Manu Chandra and Chetan Rampal: Toast of the Town
Manu Chandra and Chetan Rampal first met at the Olive Bar & Kitchen, in Mumbai’s Bandra neighbourhood, where Chandra was chef de cuisine and Rampal the restaurant manager. Both had plans to disrupt the country’s culinary landscape. In 2012, they started their first venture, the Monkey Bar in Bengaluru, under the aegis of A.D. Singh’s Olive Group of restaurants. Since then, they have expanded the brand Olive Cafes South Pvt. Ltd across the country, with multiple outposts of Monkey Bar, their Asian gastro bar Fatty Bao, and Toast & Tonic. With the launch of Toast & Tonic in Mumbai this week (the second in the country, after Bengaluru), they have a total of 11 restaurants.
While each brand has a separate identity, the focus has been the same, from the culinary ethos to the layout of the kitchen to efficient supply chains and a leaning towards local produce. There is attention to minutiae, from the lighting in restaurants to the condiments on the table to the volume of music. And a finger on the pulse of the market, great choices in terms of real estate and a sense of irreverence to keep things fresh. Lounge caught up with Chandra and Rampal, who were in Mumbai for the opening of Toast & Tonic. Edited excerpts from an interview:
Tell us about your experiments with gin at Toast & Tonic.
Chandra: We wanted a gin focus at Toast, which was a bit of a shot in the dark, especially when we introduced it in Bengaluru, a city that loves its beer. And I think we stand vindicated a year down the line. What is remarkable is how our gin cocktails have made people rethink past inhibitions around the spirit. Some of the older gentlemen I meet at the restaurant tell me how they used to think that gin was bad for them. It’s a bit of an old wives’ tale, but a lot of people stopped drinking gin because there was a rumour that it caused impotency. Gin seemed to lose its standing. But we had conviction and went ahead with our gin cocktails and infused tonics and stuck with it. Thankfully, that has served us well and even converted a number of people to the spirit.
Will the menu at Toast & Tonic be different from that in Bengaluru?
Chandra: At Toast, we pay a lot of attention to processes and ingredients. Toast started with a simple premise, an easy relaxed space, but with a certain style and elegance to how it felt and looked. We prioritise fresh and clean flavours over bottled syrups and sauces. We make three-four types of fermented mustards. We are working with a lot of local salts, such as Himalayan pink salt, because they have a completely different flavour profile. We are also including a lot of local grains in our repertoire and, as luck would have it, they also tend to fall within the new-fangled diets across the country. We also smoke and cure our own meats and make our own kimchis.
Our menus in our different restaurants are always works in progress. And that is what we will be doing with Toast & Tonic in Mumbai as well. Some things from Bengaluru might translate well here while others might not.
Is there an intent to keep the food identities of each brand distinct?
Chandra: There is obviously certain continuity in all our products, from Monkey Bar to The Fatty Bao and Toast, but at the same time our approaches to food and preparation are very different for each of these brands. We are trying to take that a step further and centralize the processes and create things like hot sauces and other table condiments rather than use store-bought variants. So, for example, I am very excited about working with miso, and if it works out I would like to use it across brands, but the applications would have to be very different. For example, at The Fatty Bao, I would like to do a miso soup or miso cod, while at Toast & Tonic it would appear as miso butter, which would be part of the table condiments. So the customer would not be able to make this connection, though we would immediately know what we are trying to do.
From a single Monkey Bar in Bengaluru to 11 restaurants in five years, what has enabled this rapid growth?
Rampal: We started off our first restaurant in Bengaluru as it has been the best test market. Real estate is cheaper and people are price-sensitive and if a product works in that market, then we can do the same thing elsewhere at higher prices. Real estate is always a big factor in our expansion plans. A 25-year-old Chinese restaurant had just downed shutters on Wood Street in Bengaluru and it was like that space was destined for Monkey Bar, which we opened in 2012 (branches in Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata followed.) When we started Olive Cafés South we had a plan that we would open seven-eight restaurants in three years. We couldn’t just occupy larger spaces with higher rentals as it wouldn’t work in the long term. The glass pyramidal structure that we finally occupied in Vasant Vihar in Delhi was something no one else wanted and it had been empty for two years. It was all glass and no one knew what to make of it, but we saw potential and worked with our landlord to make sure it took off.
We just concentrate on the product, the food and service, and with that in place, we try and control all the other factors like overheads and expenses so that the product can stay the way it is. We keep doing a bunch of events and festivals and that keeps us fresh and energetic. The average per customer (APC) across our products is Rs 800-1,200 and that makes it accessible.
Talk us through the process of sourcing local and seasonal produce across your brands.
Chandra: The problem is usually of bandwidth and keeping the focus on sourcing and supply chains while also tackling things like real estate and so on. We try to use as many exciting local ingredients as possible. But there are some things that we obviously need to source from elsewhere. It is not that we are trying exceedingly hard to be hipster but because it’s just fun to use what is locally available and adapt recipes to the ingredients, rather than the other way round.
About eight months ago, this guy from Andhra Pradesh randomly messaged me and said that he was growing soft-shell crabs on his farm and asked whether I would be interested in using them, and I agreed immediately. Within a day, I had a sample. It was approved, a credit line was established and it was introduced on the Toast & Tonic menu. And then I called Prashant (executive chef at The Fatty Bao), and told him about my awesome discovery and he said he would take them. And just like that we had a soft-shell crab section on The Fatty Bao menu. The supplier was really happy because he had expected us to take about 10kg a month, whereas we were taking nearly 200kg a month across both restaurants. That, for us, is very exciting, and we price these new additions competitively, which lends greater traction, so all the three—the supplier, the guest and us—are happy. People come to us with these amazing products and we are happy to have them on board. For example, The Spotted Cow Fromagerie from Mumbai makes some great cheese and we get our Robiola and Brie from them.