family of six with a completely different menu for each member. People here still prefer the family style of dining out and not pre-plated food. The general attitude is that when a customer orders a dish, it has to be the main course first, unlike in the West where a customer orders for the first course and second course and then maybe the main course followed by dessert.”
Adds Saha: “Based on their cultural differences and experiences, the menu choices of customers vary. So one has to work with the fact that there is a lot of diversity in the Indian market in terms of preferences and choices. Flexibility is one of the most important characteristics to have when you are in this market.”
Both of Saha’s restaurants offer a-la-carte and tasting menus to give the customers a variety of options. Caperberry’s four-course and six-course vegetarian and non-vegetarian tasting menus have been specially designed for guests to experience all the textures and flavours that make the restaurant special. The a-la-carte menu, on the other hand, gives customers an opportunity to choose their own dishes. Customers from different age groups and disposable incomes flock to these outlets. The food items are reasonably priced and given the quality of food served, a similar kind of international experience would cost four times more, says Saha. “The menu is more popular than exotic and very different from any kind of Mediterranean restaurant as it represents the Mediterranean region as a whole,” he adds.
Maintaining consistency at both the restaurants is an on-going process which again is based on customer experience. Although other things like ambience, quality of food and new dishes do play a role, ultimately it is the consistency of customer experience that is the most important.
Sourcing the ingredients used in both the restaurants from different suppliers located all over the country has turned out to be a smart move as importing them would have been a nightmare. It would have resulted in a logistics team which would have ended up being a larger one than Saha’s core restaurant team! “It is always better to work with suppliers based in Delhi, Mumbai and Pune, if one has a reasonable demand,” he says.
There are multiple challenges in running a restaurant business. The most important of these is sourcing and maintaining well-trained manpower which is always scarce in India. The team requires constant motivation in terms of delivery quality and retention. Other challenges include keeping a tab on cost pressures and improving realizations.
Explains Saha: “You should not out-price yourself from the market. There are certain things you have to look into, such as, how do you market your product? How do you position it? How do you communicate with customers on a regular basis? How does the information you send out remain outside the clutter? How do you do out-of-the-box things? How do you deal with non-availability or inconsistency of quality of ingredients? These are everyday challenges that one faces while running a restaurant.”
According to Saha, the Indian F&B market is exploding but unfortunately it is also highly unpredictable. A good restaurant business might not always be a profitable one. He also expects a lot of new concepts to emerge into the Indian market in the near future. Micro-breweries and many regional Indian cuisines have taken off well. There are also new restaurants all over India offering Latin America and Caribbean cuisines. Many unique outlets may also emerge, such as those serving only organic food.
For marketing its restaurants, Saha has found word-of-mouth to be the best as advertising rates are too steep. Good reviews from food critics also spread the word. A good customer experience brings in more repeat business.
Saha says that restaurant owners keep making mistakes every day. “Keeping your focus on the customer, you have to decide what exactly needs to be done and how to create the right concept that is acceptable to the target audience. This requires a thorough study of the market before actually setting up a restaurant,” he adds.
“You should go by your gut feel but there always has to be a sense of honesty and integrity in your concept. Good food and service are a given for a good restaurant to be successful. You should be able to create a good ambience and choose a good location you are familiar with. These are some of the important take-aways from our restaurant business. Every day, there is something new that you can learn in this trade. We have recently created a position of a customer relations manager at our restaurants. His job is to stay in constant touch with the customers, solicit their feedback and take appropriate action.”
The Road Ahead
Saha has no plans of expanding out of Bangalore at the moment as a lot depends on how the current operations turn out. Avant Garde Hospitality also runs a catering and consulting division to assist F&B clients in setting up new restaurants. Says Saha: “Currently we are working on a 15,000 sq.ft. project in Whitefield, Bangalore. We are consultants and operators for the project. It is like our own restaurant except that we do not invest in it. It is a fantastic opportunity for people who want to open a restaurant and do not have the expertise in it. The difference between our company and many others is that we help in operating the restaurant as well. In this way, the entrepreneur has the restaurant he is looking for and he is also happy that professionals are operating it.” ••