Circa 1998. Three employees huddled in the cafeteria of the Taj Bengal Hotel poring over a dog-eared diary scribbled with calculations, from the price of chicken to the cumulative worth of their young lives, chewing over the unthinkable: Give up secure, respected jobs at a five-star hotel and start their own eatery.
The trio could barely scrape up Rs3 lakh from savings and that included the Provident Fund they would receive if they quit. An entrepreneur needed more than that to open a cigarette shop on a Kolkata pavement.
Still, the three quit. Only one of them, Bharat Dhamala, could cook; that was his job at Chinoiserie, the Cantonese and Szechwan restaurant at Taj Bengal. His rationale: “If people queued up to eat what I prepared, why shouldn’t I have my own establishment?”
A day at the office: Bharat Dhamala says his ultimate aim is to own a hotel
While the other two came from business families, Dhamala was the son of an oil-tanker driver at the Bongaigaon Refinery and Petrochemicals Ltd in Assam. His sister had died when he was a teenager and the family had pinned the little hope left on him for a brighter future. His father scraped together the Rs70,000 needed in the early 1990s to put Dhamala through a hotel management course.
It had paid off. There he was, a rising chef at one of Kolkata’s best hotels. Could he risk his father’s investment to chase a dream?
“My wife was expecting our first child, and everyone said we were crazy,” reminisces Dhamala, now director chef at ABNM Restaurant Pvt. Ltd, the company he founded with his two friends in August 1999 at the age of 27. “Today, we have an annual turnover of more than Rs5 crore.”
ABNM runs two upscale restaurants in Kolkata—Red Hot Chilli Pepper at Ballygunge and the Red Kitchen & Lounge at Alipore—and a coffee shop, Red Xpress, at the city’s throbbing intelligence park at Salt Lake. It offers hospitality consultancy services in India and the US, and plans to enter food production of packaged “heat and eat” Chinese meals.
Moreover, the company has also landed a 24-hour catering contract at the Tata Consultancy Services cafeteria at Salt Lake. About 170 people are directly or indirectly employed by the company—“that’s 170 families dependent on us”—and it took them less than a decade to achieve what they have.
It wasn’t easy, says Dhamala, now a 35-year-old father of two kids enrolled in one of Kolkata’s most prestigious institutions, La Martiniere School for Girls. But he and his friends, along with their wives, cobbled together a recipe that has spelled success.
Dhamala, who trained under the Taj Group’s revered master chef known to everyone as “Brando” before studying Cantonese and Szechwan cuisine in Bangkok, was the youngest in-charge chef of Chinoiserie; he was the natural choice to head ABNM’s production division.
His friends, Ashim Mewar and Manash Borthakur, both of whom specialized in the service area at Taj, took over administration. Mewar and Borthakur’s wives, also ex-Taj employees in the service sector, were inducted as paid employees to run the coffee shop at Salt Lake’s IT neighbourhood.
(Dhamala’s wife Mom, who he met at the Taj, runs an IFB Launderette franchise, as she had a housekeeping background and found no place in her husband’s new venture. Despite being friends and family, the entrepreneurs said they wanted to run everything very professionally).
When they started out, each raised Rs1.5 lakh, and borrowed about Rs 2.5 lakh from a private finance company at high interest as banks wouldn’t back them.
They found a ground floor apartment on Ballygunge Circular Road, and struck by the lack of any good restaurant in the neighbourhood, decided this would be the spot that they would set up the first shop. They converted the master bedroom into the kitchen, put in affordable furniture, and thus was born a small 45-seat restaurant, Red Hot Chilli Pepper, on 20 September 1999. There was no money to advertise, says Dhamala. Marketing was mainly by word of mouth.
The first day, they made around Rs4,000; the next day brought slightly better pickings: Rs4,500, and the third day, it hovered around Rs6,000. Today, Dhamala claims, they easily cross Rs1 lakh a day.
During one of those early days, RPG Enterprises vice-chairman Sanjeev Goenka came in with his family to test the new establishment. Recalls Dhamala’s friend and partner Mewar: “They had starters and were waiting for the main meal, which wasn’t ready even after 40 minutes, and I went and asked them whether they would have their dessert… Those were the days.”
Over the next three years, as revenue flow picked up, thoughts strayed to expansion. In 2002, the company took a Rs25 lakh loan from the Bank of India (“we now had credibility”) to revamp the restaurant to a 65-seat establishment with fancier décor and a well-equipped kitchen. This year, more area was acquired, a bar and grill added.
In 2003, the 2,500 sq. ft Red Xpress coffee shop was started at Bengal Intelligence Park, an IT park in Salt Lake. And in 2004, a 4,500 sq. ft restaurant-cum-lounge was opened in Alipore.
Around this time, Dhamala also was contracted by a US company to design and set up a Chinese restaurant in Atlanta. Subsequent reviews in local media didn’t mention him, and this hit his ego, he says. “It was then I decided we have to have our own restaurant in the US,” Dhamala says.
Early August, Mewar and Borthakur are leaving for the US to negotiate a potential 50-50 joint venture in Dallas. Dhamala, too, plans a trip to Goa to look at properties there.
Today, he has bought a car for his father. The man who drove tankers around can afford a chauffeur, thanks to his son. Dhamala himself is waiting for his third car: a Hyundai Getz, adding to his stable of a Maruti 800 (his first car has a “sentimental value”) and a Honda City.
After Goa and US, the company has still more plans.
“I am just 35, I’m just beginning,” Dhamala says. “Our ultimate aim? It’s owning a hotel.”
Dhamala says he has no rancour about his humble background; he recalls his friends— sons of general managers and other senior executives—with fondness, saying they remain the best of buddies. But he does confess the bungalows of the senior personnel and the guesthouse goaded him.
“I used to tell myself, that’s where I’m going to stay.”
Of late, he does exactly that. Bongaigaon refinery authorities have given Dhamala’s company the contract to set up a food park in the very colony where he grew up. The assignment means he gets to stay in the guest house.