A.D. Singh: Sangria, sushi and all that jazz
The founder of the Olive group on running 32 restaurants, serving ‘baos’ and ‘berry pulao’ with equal gusto, and throwing the best Thursday night parties
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I arrive at south Bombay’s legendary Breach Candy Club on a stormy afternoon. Angry waves are crashing against the rocks, threatening to swallow this spit of land with its India-shaped pool. “What better place in Bombay could we have met in?” says A.D. Singh, who works out of the 139-year-old club’s first-floor café many days of the week.
I am here to find out how a young electrical engineer ended up becoming one of the architects of the stand-alone restaurant business in India. Today, his company, Olive Bar and Kitchen Pvt. Ltd (which was launched in 2000 with the opening of his flagship brand), runs 32 outlets across Delhi, Mumbai, Bengaluru, Hyderabad, Pune and Kolkata.
Singh’s story begins in the late 1980s, when he returned to India with a degree in engineering from Lafayette College, Pennsylvania. “Back then, being a doctor or an engineer were the only safe choices. All of us started off that way and then along the way we found our calling.” After brief stints in the corporate and NGO sectors, he came up with his first business idea: boat parties. “It was an idea that came to me when my mother and I tried to put together a boat party during my sister’s wedding.”
That is how Party Lines was born in 1988, paving the way for Singh’s future as an impresario of the good times. The boat-party business worked quite well for the next two years. From stylish dos on yachts and barges to setting up India’s first floating bar, Suzie Wong, it seemed like the waters off Marine Drive had become the hot new party spot in town.
But even as the boat parties were taking off, Singh—or AD, as he is known—was getting his first taste of the restaurant business with Just Desserts, which he had opened in partnership with chef Rahul Akerkar in 1990. Although it was a makeshift space on the premises of an Irani café, it had a winning combination—cakes from the best Parsi bakers in the city, and live jazz. “I used to hate jazz as it was my father’s music, but along the way I fell in love with it. And ever since the 1990s, jazz has been there in one avatar or the other in many of my places,” says Singh.
During the 1990s, Singh worked with and helped launch a bunch of brands, and there was plenty of learning by trial and error. All of Singh’s properties in the 1990s and early noughties were without a template. “They were (simply) restaurants I myself wanted to see in the country,” he says.
Just Desserts ran from 1990-92 and was followed by a Latin American club called Copa Cabana on Marine Drive in 1996. It was a place where the young partied. “It was a small hole and yet young people thought it was the best place to meet new people and have great conversations,” says Singh, who used to be at the door himself to ensure that the crowd met his exacting standards.
This was followed by The Bowling Company, a concept that fused bowling with a bar at Phoenix Mills, much before the restaurant boom there. Soul Fry and Soul Kadi followed soon after, serving Konkani coastal classics along with a side of weekly karaoke.
Of these early ventures, only Soul Fry remains.
Olive, which opened in 2000 in Mumbai’s Khar neighbourhood, was special by all accounts. Singh believes there were old cantankerous spirits at the site; his wife Sabina even carried out an exorcism, on the advice of an English clairvoyant, before the place actually opened. The spirits were laid to rest, and Olive was launched without further ado. “When we opened, we made three-four times the sales we had expected, and that was also the time we realized that there was a whole world waiting to be tapped outside south Bombay, and we had been too snobbish to realize that,” Singh says.
Olive was on a roll. Food festivals and popular party nights on Thursdays ensured that the restaurant survived the three-year jinx that plagued most restaurants in Mumbai at the time.
In 2003, a Delhi-based entrepreneur consulted Singh on opening a restaurant in Mehrauli in the national capital. Singh seized the opportunity and Olive found a second home in a refurbished haveli with a giant banyan tree and a pebbled courtyard. “Olive Delhi put Mehrauli on the map,” says Singh. However, a sealing drive by the municipal corporation led to the closure of many establishments in 2006; Olive was among them. Although it reopened in 2009, the eating-out experience hasn’t been quite the same in the historic neighbourhood of Mehrauli.
