Bengaluru: It is late in the afternoon, nearly three pm, but the Empire Hotel on Central Street, Shivaji Nagar, in Bengaluru is still packed. Waiters in their trademark red uniform, bustle through the din in the eatery, bearing steaming dishes of food and tall glasses of juice. Flames lick the row of foil-wrapped whole chicken basting on a spit at the entrance, dripping hot juice as it swirls on the rotisserie. A black-clad man slides them off the skewers and proceeds to cut off hunks of meat using a pair of large scissors, spewing gristle, fat and masala with every snip.
Chicken is certainly the star on the menu of this iconic group of hotels that has been serving food to the folks of Bangalore for fifty years now. Junaiz Kizhakkayil, chief operating officer, Empire Group of Hotels, and founder and CMD of Loyal Hospitality, a master franchise of Brand Empire, admits as much, “We use 11,000 kg of chicken every day: that is about 5-6,000 birds,” he says, laughing that it is probably the biggest expense the hotel chain incurs, after staff salary.
Walk into an outlet anywhere in the city and the taste of the food is remarkably the same, “That is because almost all the initial work is done at our central kitchen,” says Kizhakkayil, adding that this generic “top-secret” masala is then sent to the restaurants spread across the city.
The tagline of Empire (Taste of Bangalore) may be slightly presumptuous, but there’s no doubting the popularity of the chain, which serves at least 2,000 people per day per outlet.
The numbers speak for themselves: around 7,000 plates of Ghee Rice, 4,000 shawarmas and 3,000 odd plates of kebabs are eaten each day, on an average, at Empire restaurants across Bangalore, says Kizhakkayil.
So it is not surprising that for most Bangaloreans and the out-of-towners who visit the city frequently, memories of the erstwhile garden city are almost always tempered with the whiff of Empire.
And even the occasional drunken brawl (or two) that breaks out on the premises in the wee hours of the morning (unavoidable in a place that stays open till almost 3 am) cannot affect its popularity.
Jebin G Kalliath, a long-term resident of the city who heads brand strategy at a national bank, says that Empire was the first hotel he ate in, way back in 1997 when he first came to Bangalore.
And he went back over the next two decades again and again because, “The service was fast and the quality of the food was consistently good,” he says, “ Big chicken pieces , delicious red gravy, perfect Ceylon parathas: no one worried about calories back then,” he says, wryly.
A tryst with Bengaluru
In 1966, Abdul Rahim, a long-term resident of Malaysia with roots in Kerala, decided to start a small restaurant on Central Street. “My grandfather came from a catering background as he ran a restaurant in Malaysia back then,” says Shahid Haq, joint managing director, Empire Group of Hotels.
“The initial investment must have been around Rs.3-4 lakh,” adds Kizhakkayil, with a laugh.
It was still simply a small restaurant in Shivaji Nagar when Rahim’s oldest son and Shahid’s father, Abdul Haq, took over in the early eighties; by most accounts it is Haq who was responsible for Empire’s exponential growth over the next three decades.
“He was an incredibly hard-working man and was involved with every aspect of the business,” says Shahid.
Back then water was in short supply, flour could be bought only at ration shops and funds were low, but Haq never gave up on Empire, “He would go with Nataraj (the oldest staff member of Empire) to MG Road and collect water. Then trudge all the way back to Shivaji Nagar ever morning, carrying the water in a push-cart,” recalls Shahid, who grew up in a small apartment above the little restaurant on Central street. “I did my kindergarten at a school down that road and after school would wait for my father at the cash counter or kitchen,” he smiles, admitting that he hopes that his young son will be as deeply entrenched in the workings of the business.
Currently, the managing director of the hotel group is Abdul Aziz, Haq’s younger brother, who took over the business after Haq’s death a few years ago, “He was suffering from cancer but he never took his foot off the pedal till the very end,” says Shahid, “The Central Street office was his favourite place in the world. His passion is what makes us what we are today,” he says.
