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Opening Restaurants In Three Different Verticals Made Perfect Business Sense For Us

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After setting up and successfully exiting the critically acclaimed multi-award winning brand , celebrity chef along with his entrepreneur son has now ventured to set up Massive Restaurants with one of the leading hospitality brands . The brand plans to open a chain of fine dine and a casual smart restaurant along with a chain of luxury mithai shops. In a tell-all conversation with Varun Jain, Zorawar Kalra, Managing Director, Massive Restaurants, speaks about the new venture, yet-to-be-opened restaurants and what Indian food means to him.

How was your journey with Punjab Grill? Why did you exit that business?
Since its inception in 2007, our journey with Punjab Grill has been fabulous. We started the restaurant with the aim of putting Indian food on the global palate in the correct way because a lot of times we saw that Indian food was misrepresented and the quality was not good. Indian food has been very close to my heart. I do not want our beloved cuisine, which our ancestors have developed over thousand years, to be misrepresented. Punjab Grill started doing well from day one. We started expanding very quickly since the whole idea was the brand’s quick growth. We opened seven restaurants including the one in Singapore, which has been rated one of the best restaurants there. We created a certain standard, which was not available outside five-star hotels. In March 2012, we decided to exit. We got a very strong evaluation, so we sold it. Another reason was that I did not have the majority stake in that business.

Why did you choose Mirah Hospitality as you partner to start Massive Restaurants?
In this new venture, I was looking for a partner who shares the same vision and found Mirah to be perfect. Gaurav Goenka of Mirah Hospitality is a very good friend of mine and we both share the same vision. I also wanted to leverage the economies of scale. Mirah takes so many locations across the country; the real estate price they can get, nobody else can. This is one big advantage. There is a lot of synergy. We are experts in operations, running the restaurants and the cuisine aspect, and they are good in finding the locations and giving us back-end support. So it made a perfect marriage. These are the key reasons why we tied up with Mirah Hospitality.

What is the kind of arrangement between the two partners?
We do not want to get into the numbers right now, but we have the majority in the business. We intend to keep a very strong relationship, going forward.

You are planning to open restaurants in three verticals, a fine dine restaurant, a casual smart restaurant and a luxury mithai shop. Tell us something about the former two.
The fine dining restaurant is going to be known as the ‘Masala Library by Jiggs Kalra’, which will be a very fine dining concept. It will be one of those restaurants that aims for the stars and it will try to get the Michelin star in India. Masala Library by Jiggs Kalra will really up the ante in terms of service, food quality and overall experience for the guests. We want to create a restaurant that has no competition when it comes to standard. It will present Indian food in the perfect way that we feel it should have been presented. The second vertical is the smart casual dining and the concept is called ‘Made in Punjab’. Here very high quality Punjabi food will be served at a lower price band. For the ‘Made in Punjab’ concept, we will also be looking to open in tier-I and -II cities, whereas Masala Library by Jiggs Kalra will be focussed entirely on the metros initially.

What will be new at Masala Library by Jiggs Kalra?
Masala Library by Jiggs Kalra will be better than any restaurant in a five-star hotel in terms of food and service. It is also going to be the first restaurant that will follow the evolution of kababs. With a heavy focus on kababs, we will be offering rarely available kababs or the ones that you would not even find on any menu. You will have the best curries of India here, some of which are lost today. A lot of research has gone into reviving these curries with the help of specialist chefs from those regions. Regular items such as dal makhni and butter chicken will also be available because at the end of the day you have to sell. So we have a good mix of staple and innovative dishes on the menu.

We will also have a preset menu in every restaurant, where you get only four to five courses but each dish complements each other. They will be designed with a great deal of finesse and a lot of presentation skill will be put into it. So it will be a set menu where you don’t get to choose. You will be eating what the chef has decided for you. The recipe and the flavour would be 100 percent authentic.