In the meantime, Singh had also embarked on more ambitious projects, like the Japanese-inspired fine-dining restaurant and bar called Ai in Saket’s MGF mall. He also opened an exclusive nightclub, Lap, in central Delhi’s Samrat hotel in partnership with actor Arjun Rampal. Both these establishments failed to take off, but Singh, instead of worrying about his failures, expanded the brand that had worked—Olive. He launched Olive as a bistro across the country, including in cities such as Hyderabad and Pune. He also tweaked Ai into a more casual format, relaunching it as Guppy by Ai in 2013. Later that year, he started the first SodaBottleOpenerWala, a restaurant that serves Parsi food, in Gurugram, adjoining Delhi. It was an immediate hit and, surprisingly, did equally well in Mumbai, the land of the original Irani café.
Singh’s journey has been one of learning and adaptation. “The failures in our company have taught me and my team a lot. It is interesting that while you might have a clear strategy of penetrating new markets with a particular brand, there are so many things you can’t predict, and that is what makes it exciting,” he says.
In 2006, his company turned in a profit of about Rs25 crore. It has grown exponentially since, and closed the last fiscal year with a turnover that was just under the Rs200 crore mark. There are plans to start outlets in Chandigarh and Goa, as well as overseas, in cities like Colombo and London. “We see opportunity for some of our brands worldwide and are exploring them in different structures. London is first priority as the city has a long exposure to our cuisine and brands like Dishoom are showing the way for new Indian experiences and regional flavours. Other contemporaries like Indian Accent, Gaggan and Farzi Café have showcased Indian food in different parts of the world. And while the risks are bigger, this is definitely the next big direction for us,” says Singh, who plans to take Ek Bar, a quintessentially Indian bar serving artisanal cocktails and modern Indian food, as well as SodaBottleOpenerWala, to London by early next year.
Singh believes Olive’ s growth is due, to a large extent, to the people who make up the company, including chefs Manu Chandra, Sujan Sarkar, Anahita Dhondy and Saby (who has since left the group to helm his own place). There are about 1,650 people working across the different brands . “Our company is built around good people and they are our biggest asset, and we have supported them and helped them grow over the years, and in turn they have helped us grow,” he says.
When Manu Chandra and Chetan Rampal wanted to leave to start their own brand, Singh gave them a chance to branch out under his company. Thus was born Olive Cafes South, which launched successful products like gastropub Monkey Bar, the Asian restaurant Fatty Bao and the stylish East Village-style bar and restaurant Toast & Tonic. The day-to-day running of this vertical is left to them. This is a far cry from the early days of the business, when finding talented individuals was an incredibly difficult proposition. “From then till now, so much has changed, and this year we will have our first batch of retirees, employees who have been with us for the last 15-18 years,” he says.
“Our mission is to build up the company to 100 restaurants by March 2022. And in keeping with this we are trying to open about 14 restaurants a year, and we are fairly committed to this growth and are building all the little pieces required to get there,” says Singh. In this casual-dining space, the APC (average per customer), from Soda to Toast, could be anywhere between Rs500 and Rs1,500, so the idea is to serve up the best quality across every price point.
There is a strong story that permeates every brand, from the chic Tokyo vibe of Hello Guppy, with its Japanese-inspired small plates, to the cheerful Bombay street café vibe of SodaBottleOpenerWala, and the locally inspired modern cuisine and craft cocktails at Toast & Tonic. Singh’s most recent offerings include the Delhi-based Goan-style beach-shack replica Lady Baga, which serves up a slice of the sunshine state with its hippie art and calamari and prawn curries.
What’s his personal favourite? “I love Japanese food. Usually, with the opening of every other restaurant, I put on weight during the run-up to the opening,” says Singh. “But in the case of Ai, I lost weight, and the one dish that I would eat there nearly every day was the udon noodle soup with prawn tempura.The other dish that I keep returning to whenever I am in town is the salmon tartar in Hello Guppy.”
Today, his advice to young entrepreneurs is to have a lawyer on board to protect their interests, be safe, and not invest all the money they have. He admits, however, that “they don’t listen to me as they are as headstrong as I was and raring to go and do their own thing.”
Singh was around when the stand-alone restaurant business came into its own, and it is a continuing spirit of innovation that has kept his business relevant nearly three decades after he started. For him, there really is no business like the food business, complete with the glamour, blood, sweat, tears, and all that wonderful jazz in between.