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Small restaurants, owned by chefs, emerge as go-to places for individualistic, gourmet plates


It’s just noon but Hana Ho is already having a busy Sunday. Little Saigon, her little restaurant in Delhi’s tony neighbourhood Hauz Khas, is buzzing. All 16 seats are taken. Most of the lunch crowd wants Ho to suggest what they should order. Vietnamese, after all, is not the most familiar cuisine in the city. Ho takes orders, darts into the kitchen, cooks, plates, serves the food, managing snatches of conversation in between.

Meanwhile, there’s a queue of diners waiting outside. She handles them with no-nonsense composure, at the same time working the telephone, taking reservations for the next day. At Little Saigon, you need to reserve your seat at least a day in advance. It is one of Delhi’s best kept secrets but its fame has been spreading through word-of-mouth ever since it opened two months ago.

Ho used to be a chef at the Taj Palace’s Blue Ginger before it shut down last year. “I went back home to Vietnam for a few months but returned to Delhi because I wanted to showcase the food of my country. There is no authentic Vietnamese food here. So I decided to set this up. There are three partners — two Vietnamese and one Indian,” says Ho, before signing off with a quick, “Theek hai? Namaste.” She then turns to the next lot of diners awaiting her. The one woman army is on a roll.

Micro restaurants, as they are called, have been an elite dining trend in global capitals for some years now. Typically chef-run and -owned, these offer a more intimate eating-out experience than big, mainstream, “commercial” restaurants. Micro restaurants, be it in New York or Singapore, have been the fallout of the hipster culture where everything artisanal is celebrated and at a premium.

In India, artisanal and micro enterprises have traditionally been the norm rather than the exception — what else is Bade Mian’s kheer shop in Lal Kuan, or Rayar’s Mess in Chennai, or scores of one-dish restaurants that are street food legends? As the dining-out culture emerged, people in metros gravitated to big restaurants.

Bite-sized Goodness
However, in the last few months, small restaurants have been grabbing attention and palates. They are individualistic but gourmet, often owned and run by chefs, offering quality experiences at rates that vary from less than what “upscale casual” restaurants charge to fairly expensive.

Less than a kilometre from Little Saigon, in the same neighbourhood, is Cravity, chef Sahil Mehta’s passion project. With four tables, the cheery café serves some of the best patisserie in the country. The buttery sugar-almond croissant is exceptional, more so because quality butter and flour, which forms the backbone of French cooking, is hard to find in India at reasonable prices. There are macaroons, including a version flavoured with Laphroaig whisky, more moist than the dry ones you may be used to eating in India, and a blueberry cheesecake that defies the stereotype of syrupy preserve as topping (Mehta makes a blueberry butter, which is layered on to the cheesecake). For such quality, there is a price: each little treat may set you back by Rs 90-150.

Mehta, who grew up in France and studied patisserie there, was the man behind the plush L’Opera in Delhi’s Khan Market a few years ago that had the chattering classes clamouring for its Rs 140 macaroons. (At Cravity, these are Rs 90 a piece). He left that to consult with Lite Bite Foods’ chain concept The Artful Baker before tiring of the whole consulting game and setting up Cravity four months ago.

“Having grown up in France, where you have good pastry in every corner, I wanted my own neighbourhood cafe; a little bit of Europe in Delhi,” says Mehta. He candidly admits: “When you are consulting, you are only creating competition for yourself. There is always cost-cutting and drop in quality once you leave the project.” Cravity’s desserts are drawing customers not just from the neighbourhood but far away. For now, this is one of the with-it places for NCR’s foodies.

In Mumbai, those in the know will direct you to The Blue in Bandra as the place to eat out. The restaurant with just six tables came up late last year and is the child of the husband-wife team of Seefah Ketchaiyo and Karan Bane. The two worked at the Four Seasons: as the Thai and Japanese chefs respectively of the well-regarded San-Qi. Now, they run their modest kitchen-cum-restaurant, where, if you manage to get a table, the food quality is as top-notch, the menu pretty exhaustive ( Japanese and Thai) and the prices half of what you would pay at a five-star (a bowl of curry costs Rs 350, papaya salad comes for Rs 300). It’s a raging hit — all through word-of-mouth publicity.

The Business of Small
The first of these gourmet-micro restaurants to make a visible mark in the ever-changing, tricky and susceptible-to-failure foodscape was The Bombay Salad Co. Karishma Dalal, a trained chef from the Institute of Hotel Management, Aurangabad, who had briefly worked at the Taj and then consulted with smaller restaurants, came up with her 12-14-cover restaurant in Bandra two years ago. The idea was simple and clear: gourmet salads, often customised, at reasonable prices.

