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Coming to terms with a changing Bengaluru: NRAI Roundtable


Binge_NRAI_Roundtable_BLR_Sep'15Its good to have a table full of really excellent owners. Thanks for coming. The agenda today is to discuss issues that really matter to us restaurateurs here in Bengaluru. There’s a lot going on in this city, which we need to come to terms with. There is no right & wrong, just how we are adapting.

Our host & moderator: Ashish Kothare, MD, Bell Pepper Hospitality & NRAI’s Bengaluru chapter head.

  1. Rajesh Rajaram, MD, Aswati Inns Pvt. Ltd.
  2. Akshat Prasad, partner, Vapour Room.
  3. Kay, partner, KP Groups.
  4. Ravi R. Prabhakar, director, operations, KK Eateries Pvt. Ltd.
  5. Mukesh Tolani, director, ph4 Food & Beverages Pvt. Ltd.

L-R: Ravi, Rajesh, Akshat, Mukesh, Ashish & Kay

Lets start with staffing. How are you holding up?

Rajesh: The battle for talent is becoming tougher, I feel in part because of PE poaching. Foodie start-ups flush with private equity funding are willing to pay much higher salaries because it’s not their money. Naturally it puts a strain on us, but we are sticking to our plan rather than join the bidding war.

Akshat: This cost has almost doubled in the last two-three years. I’m OK with the principle of paying more as living costs have gone up. But, I’m not OK with my good salaries being undermined by what Rajesh just said.

Mukesh: Ours is a growth story because we are most efficient at scale. Staff bidding hits me too, it’s a nasty business and the options are drying up. Getting new staff needs creative ideas. A system needs to be put in place.

Ravi: I agree with Mukesh on trying out some sort of system for background checks & working standards. We are sometimes in desperate situations, it is a factor in considering growth & new ventures. We may never solve this challenge, though it can be brought under control.

Ashish: An internal reference check arrangement is actually a workable idea. Though, in some cases, if we are given wrong info or they threaten to quit if we cross-check. Rajesh & Mukesh, it’s happened with staff from your places.

Mukesh: Yes, I remember those cases.

Ashish: Moving on, yet on the same topic, service charge – who charges what?

  • Ashish: 7.5%
  • Ravi: 5-10%, depending on the outlet
  • Rajesh: 5% bar, 10% food
  • Akshat: 10%
  • Mukesh: 7.5%
  • Kay: 5-10%, depending on the outlet

Costs are going up, it’s a no-brainer. So who on this table has balanced the increased prices by increasing prices?

Ravi: Forget about it. I’ve not increased prices for three years and may not be able to do it for another two years.

Ashish: Then how do you manage Ravi? I too have not been able to raise the price this year, mainly for food. Though for booze, it’s a better picture.

Rajesh: I’ve been able to raise my prices every October by 5-7%. It’s within the acceptable range as its essential & something guests are willing to accept it. 5-7% is within inflation range.

Akshat: Thankfully, I’m in a better position, though pricing is dicey. We’ve increase beverage prices by 30% this year. We had to as alcohol sells more though we package it with great music. It’s working well for us.

Kay: Beverages are up 30% for us too. The balance has to come in somewhere. (Like Kay, Mukesh has increased beverage prices by 30% on spirits only but beer remains the same for the last 4.5 years as we have managed to source our ingredients better and larger volumes have offset increase in rentals & salaries. As per food we increase our pricing by around 7% every year).

Ashish: I’ve a bone to pick with pricing. How can a place sell a beer for 99/- and hope to sustain? What are you guys serving? There is no need to undercut!

Kay: The 99/- beer thing works for us, but it’s not available all the time. We are popular and pricing can be a USP. It defines you.

Ashish: You’ve got to realize that at some point people are coming only because the beer is cheap. It makes us (other pubs, restaurants) do stuff that’s not profitable.

