A silent revolution is sweeping across the Indian restaurant scene. And I’m not sure if all of us – and especially those in the hospitality and catering businesses – are paying it the kind of attention it deserves.
Until recently, we had two kinds of restaurants in India: hotel and stand-alone. Most stand-alone restaurants did not aspire to the standards of the hotel places and when they did reach those levels, they became widely talked about phenomena: Diva in Delhi, the original China Garden in Bombay and over the last decade, Indigo and Olive all over India.
For many years, the scene remained unchanged except for the arrival of what the trade calls Quick Service Restaurants (QSR) and what you and I would call fast food outlets. While the success of McDonald’s altered Indian eating habits, it did not make much difference to the restaurant sector.
The current revolution however, has the potential to completely alter the Indian food scene. For many years – and even today – you required a high level of courage to open a restaurant in an Indian city. Premises were hard to find. Property titles were in dispute. Landlords demanded rent in cash. The Municipal Corporation made your life difficult. Electricity and water were elusive commodities. The local police station asked for monthly hafta. And so on.
Consequently, the growth of the stand-alone sector was severely curtailed despite indications that demand was growing. Restaurateurs got into partnerships with dodgy characters only because the dodgy guys owned the spaces where you could open restaurants. Perfectly good restaurants went out of business because chefs and managers could not cope with the pressure and the corruption.
But now, the development of shopping malls all over the country has made it possible for restaurateurs to function without having to worry at all about dodgy landlords and corrupt Municipal officials. Moreover, the basics – water, electricity, security, airconditioning etc – are all guaranteed. Nor do restaurateurs have to spend money on marketing and advertising to announce their presence. At the malls, the customers are there for the taking.
Traditional restaurateurs argue that malls will only support QSR operations. This is nonsense. The most successful stand-alone restaurant in Delhi, Setz (the old Zest) is on top of the DLF Emporio mall. The mall next door hosts a flourishing outpost of the Smokehouse Grill empire. At the Select Citywalk mall in Saket, you will find branches of Amici and Mamagoto. None of these are
Quick Service operations.
What’s more significant is that a new breed of restaurants is developing because of the opportunities afforded by the malls. A single company, Lite Bite Foods, is fast emerging as one of the biggest players in the quality mall-based dining sector. Lite Bite owns Asia7 (three outlets), Punjab Grill (four outlets), Fresco (five outlets), Baker Street (seven outlets) and is expanding wildly. Within the traditional restaurant sector, it would be unthinkable to have opened 19 outlets in under three-and-a-half years in two different cities (Bombay and Delhi) with four different restaurant concepts.
The other big boy on the block is Blue Foods, which runs food courts and owns many restaurant brands, the star of which is Spaghetti Kitchen which has seven outlets and will open another eight in the next six months. There are many other smaller players and more will enter the business.
More significant is that these are restaurants that take food seriously. Lite Bite has Bakshish Dean (formerly of the Taj and Park chains) as its executive chef. Spaghetti Kitchen is the creation of Bill Marchetti, still best known as the only celebrity chef to have ever worked for ITC and not known how to make a kabab or a biryani. Punjab Grill, the most successful of Lite Bite’s concepts, is built around Jiggs Kalra’s recipes and run by his son Zorawar.
All of them have found that if you provide quality, people are willing to pay for it. Lite Bite aims for an average check of R750 per head and Spaghetti Kitchen has no difficulty in attracting customers who are willing to spend R1,000 per head.
I have been to some of these restaurants and the truth is that their food standards are actually much higher than the standards of the average stand-alone urban restaurant. The Asian food at Asia7 is just below five star quality. The Italian food at Spaghetti Kitchen is far more elaborate than the name would suggest and the menu is packed with imported ingredients that you would not expect to find in mall restaurants.
What’s more, most of the new restaurant companies work on a very different model from the traditional entrepreneur-driven pattern of Indian stand-alones. They are all corporate enterprises, some of them with global investors and nearly all pride themselves on quality and service levels. There is admittedly, a certain blandness about all chain restaurants. But within those parameters, it is hard to deny that they offer a guarantee of food quality. You walk into a Punjab Grill in Bombay’s Palladium Mall and are assured that you will get the dish you liked at Delhi’s Select Citywalk cooked in exactly the same way.
What makes these restaurants so successful? I have two theories. The first is that the demand was always there. Rohit Aggarwal, one of the partners at Lite Bite, tells me that he is astonished by how knowledgeable and curious his customers are. Not only do they understand the basics of Asian food, they are also not shy about finding out more. Moreover, many now want to order wine with their meals and ask questions about the difference between Merlot and Shiraz or Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc.
My guess is that the rising middle class’s hunger for food experiences was thwarted by the unwillingness of existing stand-alones to adapt, by the relatively low number of stand-alone restaurants and by the high prices charged by five star hotels. Once somebody provided quality food experiences at prices that were not outrageous, the revolution was underway.
My second theory has to do with the emergence of the mall as a middle class entertainment centre. In American small towns, the mall has taken the place of the main street or the town square. It is where people gather to eat, meet, see movies and buy things. Young people prefer to hang out at malls – even if they don’t buy anything – rather than go anywhere else.
I know of many people who work hard all week and then go off to the mall on weekends as a treat. They may do a little shopping. They usually see a movie. And then, they end up having dinner there before going home.
I asked Rohit Aggarwal whether the experience of his mall restaurants mirrored this lifestyle change. It did indeed, he said. Something like 50 per cent of his revenues were collected over the weekend. Bill Marchetti said that even Spaghetti Kitchen made much of its profit on the weekend. Though Setz is located in a mall, it is hardly your average mall restaurant. But even then, according to Prasanjit Singh, who runs Setz, at least 15 per cent of his weekend guests are people who have come to see a movie at the mall.
It is fashionable to sneer at the mall culture. The traditional upper middle class regards those who spend their Sundays at malls with disdain. Frankly, I can’t see the point of the prejudice. What is the difference between going to say, DLF Promenade or Select Citywalk and going to Delhi’s Khan Market? Both are retail experiences. The only points of difference are one, that it is easier to find parking at a mall and two, the food at the malls is usually better than the over-priced rubbish served up by several Khan Market establishments. (Of course, there are honourable exceptions at Khan Market – the pizzas at Amici, the food at Latitude etc).
My friend Ritu Dalmia is one of those who says she has little time for the mall culture. She says that she can’t imagine eating a quality meal in a shopping space. Moreover, she says, malls levy huge maintenance charges which make it difficult for restaurants to turn a profit unless they turn over their tables quickly. This means that it is difficult to run a mall restaurant with passion and love.
Another criticism of mall dining is the familiar one of sameness. All malls end up looking the same and if the restaurants are also the same then the result can sometimes be depressing. (Say this for Ritu: all her restaurants and cafes have distinctive characters).
On the other hand, I find that many Indian hotels also have a depressing sameness. And Indian hotel chains are also cloning their restaurants. (The Oberois started it with the Mughal Rooms and the Kandahars, the Taj now has two Wasabis and many Masala restaurants while ITC runs Dakshin and Dum Pukht variants in most cities). So is it really fair to criticise the mall restaurants alone for their sameness?
The significance of the mall restaurants is that for the first time, restaurateurs have found a way around the restrictions imposed by India’s corrupt real estate scene. And because they offer corporate levels of quality at non-five star prices, they provide the emerging Indian middle class with a chance to eat better than ever before. Surely, that is something worth applauding?
But the revolution has just begun. In five years, the levels of mall dining will rise. And even the hotels will begin to feel the pinch.
- From HT Brunch, March 6
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