A growth story
Over the last 50 years, Empire has grown exponentially: 19 branches, which include 13 restaurants in Bengaluru, one in Mysuru and another in Maddur, and four hotels. And this doesn’t include the two in Dubai and their latest experiment, Karama that offers three distinct cuisines—Arabian, Karachi and Punjabi—under one roof.
“Our revenue for 2015 touched Rs.140 crore in 2015 and is expected to reach Rs.175 crore this year,” says Kizhakkayil. “We have always made profit, from the very day we began,” he adds.
“Empire is a great real estate indicator,” laughs Kalliath, “At any new residential colony, having an Empire come up is an indication that the area is market for good growth.”
And there are bigger plans in the offing—to go pan-India under the Loyal Hospitality brand. “I have taken a license agreement with NKP Empire Ventures Ltd and have been entrusted with the master franchise of the brand,” he says, adding that it hopes to open at least 150 branches across India in the next five years.
He is currently seeking out investors and building a team to achieve this target, he adds. There is also a plan for an initial public offering in the next 5-6 years.
One thing in Empire’s favour is that staff retention is fairly high, a novelty in the restaurant business known for its extremely high attrition rates, adds Michael Johnson, who heads human resources at the group.
“We provide a number of benefits, share service charges fairly and always pay people on time—on the first Monday of the month,” says Johnson, adding that the entire business employs around 2,000 people today, a quantum leap from 48 in 1992.
And salaries have gone up substantially too--from a daily wage of Rs.2 per day to an average of Rs.15,000 per month.
It helps that vertical growth is encouraged and loyalty is rewarded, “A lot of our staff has been part of the system for 2-3 decades,” says Johnson. Also, “We never hire managers from outside,” he adds.
Instead, managers are selected from within the system and get a generous remuneration that runs into over Rs.1 lakh/month, he adds.
Take the case of S. Palani, for instance,“I started as a cleaning boy and I now am a cook here,” says Palani, who has been with Empire for over thirty years, “ The owners have always been nice to us so I never thought of leaving,” he adds.
The Empire edge
The Empire corporate office in Richmond Town, Bangalore is a swanky chrome and glass structure furnished with swivel chairs, glass–topped conference tables, potted plants and bright lighting. One of the large, glass-walled rooms is filled with a huddle of young people frantically picking up calls and glancing anxiously at their computers.
“This is our call centre,” points Johnson, “We make at least 60,000 deliveries/month—these people handle the calls for those,” he says.
Mobilizing technology has been a big part of Empire’s success, admits Kizhakkayil, “We have adopted IOT (Internet of Things) in the hospitality industry,” he says, holding out his mobile phone where a number of applications are running, “I monitor everything in every restaurant using my phone and walky talky,” he says, “If a customer sitting in Koramangala hasn’t got his food in 20 minutes, I will know,” he says.
Being ahead of the game is something Empire has always prided itself on, “When we began opening juice counters outside our outlets in 1994, no one in Bangalore even sold juice. Today, every other restaurant has a juice counter,” says Kizhakkayil, adding that they were the first movers with other dishes including the hugely popular chicken dosa and the shawarma.
“Our most recent innovation is something called Shaadi Ke Biryani. We have an agreement with a company that makes this wedding biryani and we sell it here. Now you do not need to go to a wedding to eat shaadi ke biryani,” says Firdos Khan, the COO of Loyal Hospitality.
But the most innovative thing Empire has done has nothing to do with food. “Every employee of Empire is a blood donor. All you need to do is call and we will deliver blood anytime you need it,” says Kizhakkayil, adding that this was instituted in December 2015 in memory of the late Haq.
Despite these changes over the last 50 years, one thing stays exactly the same, “Our signature dishes continue to be kebabs, ghee rice, dal fry, coin parotha and biryani,” says Kizhakkayil, “That is still what people come to sample at Empire.”