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The world on my plate

Does anybody remember the early malls? Does the name Crossroads ring a bell? That was in Bombay. In Delhi, we had Ansal Plaza, which still exists even though it has been overtaken by newer arrivals in Saket, Vasant Kunj and Gurgaon. Vir Sanghvi writes...

india Updated: Jun 11, 2011 17:51 IST
Vir Sanghvi
Vir Sanghvi
Hindustan Times

Does anybody remember the early malls? Does the name Crossroads ring a bell? That was in Bombay. In Delhi, we had Ansal Plaza, which still exists even though it has been overtaken by newer arrivals in Saket, Vasant Kunj and Gurgaon. The early malls had all the text-book features that we associate with the genre: lots of shops, restaurants, escalators etc. But they never seemed right. Anybody who went to a mall in Dubai, Singapore or even Bangkok treated our own home-grown versions as being slightly second-rate.

Its only now, once the mall culture has really caught on in our cities, that we realise what was lacking. In the 21st century, malls do not seem sophisticated unless they stock international brands. Today’s malls will have outlets run by Zara, Promod, DKNY, Nine West and other global labels. The ice-cream will be Baskin Robbins or Haagen Dazs. The coffee will be Costa or Cafe Nero. The fast food will be Pizza Hut, McDonald’s or KFC.

The truth is that we live in an age of global brands. At some subliminal level, we associate sophistication with internationalisation, and internationalisation with branding. It doesn’t matter that all malls everywhere in the world are now the same, selling the same clothes made by the same companies and serving the same fast food. In fact, it’s an advantage. Branding makes us feel sophisticated and secure.

McDonaldsWhen it comes to food, we’ve seen this at the bottom end of the market. The fast food chains – the burger and pizza places – command a premium in customer loyalty because their brands have been built up through millions of dollars worth of advertising all over the world.

At the top end of the market, the situation is slightly more complicated. For a long time restaurateurs believed that people preferred local brands. Then, over a decade ago, that logic began to be challenged. If a man is willing to buy the same Brioni suit in London or Las Vegas, in Singapore or Seattle, or in Dubai and in Delhi, then won’t the same guy be willing to eat the same high-quality meal in each of these cities?

A perfect example is Nobu. When Robert De Niro first met Nobu Matsuhisa in Los Angeles and became his partner in a company that would operate a New York restaurant, neither man knew what he was getting into. Today, the Nobu empire takes in nearly all of the world’s great cities. But here’s the thing: each Nobu is treated as special and exclusive in the city where it is located. Nobody dismisses it as being merely the latest branch of a multi-national conglomerate.

Till now at least, India has been immune to the cult of the up-market global restaurant. Nobu, for instance, has had several false starts here. Six years ago, he nearly tied up with the Taj Group but the deal fell through. Two years ago, he signed up with the Leela chain but that arrangement also collapsed. Last year, he was scheduled to run a pop-up restaurant in Bombay but that trip was cancelled.

We do have a few international collaborations at the top end of the Indian market but they focus on food rather than branding. Nobody in India had heard of Masaharu Morimoto till he opened Wasabi at the Taj. The Oberoi’s collaborations with Rome’s Hassler Hotel (Vetro and Travertino) use Hassler expertise rather than branding. The one ostensible exception – Royal China – is misleading because the London Royal Chinas are not part of a single chain but have individual owners.

Why doesn’t it work here? If we can have a Tom Ford store in Delhi and two Brioni boutiques in India, why can’t we have restaurants run by three-star Michelin chefs?

Last year, I asked Alain Ducasse why he had abandoned plans to open in Bombay. Ducasse said that he had visited the city and had surveyed the market and had decided that Indians would not pay his prices. A few years ago, just after Nobu had signed with the Leela chain, I asked him why he had taken so long to come to India. He said that it was not worth his while to bother unless he could open at least three restaurants, each serving over 150 people at each sitting. At that stage, he was confident that the Leela collaboration would meet these requirements. In fact, the arrangement collapsed and it is rumoured that one reason why last year’s pop-up did not happen was because not enough Bombayites were willing to book tables in advance.