Kay: Such pricing gets people to come in and should be used only selectively. I do not want to be known as a ‘cheap’ place, but I do want to keep such pricing options on the table.

The police! The NRAI’s constant dialogue with the cops has made things a lot easier for Bengaluru’s restaurateurs. What’s your latest experiences?

Ravi: The government was not so involved earlier, not that we are getting a lot of interference now, but it just feels they are more picky and demanding.

Kay: The cops have their good moments, of late they are having many bad ones. I feel they have become arbitrary, like shutting down entire roads at the last minute to enforce a dry day because a religious procession is taking place far away. We were not even on the route & also we were forced to stay closed the whole evening, long after the procession had passed. That’s BS.

Akshat: Yeah, it’s BS because we had an event that evening & had to work really hard to transfer it to another venue. The reservations went for a toss. I’m pretty sure the cops had no clue what they were doing.

Ashish: We have a constant channel open to the police, they too want to keep things open. Like DCP (East) Satich Kumar who’s responsible for 100ft Road. He joined us on our WhatsApp group. It worked well for a few days, until some guys went back to being their old selves and put crappy jokes and stuff against him. The cops are trying too.

Kay: I wonder if he’s still on the group because he’s gone silent. It was a good initiative; lets get it going again.

Then we got scams to deal with. Who’s got good stories to share?

Ravi: How’s this one? Sometime ago, as part of a promo campaign tied in to a charity cause, we were adding a ticket for 500/- that the customer could share with friends or the underprivileged & we would send them the food. The campaign was a hit, but we had a small group who were regularly claiming food against the tickets. Our tickets were nicely done but did not have any security features. They were printing copies of our tickets. We didn’t expect to be scammed for this. Once we realized this, we took them away from the restaurant and had a heart-to-heart chat. No need for cops or a scene in the restaurant.

Akshat: Almost the same thing with us. Our event tickets are in high demand, so people have tried to print copies of our passes. Sometimes they succeed. Now, we’ve improved the security features & stay alert.

Mukesh: We’ve often had people at the gate say they’re ‘Mukesh’s friends’, sometimes to me directly. My top story is probably from a fiction novel. It’s not so much of a scam but of an odd-guy wanting to be popular. He was regular at Toit for a week-or-so and always paid his bill. He even used to buys drinks for other tables. Then he started claiming to be my partner from Dubai and offered guests free food & drinks. Questions started coming from the staff because guests were not paying their bills as the ‘owner himself comped them’. I do not know what he was up to but he stopped coming!

The online world is getting a lot of buzz. Every day we have three guys pitching stuff to me, some good, many are off the mark. How’s it going for you?

Binge_NRAI_Roundtable_BLR_Sep'15Ravi: Yes, we get many techies pitching us with their latest app or gizmo, must be because we’re in techie-town. The online part that irritates me is the reviews and comments. 40% of them are by neighbours and competition, often rubbish and negative. I’ve seen reviews of food we don’t even have on our menu. I’ve stopped reading reviews on Zomato anymore.

Akshat: There has to be some form of moderation. It’s common to get backmailed for discounts and free food in exchange for good reviews on these sites. They used to affect us earlier, not anymore. Reviews are a good thing but most people are basically idiots & don’t do a fair job.

Ravi: Along with techies, we get people wanting to manage our social media. To some we said yes, but the results were not genuine. These social media people make such crazy claims of ranking high on Zomato, FB… and get their fake accounts to boost the scores. It’s a scam for sure. We now manage social media in-house, it’s working well so far.

Akshat: We are focused more on Facebook, which I personally manage. Having someone in-house respond to queries & comments is so much better than an outsider.

Ashish: You guys are doing a fab job Akshay. I try to manage it myself too, but I’d appreciate a helping hand. Got any references?

Mukesh: Sibi & Arun (His colleagues) handle our FB page & Twitter handle. They are clued in & keep the community going.

Ashish: Ok, that’s it. It’s been a really wonderful roundtable. Anyone for a beer?

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