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Fio Cookhouse’s secret recipe of success

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Owner and CEO, , , runs a chain of fine dining restaurants – and Bar and Fio Country Kitchen and Bar – in New Delhi. A maven of fine modern food, his restaurants are reputed for their exemplary pairing of modern Italian cusine with contemporary Indian food.

Fio Cookhouse’s secret recipe of success
Menu planning is the heart of a successful restaurant business. A wrong dish on the menu or a wrong combination can be very disastrous. A bad option on the menu can kill your entire experience, says Fio Cookhouse's Vineet Wadhwa (inset)

In a conversation with Foodservice India’s Sanjay Kumar, he discusses the nature of the restaurant business, how the industry is notorious for being unforgiving to owners, and shares his tips on how entrepreneurs can make a run at success armed with the right strategy and approach at a time when foodpreneurs are jumping into the industry with both feet…
As a seasoned and successful restaurateur, which are the parameters – food, presentation, ambience, etc.,– that you think make a restaurant stand out from the crowd?

Be it food, presentation, ambience–in today’s time all three are equally important. I don’t think any one thing can be ignored. Having said that, it is also very important to be creative in whatever you do and make an effort to think out-ofthe- box. But never forget that you are in the business of selling food. If you want to make a success of your restaurant business, one thing is for sure: don’t follow the mundane guidelines. If you do that you’ll never be able to make an impact.

So whether you pick up a tiny outlet for a classic Italian restaurant, do it your way. And if you are doing a modern European restaurant, then don’t copy a leader. Chefs must be encouraged to make twists in the recipes.

At Fio Cookhouse, Rigotini Pasta has a twist with bitter gourd in a mustard cream sauce. Maybe, only two out of ten people will try this dish in its intial launch, but I can guarantee you that they will come back for a repeat. A twist to presentation complements a dish.

In the restaurant business, it is important to keep your ears to the ground and act on customers’ feedback. How do you do it?

We have a guest comment sheet, which is fairly technical and it is analysed every week by a panel especially set up for this purpose. We get a plenty of customer feedback from guests and we ensure that we get back to every single customer who records his or her comments. Second, we do regular mystery audits, at least, 5-6 times a month, to keep a real time check. This is very important because as an owner you can be biased or unscientifically judgemental.

How do you carry out mystery audits?

Incognito audits are done by foodies, who can be friends, relatives, associates or food bloggers. Nobody is aware of the identity of those conducting the audit – even our managers don’t know of it. Our chefs, managers, COO, controllers are all involved at the analysing table of the mystery audit operation.

We also regularly refer to review sites like Zomato for feedback. Also, we are part of the various reservation portals from whom we get regular feedback. This way we ensure that we know what percentage of guests who visit our restaurants have enjoyed their experience or not.

This system has been in place right from day one and it has helped us to build a huge database of customer response

How have you been using this database for improving services at your restaurant?

We use it all the time to better our offerings but we don’t use the data for promoting our restaurants. What we do is to conduct periodic reviews of the database to draw up and add to a very selective list of our guests who, we think, are genuine food connoisseurs. We have a group of about 1,000 such people from among the 80,000 regular guests in our database. We call them Fio Friends and treat them as our privileged guests. We keep sending them regular invites on the special occasions that we celebrate at our restaurants. These are the people who are selected by the owner himself i.e., myself, and there is no second person involved.

Of course, the recommendations can come from a general manager or the chefs telling me about how a particular guest was a great foodie and how he seemed to be enjoying his food on the table and could be the right person to be a part of our privileged guest members club.

All these privileged members are on my personal contact list and I get to share with them how they feel about the experience at my restaurants. This whole mechanism helps me get informed feedback from people who are well exposed and truly versed in the ways of gastronomy and fine dining. And I get to learn a lot of new things from their feedback.

With your long and varied experience in the food service business, what do you feel are the constant challenges?

It is difficult to please and convince everybody these days. For instance, the sofas in this restaurant is now an inch lower than it was earlier. As we opened about a year and a half ago, the sofas have sunk a bit. Somebody came up and said that your tables are too high. Actually the tables are not too high, it’s the sofas that have sunk a little. Now when you listen to the comments people make, you might also start doubting your own things and begin to find mistakes where none exists.

For example, in this context you might start thinking of shortening the height of your tables without realising that the problem is with the sofas. So one has got to realise that everything has another story to it, another side to it. As you are in the service business you have to weigh the pros and cons before taking a call on something instead of making snap decisions.

How do you react to adverse publicity?

It can happen any time. Our weekend concept is to have electronic dance music (EDM) post 11.30 pm. As we have a seamless divide between the bar and restaurant, there have been issues with the concept. Some guests like it and some don’t. Those who don’t often go and write negative reviews. It’s not easy to please everybody, is it?

What role do chefs play in introducing new recipes and dishes?

Menu planning is at the heart of the restaurant business. A wrong dish on the menu, a wrong combination, and it can be very disastrous. One wrong option can kill your entire experience. When a new recipe is to be introduced, there is a whole process that goes into its preparation.

It’s not that the chef wants to put it on the menu and he can do it overnight. It’s a very long process – we have a phase when we do the R&D of our products whenever we feel that there is a need for a product to be either changed or to be added or subtracted, for whatever reasons. Then we look at various options of replacement.

Suppose I need to put a recipe of fish out of my menu and replace it with another kind of fish. So the chef will then give me a trial of about 2-3 recipes of the same kind and then it will be first tried by me, whichever I feel is the best amongst the three will then be sent for a food trial. The food is tasted by five other people – they can be chefs, consultants, or foodies, whom I trust for their food-tasting skills and judgment.