We do not have many successful fine dining restaurants outside five-star hotels in India yet. Where do you think the problem lies?
The biggest problem that we face today is consistency. A beautiful and expensive restaurant cannot be termed as a fine dining restaurant. Anyone can spend that much money. The idea behind fine dining is to have very high-quality food and service in a luxurious environment where the service staff knows exactly what they are serving, are very well trained and they know your need even before you know it. So if your glass becomes half empty, they will fill it again. You get up from your table, they will fold your napkin and put it on the side of the chair. I don’t think that even today, till Masala Library by Jiggs Kalra opens, there is any high-quality stand-alone restaurant in terms of service. Fine dining will have to have that level of service along with food of great quality. For that you need to get the best staff because without them you will not achieve your goals. Although stand-alone restaurants serve better food than the five-star hotels, the service standards are never that good because of lack of training. This is why the former is not able to attract the right talent. My entire opening team comprises people from five-star hotels. In the kitchen, I have all my old guys but the entire front staff is from the big hotels.
Your third concept is a luxury mithai shop, which seems very interesting. Can you please brief us on that?
The third concept is very close to my heart. It is called Mithai by Jiggs Kalra, which is a premium mithai concept. I hate it when somebody gives a box of chocolates or pastries along with a wedding card. Why don’t we serve our own mithai, which in my opinion is world’s greatest confectionery? Indian mithai has more variety than any other dessert in the world. The problem is that Indian mithai has never been marketed well. There has been a tradition of presenting these mithai in a cardboard box, which I don’t think is very interesting. You have to present it in a very high-end manner. Mithai by Jiggs Kalra will present sweets in an altogether different way. We are going to call it Mithai Version 2.0 or the next evolution of mithai. The shops will be beautiful, there will be a very well-trained personnel behind the counter who know the product inside out. We will serve the best-quality sweets made with best of the ingredients, served in a premium way. So each box will be will be handled using tongs by a person wearing gloves. I am very excited about this concept because something like this has not been done before. Also, every single thing in this mithai shop is going to be organic.

It will also have a lassi bar where we will serve flavoured fresh lassi. Fresh fruits cut in front of you, put into the mixer with the lassi, stirred and served. I want Indian food to become popular and cool. Since lassi has never been marketed well, drinking the same is not perceived as being cool. So we want to market these products correctly and the Jiggs Kalra brand helps in marketing and has a premium positioning attached to it.

What made you think of opening three such verticals? What was the calculation behind it?
I have been in this business for the past several years and a lot of market research has happened. So I already know what people like, what is the pulse of the market and what people want to eat. Fine dining always works because the Indian fine dining scenario is still very unsaturated. There are very few players and little competition. Smart casual is cheaply priced Indian food and is very scalable. This will also work provided you open in the right location, price it correctly and have a solid product. I came to the conclusion that Indian food is the most popular cuisine and will always do well. For mithai shops, too, there is no competition. This is why we chose these three verticals because they all made perfect business sense.
When do you plan to open these restaurants and the mithai shop?
We have just announced this joint venture. The first restaurant to open will be Masala Library by Jiggs Kalra in Mumbai in April and the same will debut in Gurgaon in May. Our plan is to open three Masala Library by Jiggs Kalra, four Made in Punjab and five Mithai by Jiggs Kalra outlets in the first year of operations.

What kind of investments are you looking at?
Initially we are investing around Rs 25 crore and we have plans to invest another Rs  40 crore in two to three years’ time. So we are looking at an overall investment of around Rs 65 crore in the next three to four years.

What is your location for the initial restaurants that you plan to set up in the first year?
Masala Library by Jiggs Kalra is a premium brand and hence we have to be very selective of the locations we choose. We will open at landmark sites -both in malls and stand alones. Made in Punjab is also a premium brand, not in the pricing sense but it has got an excellent dining proposition. So these will open at both malls and stand-alone locations. If the location is prime, we will open irrespective of it being in a mall, a high-street or a corporate park. Mithai by Jiggs Kalra is only going to open in luxury malls or at very premium stand-alone locations.

What is the break-even time expected at the restaurant level across all three verticals?
We expect our operational break-even across all our restaurants to happen from the first month. At restaurant level, we expect full return on investment in the first 12-18 months for all our restaurants.

What would be the marketing strategies for both your restaurants?
For Masala Library by Jiggs Kalra, premium marketing will be done. We will advertise in correct publications prominently. We want to invite all the reviewers to come, try our food and write good things about it if they like it. That is a very honest way of doing it. We will rely on word-of-mouth publicity. We will be doing the right events, corporate profiles and the right social profiles. Made in Punjab will focus on marketing campaigns tailormade to its targeted demographics and on showcasing the USP of the product. We will be very careful where we advertise our product.
What challenges do you foresee that may come up while running restaurants of different verticals?
I don’t think any business is without challenges. I think the idea is to remain focussed and build a very solid foundation and teams for every individual concept. So I cannot have the same guy looking after all my concepts. I need a separate team for all the restaurants. The other challenge is of manpower. I have access to expert chefs, great recipes and cuisines. I am not worried about the kitchen part but about the front staff, the part that the guests see. I want them to be of very high quality and for that I need to shell out more money. At the back of our head we need to take it as a potential challenge. Maintaining the consistency of food and service is also a challenge. We are a pan-India operations and we have to make sure that we give our guests the same experience anywhere in the country. And the last problem for us is the real estate cost, which has always been there and will remain in the future.

Where do you see Massive Restaurants five years down the line?

In five years time, we see Massive Restaurants as a Rs 300–400 crore listed business with the best performing Indian food brands in the country with massive international presence for Masala Library by Jiggs Kalra.