Is the individual restaurant slowly dying?

  • Vir Sanghvi
  • Updated: Jan 23, 2016 21:41 IST

Over the last fortnight, I have been to three restaurants in Delhi. The first was the opening of Zorawar Kalra’s Farzi Café in Connaught Place. The second was lunch at the (also new) Biryani Blues (also in Connaught Place, which is undergoing a renaissance). The third was an old favourite, Royal China in Nehru Place, which is now six years old.

All three were excellent. I actually preferred the new Farzi to the Gurgaon original. For one, it looks better. It is a lovely atmospheric room, with nooks and crannies, in an old Connaught Place building. For another, the food is even better. Chef Saurabh has finally come into his own under Zorawar’s watchful eye and some of the new dishes he has created (including a fabulous pork tikka) will become classics.

Biryani Blues. (Photo: Waseem Gashroo)

Biryani Blues also started out in Gurgaon as a takeaway operation serving authentic Hyderabadi cuisine, but has now opened its first proper restaurant-seating outlet, with much the same menu. The chicken biryani was outstanding and they have taken the trouble to cook their biryanis the authentic Hyderabadi way, which is to say that they cook raw meat and rice together. North Indian biryanis, on the other hand, tend to be assembled with the rice and meat having been cooked separately.

And then, of course, there’s Royal China. It is a giant restaurant and when I first went, I looked at the location (it occupies a high floor in an office building), and wondered how they would ever be able to fill it up. But they have. And they’ve not compromised on the food either. I had some interesting dishes: a cylinder of minced chicken with an eggplant casing, good char siu pork and excellent duck. Plus, they are one of only three restaurants I know in Delhi (the others are Set’z and Yauatcha) that serve cheung fun (a crepe-like dim sum made from rice starch).

That all three restaurants were so good was gratifying. But it was while eating at Royal China that I began to think.

“Does nobody open restaurants any longer?” I wondered. “Do they just open chains?”

Think about it. The Connaught Place Farzi Café is Zorawar’s second. There will be three new Farzis this year: in Bombay, Dubai and probably, Bangalore. The following year, there will be even more. Zorawar will also editionalise his Masala Library. He plans to open an elegant fine-dining version on Janpath in Delhi this year.

One of a kind or one of many? That Farzi Café (above), Royal China and Biryani Blues (top) were so good was gratifying. But I began to think, “Does nobody open restaurants any longer? Do they just open chains?” (Photo by Saumya Khandelwal/ Hindustan Times) (Hindustan Times)

Biryani Blues was always intended to be a takeaway chain. The Connaught Place restaurant is the flagship for the brand. But from the time the first outlet opened in Gurgaon, the owners were clear that they would open at least five or six. (And now, they think they will open more).

Royal China is a chain with many outlets in London. It has branches around the world (including Dubai, Bombay and Poona) and the Delhi operation, which is owned and run by Ashita Relhan, is a franchise, with the London-based owners of the brand sending chefs, checking out menus and supervising standards. But even within that larger global picture, Ashita is keen to expand within the NCR and open a new Royal China.

When did this happen? There was a time when foodies and entrepreneurs dreamt of opening a single restaurant and making it the best in the world. Chefs would long for the day they could open a restaurant that embodied their vision.

But now, nobody wants to open a single restaurant. They want to open many restaurants, all with the same name and the same menu.

My sense is that all this is a consequence of globalisation, of better communication and, of course, of the rise of the big-money private-equity boys.

At one level, there have always been restaurant chains. Everybody in the food business knows the story of how Ray Kroc, who sold milkshake machines, was intrigued to discover that one restaurant was doing so well that it kept ordering more machines. Kroc checked out the restaurant, found it was a hamburger place owned by the McDonald brothers. He bought into the brand, replicated that restaurant all over America and, eventually, all over the world.

So the fast-food industry has worked on a formula that involves creating a successful concept, building the brand and then replicating that concept at thousands of restaurants.

