The first time Jay Yousuf got his hands dirty working in a restaurant was as a 19-year-old student in Illinois, US, when a Mexican busboy failed to show up at Yousuf’s favourite bistro. Run by a French couple, the 20-seater space was a regular haunt—Yousuf used to religiously save money and wait in line for hours to get a table so he could dig into French fries that were “to die for” and medium-rare steak that would melt in the mouth. That day, when the couple found themselves in a bind, he offered to help. “I used to hope that someday I will run a restaurant like that,” he laughs, reminiscing.
Today, Yousuf can be found at a charming restaurant in Mumbai’s Colaba, going from table to table with his wife Gauri Devidayal, nervously gauging the response to the San Francisco-style cuisine. He does not wait at tables, or do the dishes there—after 26 years and a successful stint in the telecom industry, Yousuf has realized his Illinois dream.
Four of those years were spent building a team, hunting for the location, getting the licences, constructing the restaurant and finally opening The Table to diners in January. A month later, he is still working out small chinks in the menu and if you find no signage outside, that’s because the signboard is being perfected at a store in New Delhi.
Food first: Food first: (from top) Tote on the Turf reworked its menu after negative feedback from diners; LPQ is popular more for its freshly baked breads than its main courses; and the Panch Amrut Rawas is a signature dish at Indigo.Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint
Yousuf is not the only one who dreams of feeding people dishes they would queue up for. “Usually, anyone who can make a good dish or is a foodie or wants a glamorous lifestyle, wants to open a restaurant,” says A.D. Singh, owner of the Olive chain of eateries. Many hopefuls even quit their day jobs to try their luck.
New and old, successful and not-so-successful restaurateurs say this is one of the hardest businesses anywhere in the world. So what does it take to run a successful speciality restaurant that is trying something new, away from the Indian or Chinese mid-priced, “family restaurant” prototype?
Around the same time that Yousuf was getting closer to his dream, Madhu Menon was bidding a teary goodbye to his. The IT professional opened Shiok, a pan-Asian restaurant in Bangalore, after friends, who loved his innovative cooking, coaxed him into opening a restaurant. He had a good run for five years, but last year, unable to deal with the aftermath of the slowdown, he downed shutters.
“It took me a couple of years to fully appreciate how it can surprise people with no experience in the business. There are just so many ways one can get screwed,” says Menon, of the restaurant business. Now wiser, he holds workshops in Bangalore for upcoming restaurateurs so they can learn from his experience.
A.D. Singh has a word of caution for dreamers—restaurants are, ultimately, a business. “Passion is important but they also have to come prepared with a business plan,” he says. In this capital-intensive business, you can burn through money fast and unlike what many believe, you cannot make a quick buck. When drawing up the budget, don’t expect returns for at least six months, warns Varun Tuli of The Yum Yum Tree. The restaurant that opened in New Delhi three years ago has just about broken even.
But A.D. Singh remains optimistic. If youngsters open new restaurants, he says, it will raise the bar for everyone.
We asked restaurateurs around the country to list the ingredients that go into whipping up a successful restaurant.
THE LEADING STAR: FOOD
Sometime in October, Facebook members of Tote on the Turf, Rahul Akerkar’s ambitious restaurant and banquet space in Mahalaxmi, Mumbai, were taken aback by an email from the restaurant’s chef and owner. “Since Tote opened last year, we’ve gone through a few avatars of its menu in trying to establish the correct culinary identity for the award-winning designed restaurant. I now realize that we’d gotten so immersed in the design that we somehow let the food play second fiddle to the interiors,” he wrote.
His first restaurant, Indigo, was a trendsetter in Mumbai when it opened and continues to thrive 12 years later. The succulent lobster meat risotto has been a permanent fixture on the menu for a decade. Their chocolate fondant with the aftertaste of jalapenos makes people return for more. Which is why Akerkar tells us that food is the only reason you should open a restaurant. When his diners told him the food at Tote was “whacked out”, he decided to do away with the chef and his experimental food.