LeelaNow, there are signs that this may be changing. The Delhi Leela will open Megu, a branch of a flashy New York Japanese restaurant, at some stage this year. (Given the Delhi Leela’s history of delays, I am unwilling to provide any specific dates.) Le Cirque, a branch of another New York restaurant (which has already turned itself into a chain, opening versions in such cities as Las Vegas) should also open at the Leela, any day now.

But Hakkasan is already here. It opened on 2 June in Bombay’s Bandra area and has been packed out night after night despite an almost complete absence of advertising or pre-opening publicity.

Some of this early success is probably due to Hakkasan’s reputation and popularity among Indian visitors to London. The restaurant was opened by Alan Yau in London in 2001 and caused an immediate stir because of its buzzy ambience and cutting-edge design. By 2003, it had won a Michelin star (which it still retains) and had changed the face of Chinese restaurants in London. The top 50 restaurants in the world listing put out by the UK’s Restaurant magazine is pretty nonsensical so I hesitate to mention this but by 2004 Hakkasan was number 14 on the list.

I’ve been a fan of Hakkasan from the week it opened but it always struck me as interesting that it was the one London restaurant that all rich Indians loved. If you were to take away the custom of LN Mittal, Naresh Goyal and a few other Indian billionaires, then – I am pretty sure – Hakkasan’s turnover would halve.

I once had a drink with Alan Yau and he told me that Hakkasan made all its money from non-Brits; Indians and Russians mainly. He should have added Arabs, because in 2007 he sold a majority stake in the company to Tasameen, an Abu Dhabi group. By then, Yau had also opened the excellent dim sum tea room, Yauatcha, and this became part of the deal.

Tasameen was clear that the model was Nobu (though, of course, nobody will admit to this in so many words). The new owners closed the one branch that Yau had opened (in Istanbul) and began on a world-wide expansion. In April 2009, Hakkasan opened in Miami. In June 2010 it opened in Abu Dhabi and a few months later, in a Mayfair location in London. The Indian operation will be followed by a Dubai opening and in the next year or so, there will be new Hakkasans in at least six other cities.

The Bombay Hakkasan is a collaboration with Kishor Bajaj of Bada Saab, the tailoring group, who is also the India franchisee for Brioni, which means that he understands the top end of the market. Kishor hopes to open a Yauatcha in nearby Bandra-Kurla in the autumn and there are plans for a Delhi Hakkasan in Mehrauli.

Eventually, says Kishor, there could be eight Hakkasans and Yauatchas all over India. I asked him why he was so confident that Hakkasan would be the pioneer of global branding in the upmarket restaurant space in India. Kishor reckons that Indians like Hakkasan’s food, which I guess is pretty indisputable and thinks that if he can maintain the international quality, then it shouldn’t be difficult filling his restaurants.

Certainly, the global Hakkasan team is taking the Bombay opening very seriously. Chef Tong Chee Hwee, who masterminded the London Hakkasan (and has won chef of the year awards in the UK) flew down to open the Bombay kitchen. The executive chef of the Bombay operation is Kent Lee who has worked with Hakkasan for eight years. Lee has eight other chefs, all flown down from London, working in the kitchen with him.

Unusually for a restaurant company, Hakkasan is managed not by a caterer but by a former banker, Niall Howard, a cerebral Scotsman who brings an international perspective to the company. Niall turned around the London Yauatcha, which, despite the Michelin star, was losing millions, and has great hopes for India. Around 40 per cent of Hakkasan’s London turnover comes from Indians, he says, so why not take the brand to the source of the money? As a global banker, he recognises that the world’s two great growing economies are India and China and I guess he faces a coal-to-Newcastle problem with China, so India is his preferred target.

The signs are that Kishor and Niall have got it right. Hakkasan has begun brilliantly. If they can keep up this momentum, then the era of upmarket global restaurant brands may finally have arrived in India. Perhaps it was all a question of timing. And perhaps the Indian market is now ready for the international restaurant.

- From HT Brunch, June 12

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First Published: Jun 09, 2011 18:52 IST

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