It is a rare occasion when the icons of fine dining in the country get together to talk of the culinary concepts they have introduced, and how many of them have become the defining benchmarks and touchstones for the foodservice industry. The panel discussion “Panache: The hallmarks of great cuisine and the icons who built them” on Day Three of India Food Forum saw a high voltage, straight from the gut interaction among the doyens of the foodservice industry as they shared with the audience the experiences and decisions that helped to shape their successful progression in this brutally competitive industry.
In an engaging conversation with the host Harmeet Bajaj, Food Connoisseur and Partner, Impresario, acknowledged masters of the restaurant industry held forth on a range of issues and the ideas they ignited, which took on a life of their own and grew into enduring stories.
One such example of a foodservice entrepreneur who pulled himself by his bootstraps and pushed his way to success is Rahul Akerkar, Chef and Restaurateur and Founder, Indigo. With no culinary school background and experience to fall on, he took up a job even as a student to make ends meet. From overcoming a speech impediment to being promoted as a chef from a dishwasher, Akerkar is now a celebrated and much emulated restaurateur and an avid diver who has gone on to define the fine dining culture in Mumbai with his labour of love ‘Indigo’.
“When I came back to Mumbai in 1989, there wasn’t much happening on the standalone restaurant scene. I then tied up with AD Singh to set up Just Desserts, a standalone dessert outlet. From there I moved on to my first restaurant Under the Over, which was followed by Indigo,” said Akerkar.
AD Singh, Owner, Olive Bar & Kitchen, and the man who gave Akerkar his first major career break is known to have a midas touch for creating landmark restaurants. Not only is he the creative spirit and the brain behind the swanky, high profile restaurant chain Olive Bar & Kitchen, Singh has also pioneered the distinct standalone restaurant culture in the country. A hugely successful restaurateur who doesn’t pretend to be a chef, he has given us brands like Monkey Bar, The Fatty Bao and SodaBottleOpenerWala. He is known to keep churning out restaurants and concepts that always push the envelope further.
“Most of my life journey has happened because of the things I love. I had a perennial sweet tooth and that led me to my first Just Desserts, a standalone desserts concept. I am a guy of ideas, my journey has been about creating concepts that could work for a wider audience and that’s seen me do a variety of things across the country over 28 years,” said Singh.
Anjan Chatterjee, Founder and Managing Director, Speciality Restaurants (Mainland China), has established a company that runs well-known fine-dining restaurant chains ‘Mainland China’ and ‘Oh! Calcutta’. His company today runs 123 renowned restaurants that continue to churn authentic cuisines for the foodies. The company also boasts of eight award-winning cuisines to its credit. Before Chatterjee’s passion for gourmet cuisine found its expression in the restaurants he created, his first job was with Taj Hotels, which he quit to start his own advertising agency.
“I am a cook at heart and not a chef. I used to cook food for friends like CY Gopinath and Bachi Karkaria who are equally passionate about food. It was they who pitched the idea to me to market Bengali food, which wasn’t on the food map of India. I started a hotel called ‘Only Fish’ and that’s how the journey started,” said Chatterjee.
Ashish Saxena, ED & CEO, TexMex Cuisine (Chili’s American Grill & Bar), is the development partner of Texas based Bricker International, which owns the American based casual dining restaurant chain Chili’s Grill & Bar, a three year old firm. With a rich experience of 12 years across agricultural business, healthcare, FMCG, engineering, IT and pharmaceuticals, he has established a track record of consulting for leading companies across the globe.
“My journey in the food industry happened by accident. I joined a private equity fund, which owned this business and I was parachuted into this company. It’s been an interesting three and half years and my journey has been about corporatizing the restaurant business and its management structure, which can take the brand to 50 restaurants in the country,” he said.