But fast food is not great food and the basis of the McDonald’s/KFC kind of place is that it is idiot-proof. All the ingredients are pre-packaged and the processes are so strong that not only do you not need a chef, even a monkey could “cook” the food. The next tier of table-service chains (TGIF, Pizza Hut, Chili’s) operates on the same basic formula: a chimpanzee can stand in for the chef and nobody would know the difference.

But over the years, the idea that all restaurants can be replicated has grown in popularity. At one level, it makes sense. So much effort goes into getting a single restaurant right that it seems a shame to not get two or three restaurants (or even a dozen) out of it. Once the creative work is done and the menu is finalised, it becomes so much easier to replicate an existing success rather than open a new place.

There is also the power of branding. To some extent that has always mattered. In the Fifties and the Sixties, middle-class Americans believed that Howard Johnson motels guaranteed a certain level of comfort and hygiene. Today Oyo Rooms has filled that slot in India.

So it was with restaurants. Why did our ancestors go to a Kwality? They knew the name and were sure that whether it was Bombay or Ajmer, Kwality would stand for a level of predictable mediocrity.

In today’s world, branding is everything. Take hotels. In the Seventies, for instance, the great hotels never liked to announce they were part of a chain. In London, Claridge’s, The Savoy and The Connaught had the same owners. But each sold itself individually. By the Seventies, Hong Kong’s Mandarin had already bought into the company that owned Bangkok’s The Oriental. But The Oriental resolutely refused to acknowledge that it was part of a chain. So it was with New York’s Waldorf Astoria, which concealed the fact that it was, effectively, a Hilton hotel.

No longer. In today’s world, customers are looking for familiarity. They like the fact that such names as Waldorf Astoria, Raffles, St. Regis or Mandarin Oriental no longer refer to the original properties but chains. Each name has now become a brand. We live in a brand-driven society, cling to advertised names, and are less willing to experiment with something that is unfamiliar.

Plus, there’s the power of communication. People who have never been to Nobu know what the restaurant serves. Hardly anyone in Bombay has been to the Cyber Hub Farzi. But it is one of the most anticipated openings of the year in that city. The great French chefs (Joël Robuchon, Pierre Gagnaire, Alain Ducasse, etc.) were able to turn their names into brands even among people who had never eaten their food. At present, no Indian chef here or abroad (with the possible exception of Gaggan Anand) is well-known enough for people to come to his or her restaurant only because of the power of the brand. But I am willing to bet that within a couple of years that will change too.

My name on the doors: Alain Ducasse (above) and Joël Robuchon (below) have turned their names into brands even among people who have never eaten their food. (Photo by Michael Loccisano/Getty Images for Zero Point Zero Productions)

And finally, there’s the money aspect. Private equity is now fascinated by the restaurant business. The money boys will back new ventures with an enthusiasm that was previously absent.

But here’s the thing: few of these guys will back a single restaurant. To attract funding you have to show them how you will start with four outlets in the first year, expand to 12 in the second and so on. The new rule of thumb is: open one restaurant and nobody in the private equity world will take your call. Say you will open a dozen and the money boys will whoop with joy and chase you around the block.

(Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images for Vegas Uncork'd by Bon Appetit) (Getty Images for Vegas Uncork'd)

The consequence of all this is that the individual restaurant is slowly dying. Everything will become a chain or a mini-chain. The scene will be dominated by people like Riyaz Amlani or my friend, Manu Chandra, who is not only a brilliant chef but has proved to be an astute restaurateur. It is the restaurant companies like Anjan Chatterjee’s Speciality Restaurants and Lite Bite Foods (run by Amit Burman and Rohit Agarwal) that will call the shots.

Is this a good thing? I am neutral on the issue. In my heart, I still like the idea of restaurants that are run by individuals with passion, who come in each morning and look forward to welcoming guests, rather than those run by corporate chains.

But that is a romantic idea. And the restaurant business today is about realism not romance!

From HT Brunch, January 24, 2016

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