The Micro Biz
Small, individualistic restaurants with just 12-14 seats are serving gourmet bites. Been to one?
By Anoothi Vishal
It’s just 12 noon but Hana Ho is already having a busy Sunday. Little Saigon, her little restaurant in Delhi’s tony residential neighbourhood Hauz Khas, is buzzing. All 16 seats are taken. Most of the lunch crowd wants Hana to make suggestions. Vietnamese, after all, is not the most familiar of cuisines in the city. Hana takes the 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, working the telephone at the same time taking reservations for the next day. At Little Saigon, you need to book at least a day in advance to find a place. It is, as yet, one of Delhi’s best-kept secrets but whose fame is spreading through word-of-mouth in the two months since it opened.
Hana Ho used to be a chef at the Taj Palace’s Blue Ginger before that shut last year. “I went back home for a few months but came back 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. We are two Vietnamese and one Indian partner,” says Hana, signing off with a quick, “theek hai? Namaste.” because the next lot of diners awaits her. The one-woman army of chef-waitress-manager is on a roll.
“Micro restaurants”, as they are dubbed, 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, obviously “commercial” restaurants. In a way, the micro restaurants, whether in New York or Singapore, have been the fallout of the hipster culture where everything artisanal is celebrated and at a premium.
In India, on the other hand, artisanal and micro enterprises have traditionally been the norm rather than exceptions — 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 our street food legends? As the new restaurant culture emerged therefore aspiring diners in the metros naturally gravitated to newer experiences offered by big restaurant companies, often fuelled by private equity funding, offering through their chains the same “lifestyle” experience to diners whether they be in Hyderabad or Gurgaon.
However, in the last few months, small restaurants have been grabbing attention and palates. They are individualistic but gourmet, often owned and run by professional chefs, offering quality experiences at prices which vary— from below what “upscale casual” restaurants charge to the fairly expensive.
Less than a kilometre away 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 the quality of the butter and flour that forms the backbone of French cooking is (ironically) hard to find in India at reasonable prices. There are macarons, including a version flavoured with Laphroaig whisky, more mosit 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 premium: each little treat may set you back by Rs 90-150 per piece.
Mehta, who grew up in France and studied pattisserie 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 macarons. (At Cravity, these are now Rs 90 a piece). He left that to consult with Litebite 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 such good pastry at 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. When you have investors, there is always cost-cutting and drop in quality once you leave the project.” Cravity’s quality desserts are drawing customers not just from the neighbourhood but far away. For now, this is one of the with it places for the NCR’s foodies.
In Mumbai, on the other hand, 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 and wife team Seefah Ketchaiyo and Karan Bane. The two worked at the Four Seasons as the Thai and Japanese chef respectively at 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 exhaustive (Japanese and Thai) and the prices half of what you’d pay at a five-star (a bowl of curry costs Rs 350, papaya salad costs 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 always-changing, tricky and susceptible-to-failure foodscape was The Bombay Salad Co. Karishma Dalal, a trained chef from IHM Aurangabad, who had worked at the Taj briefly and consulted with smaller restaurants after that 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 also clear on what I wanted to do,” she says. Dalal started using premium ingredients for her salads–avocados, kale, tenderloin… the works. All 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 café was such a success that in just a few months of opening it, 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” ranges in the 50 per cent range! The average food cost for quality restaurants is around 25-30 per cent (margins tend to be higher on alcohol). Yet Dalal manages to make profit after tax of 10-15 per cent, which is quite good for this segment. Volume is obviously the key. The restaurant works because there are substantial takeaways too. “Any one in the mid market segment is looking at volumes. What happens when you are investing your own money is that you are careful about how you spend it. We invested 30-35 lakh and kept the look very basic, we didn’t go for frills,” she points out.
Cravity that opened with an intial investment of Rs 85 lakh, has been operationally profitable from day one, says Mehta. Naturally, takeaway is a big part of his business too. All these model, including Vietnamese food at Little Saigon, work on quick turn-arounds to maximise the number of diners.
Saransh Goila, who opened Goila Butter Chicken in Andheri last year, with just 2-3 tables fronting what is essentially a delivery-only model heavily marketed through Goila’s social media, does some number crunching with us. “Everyone in the industry in the mid market segment looks at rent to be 10 per cent of the revenues. Popular, bigger restaurants that are part of chains sometimes pay Rs 10 lakh per month as rent, which is why they all look at 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. Even if they do less, half of that on weekdays, and make Rs 30-40 lakh a month in revenue, and pay Rs 1.5-2 lakh in rent, they make a good profit,” he points out.
The catch of course is in the number of seats a restaurant has. Micro 12-14 seaters, however wonderful they may be for a city’s dining culture, can’t really make a profit for their owners. Sustainability thus becomes a question. The optimum size for a small café/restaurant in the current scenario, for it to make money, is 30-35 seats, it is commonly believed because beyond a point really high-priced dining of the kind that works in other cities of the world does not in India.
Like Cravity or Goila Butter Chicken, the micro restaurant can thus be the face of a delivery-focussed business. Or, a stepping stone. In Kolkata, Coastal Macha, just a couple of months old, is offering seafood from the southern states— cuisines not found in fish-loving Kolkata otherwise. 27-year-old Piyush Shekhar and 23-year-old Sabrina Mukherjee both without prior experience in restaurants opened it because they did not want to work in the corporate world after finishing their education. The two, childhood friends, 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 is six months old and made a profit last month finally. It is getting a lot of attention though.
