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Sunil Kapur | The secret to our stomachs

Sunil Kapur | The secret to our stomachs

There are two dimensions to Sunil Kapur’s personality and it’s the combination of the two that makes him one of India’s most successful restaurateurs. He can be a foodie when he speaks of the 32 ingredients that go into making Copper Chimney’s garam masala; he can be a businessman when he goes into “scalable models". Over the years, Kapur has been able to start and sustain various restaurant brands but the only one that makes him emotional is Copper Chimney, where his journey started.

On the first floor of the landmark restaurant in Worli, our meeting is scheduled before the first batch of early diners starts trooping into one of Mumbai’s longest surviving restaurants, close to the sea near Haji Ali. The first floor, with dark curtains keeping out the evening’s fading light, can also double up as a party hall or can optimistically be termed a “lounge". Kapur chooses a large table to sit on and wraps up a few quick calls on his hyperactive phone before focusing on this conversation. Dressed in a white shirt and dark trousers, he is restless, fast-talking and completely sure of himself.

The travel business, Kapur says, is their next big step in the food business, with TFS already combining proprietary, national and international F&B brands, including KFC, Domino’s Pizza, Cafe Coffee Day, Nirula’s, Cafeccino and Haagen Dazs. He says his is probably the only company in India which has its own brand and franchises with competing companies.

“Each of these verticals is looked after by a business head. All our businesses are scalable models," he repeats. “We are aggressive on growth. We have tried a nightclub, but it’s not scalable for us because it needs personalized attention. So we shut down. That may have been an error of judgement." That’s also the reason, Kapur says, he does not see them getting into very high-end restaurants. “We are looking at the middle and upper middle. For us, value is through scalability. For us, it comes from opening in a large number of cities."

All-time favourite: Kapur says he knows people who have been coming to his restaurant since they were a year old, brought by their parents for just a ‘touch-on-the-lips’ taste of their food. Jayachandran/Mint

“I made my mistakes," he says, “but those days were also about personal relationships, not as professional as everything is today."

At a time when restaurants come and go at a rapid pace, Kapur says the secret of Copper Chimney’s stability is simple. “The biggest plus is it knows what it stands for: consistency. That’s critical. It’s positioned in a place and remains there. Day after day, a customer gets the same experience. Our food tastes the same since 1978. The food has to be finger-licking, of course."

“It has the hero items in the menu," he continues, “five-seven dishes that have established the brand: the Chelo Kebab, chicken Patiala, chicken bharta, which was never made before, the pepper mutton chop… all these have recipes which are traditional and still with us. Some people have trained and grown in the organization because this is like a cottage industry. The recipes are closely guarded. Our masalas get brand loyalty from a customer’s six senses and you get addicted to the food."

The chairman of the 500 crore group often gets food home-delivered from this Copper Chimney, which is across the road. “Eating out is expensive: I have always been a volumes player. I have always tried to offer the best price. The customer never feels he has overpaid, whether it’s the quantity or prices."

For some time a few years ago, he says, it was the norm for “aspirational people" not to eat Indian in restaurants. But the phase has passed and Indian cuisine has come back strongly, he adds. “Indian food is here to stay. In our restaurants, the paneer butter masala and butter chicken still sell more than any others."

For the first two decades, the company’s growth was slow; there were only a few Copper Chimneys—there are now 14. It’s in the early 2000s that Blue Foods, as the company was then called, went beyond Copper Chimney. “There was a need for newer food and presentation as the market was changing," Kapur says. “India was becoming younger, people were travelling…they wanted Indianized versions of all international products. Bombay Blue was multi-cuisine casual; Noodle Bar was Asian, including Thai, Japanese and Chinese. Our restaurants moved from the dimly lit norm of that period to more brightly lit versions."

In 2008, private equity fund Indivision India Partners (Everstone Capital) became a senior partner in Blue Foods (by now called Pan India Food Solutions Pvt.) with the JV. “Coffee Bean was the first international franchise while Gelato was our own creation, though we import some stuff. In 2006, malls started coming in and we wanted to be there," says Kapur. He still fully owns the Copper Chimney in Worli and some of the other branches.

Today, Kapur says, he is following in his father’s footsteps by taking a back seat in the business, letting sons Varun, 27, and Karan, 25, play a leading role instead. “They both run their businesses independently—Karan looks after the travel segment, Varun takes care of the land and high street segment. They keep interchanging but work with synergy. It’s all system-driven now more than firefighting."

But that does not mean he puts his feet up and digs into a seekh kabab from across the road. “Work is my relaxation. I would be more anxious if I was not working," he says. So he travels, looking for new partnerships, new places for his brands. “I lost my father eight years ago," he says. “He missed the expansion. It was his dream to be feeding as many people as possible with varieties."

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