With a new executive chef, Akerkar reworked the entire menu and sent out the email asking diners for another chance. “You can’t take people for granted any more. They are well-travelled and can identify every flavour and ingredient,” he says.
The choice of cuisine is equally critical. The cuisine hierarchy goes something like this—Indian, followed by Chinese and Italian. “Italian has broadened to include European and Chinese has grown to pan-Asian but the basic hierarchy remains the same,” says Raman Macker, whose company Dish Hospitality owns chains such as Tasty Tangles and Sancho’s, besides Aurus, in Mumbai.
When Ritu Dalmia set up Diva in New Delhi in 2000, the market was primed for a stand-alone, fine-dining Italian restaurant. The pizza and pasta chains had given Delhiites a taste for Italian. “There was a novelty factor, and a great demand,” says Dalmia. There was nowhere one could go to for an authentic Italian meal outside of five-star hotels. Dalmia spotted an opportunity and rode its crest.
Italian is now the third most loved cuisine, and restaurateurs have to decide whether they want a small piece of the big Italian pie or the entire platter of sashimi. “We are more open (minded) today,” says A.D. Singh. “But does that mean a Japanese restaurant is an automatic success? No. It’s a niche market and you have to decide whether you want to be a big player in that instead of being another Italian restaurant.”
Pawanjeet Singh and his partners, who started the company Ahimsa Brands last year, were not in the mood for too many risks. They are working on the strategy of becoming exclusive licensors and partners of successful international restaurant chains. They chose Le Pain Quotidien (LPQ) for their first venture because, according to Pawanjeet Singh, casual European, café-style cuisine is the fastest growing food concept in cities.
“We picked brands which have been successful not only in their own countries but emerging markets that have tastebuds similar to us,” says Pawanjeet Singh. Working on a well-known franchise cuts the risk considerably. Besides the US and UK, LPQ has outposts in Spain, Mexico and Turkey, and on the opening day in Mumbai last month, it was packed with the south Mumbai swish set that had come to see if the food matched up to the bakery’s international standards. Ahimsa Brands will soon bring Vapiano, an international Italian chain, and another pan-Asian brand later in the year.
But for those who can’t make up their minds, trying to please everyone can be hazardous. “I am always wary of multi-cuisine restaurants with menus that take forever to read, because that generally means they’re not specialists in anything,” says Menon.
The longer the menu, the more preparation work you have to do in the kitchen, and more the number of specialized cooks you need to hire.
CAPTIVE AUDIENCE: THE LOCATION
As he hunted for a space in the real estate jungle of south Mumbai, vegetarian landlords in Kemps Corner and Napean Sea Road turned Yousuf away. Muslim landowners wouldn’t allow him to serve alcohol and some other places he liked were close to religious institutions where an alcohol licence is not allowed anyway. It was a year before he found the current space because location was one thing he was not ready to compromise on. Having grown up in south Mumbai, he wanted to come back to the same place and believed that the well-travelled people there would be better able to appreciate specialized American cuisine.
Macker, on the other hand, wanted his customers to go out of their way to reach Aurus. On the beach in a by-lane of Juhu, it is difficult to locate, but foodies find their way. The owners intended the pricey restaurant to be a destination dining experience. “It’s on the beach, which is a beautiful, idyllic setting,” says Macker.
His Tasty Tangles is a mid-priced pan-Asian restaurant on a cross street in Bandra close to Linking Road where tired shoppers and residents nearby walk in for a bite. For those looking for a high number of walk-ins, malls are a good option.
In Mumbai, Veda and Punjab Grill are located at the luxury Palladium mall. A.D. Singh, who opened his Japanese restaurant Ai at Metropolitan mall in New Delhi, concedes, however, that malls can be a tricky option since the crowd that comes there has to be aligned with the kind of restaurant you want to open.