“I was clear that I wanted something of my own and I knew what I wanted to do,” she says. Dalal started using premium ingredients for her salads — avocado, kale, tenderloin, the works. The dressings were made from scratch, in good quality olive oil, two bowl sizes were offered and customisation sought. Then there were trendy dishes like chia and oats puddings and nut milk — all fads of the moment but at reasonable prices to encourage regulars and repeats. The cafe was such a success that in just a few months of its opening, Dalal took up additional space and increased the covers to 34.

How does the business of these small restaurants work? “Because I am a chef and I have let myself go, my food cost is very high,” says Dalal. “Very high” means around 50%. The average food cost for quality restaurants is 25-30% (margins tend to be higher on alcohol). Yet Dalal manages to make a profit after tax of 10-15%, which is quite good for this segment. Volume is obviously the key. The restaurant works because there are substantial takeouts.

“Everyone in the midmarket segment is looking at volumes. When you are investing your own money, you are careful about how you spend it. We invested Rs 30-35 lakh and kept the look very basic, we didn’t go for frills,” she says. Cravity, which opened with an initial investment of Rs 85 lakh, has been operationally profitable from day one, claims Mehta. Takeaway is a big part of his business too. All these models, including Little Saigon, work on quick turnarounds to maximise the number of diners .

Saransh Goila, who opened Goila Butter Chicken in Andheri last year, with just two-three tables fronting what is essentially a delivery-only model, heavily marketed it through social media. He does some number-crunching: “Everyone in the mid-market segment needs to keep rent at 10% of revenues. Bigger, popular restaurants that are part of chains sometimes pay Rs 10 lakh per month as rent, which is why they all look to making Rs 1 crore a month in sales. There are small restaurants in areas such as Bandra that easily do Rs 1 lakh sales a day on weekends. If they do half of that on weekdays and make Rs 20 lakh a month, plus revenue from deliveries which can be substantial, they make a good profit even if they pay Rs 1.5-2 lakh in rent.”

The catch is in the number of seats. Micro restaurants with 12-14 covers, however wonderful they may be for a city’s dining culture, can’t really make a profit. Sustainability becomes a question. Since the high-priced dining of other countries does not work in India, it is believed that a small café/restaurant should have 30-35 seats to make money.

Tie-ups and More
Like Cravity or Goila Butter Chicken, the micro restaurant can be the front of a delivery-focused business. Or, a stepping stone. In Kolkata, Coastal Macha, about six months old, is offering seafood from the southern states — cuisines that are not otherwise found in fish-loving Kolkata. Childhood friends Piyush Shekhar, 27, and Sabrina Mukherjee, 23, who have no prior experience in restaurants, opened Coastal Macha because they did not want to work in a corporate world. They invested Rs 35 lakh in their 30-seater. Shekhar is the chef and does a fair job with the cooking, Mukherjee has been learning operations on the job. The restaurant made a profit last month and is getting a lot of attention.

For some others, micro restaurants are the face of consulting empires. Chef Mujeeb ur Rehman, well-known in hotel circuits and wedding catering circles for his Avadhi food, has been running the 450 sq ft Avadhi Affairs in Lucknow’s Indiranagar, specialising in pulao and kebab for a few years, happy with its monthly profit of Rs 1,50,000.

Then there are those who have tie-ups with big restaurant companies to open their specialty restaurants. At Gurgaon’s One Horizon Centre, the newest restaurant hub in the NCR, Hahn’s Kitchen is not as flashy as some of the big restaurant brands dominating the space. Peter and Cho Hahn, both Korean nationals, have set this up in conjunction with Lite Bite Foods “because we want to popularise authentic Korean food in India. It is so difficult to find it here”. Peter grew up in Delhi and returned to set up a business (not food). A chance encounter with Lite Bite’s Amit Burman, who is also fond of the cuisine, led to the restaurant, where both the Hahns and Lite Bite are equal partners. Cho now runs it, personally interacting with guests, explaining the food, which is not just traditional but contemporary bar fare popular all over the world. It seems like a sustainable model, even if ironically, it is a big company that is behind the mom-and-pop venture.

Just as one size doesn’t fit all, there are different motivations and models at play. For the customer and the country’s food culture, small has just made things more interesting in these otherwise bleak times for restaurants.

Source: The Economic Times

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