The process does not end even after we have zeroed down to a particular recipe. Then we do a thorough research on the selected recipe taking into account all available information on the fish, and other ingredients to be used in the recipe. Before the recipe goes on the main menu, it goes first as a chef’s special. Until we have established that there is a decently good or very good feedback to a dish, we won’t allow it to appear on the menu.

So once that is established, only then the item comes on the menu. The whole process takes not less than 90 days. So if we are targetting to do something by October, we begin the whole exercise from August onward.

Is it easier to effect menu changes for non Indian cuisines?

Not really. Any change requires a good standard source, and availability. Italian ingredients are available but the choice is limited; even for truffle oil, truffles, balsamic, etc. Your access to resources is scarce, as till date India is a dumping ground and so chaloo stuff sells.

We have still to see some real good Italian truffles, oils, balsamic. These are hard to find even with the best importers/vendors. This scarcity makes menu change a challenge. To get over this problem, we use a lot of fresh Indian produce now.

Between big hotels and standalone restaurants, which category is more agile at introducing new menus and dishes?

As I said earlier, introducing menu change is a complicated, drawn out exercise. It would be easier for a hotel to make a change because the resources in hotels are better. The various departments such as purchase, accounts, R&D, quality check control, expat chefs…everybody is well-connected under one roof. To make a change is easier for hotels than for standalone chain restaurants because in the latter case the change has to be implemented across multiple locations compared to hotel units. Also, logistics and controls are a challenge. However, if you have a single outlet then it is easier to carry out the change than it would be in a hotel.

How do you attract the best of chefs? There are so many competing players, how do you ensure that you have the one you want?

Whoever you take, you have to first see if he is trainable and he has what it takes to make a success of food. If a chef wants to come only to do as he fancies, then that is not allowable. Is he ready to listen to you or make changes by himself? The ego of a chef has to be sensed, that is the first step. The egoistic chefs can be very difficult to handle when an entrepreneur wants to make a suggestion and a change.

Then comes the question of how good is he at connecting with the owner. In my situation, before I started this restaurant I made sure that I was spending a lot of time with my chef. I needed to know his personality and also I wanted to make sure that he knows what the owner wants. Ninety per cent of people in the restaurant business don’t do that, which can make a big difference to how the service is run.

How do you ensure you that the ingredients you source are above par and adhere to the best quality standards? How do you select your vendors?

We have standardisation for everything and follow standard operating procedures. Everything is specified – to the extent that so much of quantity of a particular ingredient is needed from such and such vendors. Sourcing is handled by our purchase department comprising a team of professionals, which includes myself, some co-members, auditors, and members of the purchase team. By now we have established our prime suppliers.

We try to use the same suppliers for the products they are known for. At times when a product, let’s say trout, is not available with my current supplier, then I need to see who is the next best supplier and it is handled by the core group in purchase. Food is such a commodity that can go wrong anywhere, so all of us have to be very watchful of our systems, specs and storing abilities.

What suggestions/advice would you give to young entrepreneurs who have food service on their minds?

You have to think out of the box. Also, never go by your own personal choice, preferences and vanity. You might think that this dish is the best and so I must have it on the menu. But it doesn’t work like that. You have to try your food with a lot of people before you can call it acceptable. So don’t have a single opinion or a one-man story take over your restaurant. Never overspend on your project cost – be reasonable, follow certain strict guidelines to contain costs. Consultants tend to give you safe advice but the budget does go up. Interiors should be such that you can change every four years or at least have it cosmetically treated every two years.

Always understand your P&L statement from the first quarter. First-time entrepreneurs tend to become emotional and society-conscious. This can be detrimental. So watch your bottom line, pay your vendors, staff, and rent on time as a principle. Then do not try to do everything in the restaurant yourself at the beginning of your venture. Like if you are good at marketing or fund management, concentrate on those things and let the other professionals do the other things.

Don’t try to be the creative guy, be an interior designer, be a chef, connoisseur or a finance man or try to be everything. You have to actually focus on wherever your strengths lie. It’s only with experience that you begin to be more knowledgeable than when you had started. Work with patience, and this is very important.

People lose it fast. They come into this trade emotionally or as part of a social gambit – that we have to open a restaurant, we will appear ‘Page 3’, we will gain popularity. As reality sets in, people become impatient. Their focus start to shift towards holding events and they drift away from the main agenda i.e., food. From being a serious dining entity, the image of the place goes down – to being a place for events. So, being patient is a must.

With your experience let us know how lucrative can this business be?

It is like any other trade. A place doing well should make around 25 per cent PBIT. If that is so, then you are safe, secure and doing very well. The important thing is to stick to your costings. Don’t set your benchmark too high and then start making cuts. It will only make your quality go down. Start with a level horizon, then there is scope for you to grow. If you start with a big bang, the only way for you will be downwards.

A distilled gist of your learnings over the years…

When I started, my Italian was my concern in the first year of my restaurant business. Perhaps, I had leaned too heavily on getting the ambience and the decor right, which took the focus away from food. I learned from that experience. So when I opened the Cookhouse, I knew my Italian, which was much more advanced. This is why there is such a high level of satisfaction when it comes to food at the Fio Cookhouse.

At Fio Cookhouse, the price band is relatively high and many may have issues with that. But there are reasons why it cannot be lower. We guarantee high quality, specially-sourced raw materials and serve a variety of exotic food. For instance, we have exotic fruits and vegetables for a particular kind of dishes, and 16 odd types of cheese, many of which are used not beyond a single recipe. On the flip side there is a lot of wastage involved. But if you give this kind of expansive quality menu, then prices have to be high and that is justified.

After some point, what price does to you is that it filters your market. You have to see whether you want to cater to a selective 100 or 250 or 400 people. I can very easily have a restaurant at a price band that will be one third of what I have currently, but then I will be catering to a different market. So here if you have to pay higher, you are paying the price for quality and for a fulfilling experience.