SUPPORTING ROLE: HOSPITALITY AND AMBIENCE
When Indigo had just opened, Akerkar gave an entire meal complimentary to some diners because they had to wait 45 minutes for their table. The diners were so touched that they went on to become regulars.
While at most spaces the staff will summon the manager for every issue, at Indigo they are allowed to take any decision related to enhancing the dining experience of the guests—they can even decide not to charge for a dish that diners may seem unhappy with, even if they have not complained. This empowerment brings in that critical personal touch that differentiates service from hospitality. But retaining the staff is a challenge at every level.
“We become a target for poaching and attrition at lower levels is high,” says restaurateur Riyaz Amlani, CEO, Impresario Hospitality. They have Mocha, Salt Water Café and The Tasting Room in Mumbai, and Smoke House Grill and Stone House Grill in New Delhi and Pune, respectively. Soon after Mumbai’s current hot spot Pali Village Café opened, Amlani walked in to find “boys from his stable” working there.
In a field where restaurants, call centres, cruise liners and hotels abroad are all vying for the same talent pool, restaurants are the “lowest on the value chain”, says Macker. “But we can’t afford to pay as much as the others.”
Akerkar, who lost his Indigo Deli manager to LPQ, now has someone who used to be on his staff working at most high-end restaurants in the city. “New restaurants start with inflated salaries but eventually come down to industry levels. Then our people come back to us,” he says.
While there’s no way to control the attrition, Pawanjeet Singh plans to start a training centre for staff that will work in their restaurant chains. The experience of working for an international chain on their resume will keep them there, he believes.
The real success of a restaurant lies in the number of regulars it has, but then a diner becomes a regular only if the staff recognizes him.
Sometimes, you might even find yourself going back to the restaurant where the dim lighting makes your skin glow. Amlani makes sure that the lighting in all his restaurants is flattering to women. According to him, restaurants are a space where your purchase decisions are made depending on the mood. “On Friday night, you will think of pubs, less of restaurants. On weekdays, you will want to grab a meal somewhere in your flip-flops,” he says.
He believes good ambience is a test of the senses. “Anything you touch, the fork and spoon, cup, find out how much they weigh and how does it feel against your lip...,” he adds.
The mood you cater to will dictate your ambience, menu and pricing. Be clear on what you want to deliver and deliver what you promise: “If people suddenly see a band playing at Aurus on Monday night, diners will just be confused,” says Macker.
THE PREMIERE: MARKETING AND PR
Feel like shopping while the chef works on your pizza? Or want to hear a talk by an upcoming artist while you get a post-work drink with friends? Olive Bar and Kitchen will bring shopping, books and art to your table. A.D. Singh’s photos with top models, socialites and actors find space frequently in the party pages of newspapers. “La Dolce Vita,” he tells us when we ask him about the social events overshadowing the seriousness of food at Olive. “It’s a lifestyle that we are promoting. We look at the concept of a restaurant with a wider vision and it fits well with what Olive is,” he says.
No second thoughts: Menon has no plans to open another restaurant in the near future. Hemant Mishra/Mint
Community building is important to make consumers feel special. Salsa nights, book readings, film clubs, etc., are a way of doing that. Akerkar keeps Indigo in the news with food-related events. An art event once conducted there had artists interpreting food on canvas.
Amlani usually creates a buzz with launch parties and likes to make sure there are some celebrities at his restaurants on a regular basis. “People feel comfortable when they see a well-known person in a restaurant. For high-end places, you need to get in the right kind of musicians and faces,” he adds.
Yet surprisingly, the opening of his restaurant The Tasting Room four years ago did not create any buzz for a long time. Located inside the Good Earth interiors store in Mumbai, it now doesn’t even have a signboard announcing its presence. But the place has become one of the most popular restaurants in the city and is well known for its warm ambience and excellent food. People discovered the place on their own—while shopping or from friends. “The kind of place it is demanded a quiet launch. It took a while, but the brand was built,” says Amlani.
Satisfied customers are your best brand ambassadors.
Amrita Roy contributed to this story.