Three unrelated events over the last fortnight got me thinking. The first had nothing to do with food. I went to see Naked, a one-man show by the stand-up comedian Papa CJ. If you’ve seen CJ’s corporate shows or watched him host events, then you will know that he is witty, genuinely funny and has a great sense of timing.
But Naked was more than just stand-up. It was part comedy, part tragedy and a memoir of his life to date. I found the end, when he talked about his personal life, incredibly moving (I won’t say more for fear of giving away his act). But the bit that got me thinking were his memories of growing up in pre-liberalisation India. He spoke of an era when it was a big deal to get a telephone at home, when hair conditioner was a largely unknown and mysterious commodity, when people still used cameras with film rolls, and about the way we dated at that time.
The second event was food- and hotel-related. I went back to the Hyatt Regency in Bombay after nearly a decade. You may know the Regency, it’s the fancy hotel next to the ITC Maratha on the way to the airport. On the other hand, you might also confuse it with the Grand Hyatt, its much-better-known sibling. The truth is that the Regency is Bombay’s lesser-known Hyatt and perhaps one of the lesser-known hotels in the cluster that has grown up near the airport.
As it turned out, the hotel was terrific. The service was efficient and friendly and I discovered, somewhat to my surprise, that ever since it opened, over a decade ago, the Hyatt Regency has been consistently profitable, which led me to ask: why haven’t more of us heard of it? Why does it crop up so rarely in conversations?
I was there for an event, jointly hosted by Virat Kohli (who got MS Dhoni, Yuvraj Singh, Hardik Pandya and others to perform on stage!) and my friend, the chef Vikas Khanna, in aid of a children’s charity. The Hyatt did a wonderful job and the food, prepared by Vikas’ chefs and the Hyatt team, was much better than you would have a right to expect at such large banquets.
In fact, the food at the hotel, overall, was good. I ate simply at the coffee-shop buffet and from room service and was delighted by the quality of the Indian food. But my question remained: why did nobody talk about a hotel that had good food, organised first-class events, and made lots of money?
My theory is simple. It’s the absence of restaurants. I asked Sudhir Gupta, one of the hotel’s owners, why they had built a hotel with such few outlets. All that the Regency has is a large coffee-shop and an Italian restaurant. Its neighbour, the ITC Maratha, has thrice as many outlets and down the road, there is the Leela, with Le Cirque, Citrus, Great Wall, and all the others.
Sudhir Gupta said that when they made the original design over a decade ago, they had taken a calculated decision to open fewer restaurants because they didn’t see much of a market in Sahar.
Which brings me to the third event. I spoke last week to the graduating class at the Oberoi Centre for Learning and Development, easily the most prestigious hotel school in India, if not in Asia. Students were bright and sharp (and astonishingly well-informed) and we discussed how the world of hotels would change by the time they became general managers.
Because they were all so young, I followed in the footsteps of Papa CJ and told them how different pre-liberalisation India was. Unless you had actually lived through that era, it was hard to reconcile today’s India with a country where the only chains that counted were Taj and Oberoi, and people sometimes even went voluntarily to ITDC hotels.
Since then, many things have changed in the hotel sector. ITC is now a major player and the Leela Group has a reputation for quality. But the big change has been the invasion of the foreign hotel chains. Nearly every international group of consequence is now in India and all the others are struggling to get in.
What then, would be the distinguishing factor of a successful hotel? Some of the answers are obvious: good service, great location, nice rooms, etc. But we sometimes forget the important role played by hotel restaurants in creating a connect with the local community. The Oberois are a much older chain than the Taj. But when the Taj had them on the run, in the early 80s, it was almost entirely because of the excellence of the Taj’s food and its restaurants. It is the Taj that opened India’s first authentic Italian restaurant (Casa Medici in Delhi), introduced south Indian food to hotel dining (Karavali, Rain Tree, and Konkan Café among others) and changed the way in which Indians looked at Chinese food with the Golden Dragon and House of Ming. In many ways, Varq, Wasabi and Thai Pavilion were also huge breakthroughs.
The Oberois took much longer to get it right. Baan Thai never got the acclaim it deserved despite being a pioneer. The Brasseries never really worked. And the Mughal Rooms were essentially Kwality food at five-star prices. Only with the opening of 360 did their focus change and now with Ziya, Amaranta and so many others, they are now players in the restaurant space.
I reckoned that the foreign chains that made an impact were those that took restauranting seriously. The Hyatt Regency in Delhi is your basic five-star with smallish rooms. But because it has always had excellent restaurants (La Piazza was a trendsetter, as was Djinns at its time and China Kitchen is the single-best Chinese restaurant in India), it has had a profile that is on par with any hotel in India. So it is with the JW Marriot in Juhu, which may have the best food of any hotel in north Bombay.
Other hotels are now learning the importance of restaurants. ITC are world champions when it comes to Indian food but the chain’s recent successful openings (Ottimo, Edo, Tian, etc) suggest that it has broadened its ambition. The Delhi Shangri-La, which had a pretty disastrous opening, has now transformed its image because of three massively successful new restaurants.
But as I told the OCLD class, it is now more difficult than ever to open a successful hotel restaurant. The explosion in the standalone sector has been such that there is very little that hotel restaurants can offer by way of excellence in cuisine unless they really work at it.
Modern Japanese used to be a novelty, restricted to hotels, but now the standalones are hiring the same chefs and turning to the same suppliers. So it is with European food. If you were going out for dinner in Bombay and had the choice of going to the Table or Café Zoe, would you really pay so much more to go to a hotel restaurant? And even modern Indian, which the hotels ignored for so long, has now become a standalone phenomenon. The Indian Accents, Masala Libraries, Farzi Cafés and Bombay Canteens are cheaper, hipper, and far better than most hotel restaurants.
That, in a sense, is the challenge faced by hotels. If you want to seem like a happening place and have a connect with your city, then you must open restaurants that are both popular and talked about. And yet, at no time in our history, has it been more difficult for hoteliers to open successful restaurants. Partly, it is that there are so many new hotels with new restaurants coming up every month. But mostly it is that in the post-liberalisation era, when anyone can import anything, and more people have money to spend on food than ever before, the standalone sector has exploded. By and large, the top standalones do food that is easily the equal of hotel restaurants. And in almost every case, they are much cheaper.
So, Papa CJ can’t be the only one who is nostalgic about the pre-liberalisation era. Many old Indian hoteliers probably share his nostalgia.
From HT Brunch, June 19, 2016
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