Smriti Parekh was ecstatic when her favourite London restaurant opened up in Bandra-Kurla Complex, Mumbai’s posh new business hub.
Yauatcha, a fine-dine dim-sum and tea house, set up its first-ever branch in Mumbai and is now modelling future international outlets on the design used here.
“I go to Yauatcha whenever London pangs hit,” says Parekh, 25, an advertising professional who spent a year in the UK as a student. “With its blue aquariums and edamame and truffle dumplings, it’s like being back in London for a couple of hours. And the dim sums here are better-crafted than anywhere else in the city.”
Yauatcha is among a growing number of international food brands choosing to cash in on the Mumbai culinary scene before setting up outposts in more cosmopolitan cities such as New York, London, Paris or even Dubai.
Others include London-based Hakkasan, now in Bandra (West), and New York-based Serafina, which will open in Lower Parel by mid-August.
Hakkasan had only two branches outside London — one each in Abu Dhabi and Miami — before it opened in Mumbai. It has since opened in New York and Dubai.
Serafina Mumbai will be that restaurant’s fourth international foray, after Brazil, Tokyo and Moscow.
“Mumbai is currently a hotbed for culinary experiments and endeavours,” says Jeetesh Kaprani, vice president of operations for Ka Hospitality, which brought Hakkasan and Yauatcha to Mumbai. “Tastes here are evolving as more people are travelling more often. This is a great time to invest in the booming culinary space here, and foreign brands are starting to see that.”
The comparative lack of competition is another factor.
“In more cosmopolitan cities such as London and New York, the market for such restaurants is much more saturated than it is in Mumbai’s emerging economy,” says Elisha Saigal, founder and brand strategist at El Sol Strategic Consultants. “In those cities, even an established brand would only be one of many. Here, the market is still very aspirational. People have heard about these restaurants, want access to them and will pay a hefty price for that luxury, so it makes good business sense too.”
But in a country of growing urban markets and aspirations, why Mumbai rather than, say, Delhi?
“Delhi is more set in its ways and still considers fine-dining the prerogative of five-star hotels,” says Kaprani of Ka Hospitality. “A typical young Mumbaiite, however, will visit a Swati Snacks-style fast food joint as frequently as a high-end restaurant, and is always looking for new choices. There aren’t enough restaurants that fall just under the five-star belt, but provide a similar experience. And Mumbai patrons want to invest in places that give them delicious food, a special ambience and an overall experience that gives them an escape from mundane city routine.”
Experts say two other factors are drawing world-class international restaurants to Mumbai — a gap in the standalone fine-dining segment and enterprising Indian partner companies.
“It’s not a huge investment on the brand’s part, but it takes courage for the local franchisee to bring such establishments to Mumbai,” says Nachiket Shetye, executive chef and partner at 36 Oak & Barley and the White Window hospitality company. “However, since the Mumbai market is maturing at all levels, it is worth the gamble. In fact, Hakkasan is now giving other standalone restaurants the confidence to charge five-star hotel restaurant rates.”
One significant challenge, however, is ensuring that the franchise retains the authentic flavours and level of ingredients of the parent restaurant.
“Some ingredients are not available in Mumbai and it would significantly increase costs to import them,” says Caroline McBride, director of public relations for Serafina. “We’re therefore taking our time to craft the menu and find suitable, locally available alternatives for a compromise between consistency in taste and cost.”
Kaprani of Ka Hospitality also cautions that the growing, experimental market only applies to known cuisines such as Italian and Oriental.
“I’m not sure an Ethiopian or Russian restaurant would work here yet, even if it came with a big-name brand,” he says.
Vittorio Assaf, co-owner of Serafina, would agree. “There is a love affair between the sophisticated Indian upper-middle-class and Italian food, which prompted us to open here. Paris and London will eventually come, but at a later stage. Currently, the time is right for Mumbai.”