On How to Create a New Product and Scale Up
The question drew interesting and perspicacious response from the panelists based on their individual perspective and insights. “Conventional wisdom says that as you try to build long term value, you cannot have too many brands because then you tend to get diffused. But we felt that there is a great opportunity for some of our brands nationally. The brands that Olive Bar & Kitchen are known for are fairly casual and have been very well accepted. So we set about creating more such new brands – strong in concept and very strong in quality, which are even more fun, more approachable, and more affordable across different cuisines. I believe that there are huge opportunities in our sector across all kinds of ideas and price points. And for us, to penetrate a market with a set of brands works very well rather than have a single brand,” said AD Singh.
Expressing a different perspective, Anjan Chatterjee said: “Managing a multi-brand portfolio is difficult. It requires managing everything – from the crockery and cutlery to the service and design, etc. We started with Mainland China, our flagship brand, and scaled it up. It was a strategic decision from the investors’ perspective. With the advent of new formats, the restaurant space has changed and we are rebranding select outlets and doing brand refreshments and progressive cuisine within the Oriental area to keep our consumers happy.”
According to Saxena, “The space for American Mexican cuisine was vacant in India and brands like Hard Rock Cafe and TGIF had a pub like positioning in India. So there was a virgin market to tap into. The focus was to ensure that every outlet made money within three months of operations and also to make money at the company level. We started gradually and once we were profitable at the company level, we scaled up faster. We are a systems and processes company and, after strengthening our backend, scaling up was easy.”
On Funding Formats and Challenges
When you build a business and want to scale it up, it requires money. “We diluted 12 per cent of equity and then used the resources generated to expand the chain of our restaurants across the country. We chose to go public with an IPO instead of private equity infusion, banking on the fact that the listing will help tap more liquidity in the long run and also gain people’s trust,” said Anjan Chatterjee.
According to AD Singh, “Opening a restaurant can be tough if you don’t have surplus money. There aren’t any Government programmes to support young entrepreneurs who want to take the plunge. But today the scenario is changing with angel investing. And also there are people who are willing to fund you in exchange for the share of the perceived glamour and profitability of the business. Private equity funding is relatively new and available only to companies of a certain size.”
On the Role and Impact of HR Initiatives
Good people are the backbone of any company and more so for a customer facing restaurant industry. “I understood that if there was no opportunity for our employees to grow, we would lose them. So we kick-started a process where the company could enter into partnerships with prized employees. About 13 of our top 15 managers have a stake in the company through ESOPs.”
According to Ashish Saxena, “Retaining quality manpower is a critical challenge. Being systems and processes driven company, we made the training available online and simplified it so that a person can hit the floor running in fifteen days. Also, we are very careful in according due importance to having the right managerial talent in place because they are the ones who impart the training.”
On the Acceptability and Authenticity of Cuisines
“If you want to stand out, you have to offer a different and authentic experience because the domain is filled with stereotypes and you will get swept away very soon by the competition. Finding a niche and perfecting what you have to offer definitely helps any restaurant’s competitive advantage,” said AD Singh.
Rahul Akerkar said that it’s very important for restaurants to have a cuisine and food identity. “If you are in a chain game it’s your concept that matters more but for standalone restaurants it is the cooking and food that counts more. If you play safe it might get you good numbers in the short run but you will have no identity. More important than authenticity, it’s important that food has integrity.”
Harmeet Bajaj opined that authenticity can also be redefined. “We are in the business of storytelling. Every restaurant is telling you a story, the story of their food, their environment, the interiors, and the attitude. It is a combination of various things that goes with the integrity of the food and that is what creates a brand.”
On Trends in the Restaurant Industry
The panelists agreed that the food market in India has changed a lot in the past couple of years and that there has been an explosion of interest in the sector. International diners are very curious about the evolution of Indian food. At the right price points, there is still a huge growth opportunity, what with the emergence of a young buying audience with money but not that much exposure. As this audience matures and gains exposure, they are going to start demanding an honest dining experience, regardless of the cuisine or market segment or type of food.
Rahul Akerkar observed: “Indian brands are now ready to go overseas. One Indian brand that is making an impact globally today is the Indian Accent. The diner overseas is very mature and looking for an authentic experience. It is only genuine products and not some watered down construct that will appeal to their palate. The Indian restaurants that are doing well overseas are those that are staying true to the cuisine.”