Others use their micro restaurants as the faces of consulting empires. Chef Rehman Mujeebur, well-known in the hotel circuits and for wedding caterings for his Avadhi food, has been running the 450-sq-feet Avadhi Affairs in Lucknow’s Indiranagar, specialising in pulao and kebab for a few years, happy with its monthly Rs 1,50,000 profit.
Then, there are those who have tie-up with big restaurant companies to open their speciality 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 LiteBite 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 LitBite’s Amit Burman, who is also fond of the cuisine, led to the restaurant, where both the Hahns and LiteBite are equal partners. Cho now runs it, personally interacting with guests, explaining the food, which is not just traditional but contemporary bar fare too 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 different models at play. For the customer, however, and the country’s food culture, small has just made things more interesting in the otherwise bleak times for restaurants.
(The article appeared in The Economic Times Magazine on Sunday)
The bar-crawl through SOBO’s poshest
By Miss Marmalade
Disclaimer: Advance apologies for excessive use of ‘air quotes’. Reader discretion is advised.
Every now and then, one has to prove that one is ‘happily’ single. And to do that, one has to do ‘single’ things. Go to a nightclub and dance till the ankles hurt because one is wearing heels after a year. Get drunk and stare at an ex-boyfriend’s Facebook profile picture and laugh because he now looks older than you, and cry because he is holidaying in Crete and you are stuck with shoddy company. Buy clothes that make you look ‘hotter’ when there’s no chance in hell that you’ll succeed.
See the thing is, being single is a lot of work. You're dealing with bad dates that should end before they begin, good dates that won't go anywhere because you're simply unfortunate, and the worst - mediocre dates because you are inching towards 'fine! I'll settle this time'. Plus, you’re constantly suspecting other singles who want to 'de-single' you. Which is why, the most important thing you can do is take a holiday with another single friend, just so you can leave all the shenanigans of romance behind for a change. I did the last one with absolute joy. Actually I’ve done all of the above, but the last one is the least painful.
My Dilliwali friend – let’s call her DF - needed a break too. She didn’t decide that. I did. So I ‘arm twisted’ her to come to Mumbai with me. “Arrey, we will eat and get fat. Drink and get dirty,” I told her. My sales pitch, no matter how sleazy, worked!
Checking into a posh hotel, complete with an absolutely useless bowl of terrarium in the room – actually I stared at it for a really long time and wondered of its purpose in life – and divine soft towels, we planned our ‘gastronomical’ vacay.
First stop was this lovely little joint in Bandra. In fact it is so little, that eavesdropping is almost customary. No one will frown at you if you overhear your neighbouring table talking about their friend’s bizarre romantic escapades. I love eavesdropping – it makes me feel human. I know so much about so many people that I don’t know, that I could start something called ‘wikipeople’.
DF and I gushed over a raw papaya salad for a while, and only because everything else we ate after that was so ‘meh’ that she and I began talking about another restaurant instead. Apparently, it’s rude. The crispy fried pork is the reason I need dentures. And what’s with people adding capsicum to things all the time? It’s like ‘when in doubt, add capsicum’. And there was no daaru to help us forget that afternoon either. But there was no way we were going to let our holiday be ruined by over-fried food.
Comfortably tucked under our blankets in the hotel room later in the afternoon, we decided to that we could do better than that. And better we did.
Bar hopping is always a solution to emotional problems. And you could be a teetotaller too. Who cares? Just walk into a hip bar, order the quintessential lemon soda because most bars in this country consider the simply syrup to be the key ingredient of a mocktail, and watch people. Also eat. Eat so much that you need to be sent home in a taxi later.
But DF and I had ‘posh’ plans.
Bar #1: An evening in a classy new bar means blow-dried hair and lots of lipstick. DF and I looked rather dapper, even if I say so myself, as we made the bartender change her one cocktail only about three times. They simple wouldn’t get it right. I on the other hand couldn’t decide between a whisky and a Bloody Mary, and therefore I had both. Now I love popcorn - how delightfully plebeian you’d think – and can eat them even when it’s flavoured with exotic spices. But some of the other appetisers were more complicated than my last relationship. Now here’s the thing – I love experimenting with food. But I never did well at chemistry. And when it comes to art, I prefer stories, not abstract ‘colour blocking on canvas’ that sells for millions. But a lot of the food, while it tasted good – good textures, flavours, and even portioned right – went wayyyy over my head when it came to the complexity of the presentation. Probably because I was a little too tipsy to notice the little nuances, and we really had to get to the next bar.
Bar #2: Here, my dear friends, ‘haleem’ was on the menu. Now, unless you absolutely trust the haleem maker, you must never eat it after midnight. It’s not written anywhere, but someone ought to. That haleem was the worst I have ever had. And not because it was bad, but because it tasted of, guess what, NOTHING. My cocktail was equally blah, for the lack of a more appropriate term. So I let both of them ‘age’ on the table. DF and another friend, who’d joined us by then, were much nicer to their drinks. The three of us then tottered out in the lovely rainy night of Mumbai – never wear a white dress when it’s raining – because Sia sang Never Give Up. It goes something like this: “But I won't never give up, no, never give up, no, no. No, I won't never give up, no, never give up, no, no.” You get the drift right?
Bar #3: WHY? Why would you have a cocktail menu where the drinks have more description under their names than one can read? And why would these cocktails taste like a bad film where the lead actors should have never been paired together? Something like a Kareena Kapoor-Akshay Kumar flick. This is when selfies come to the rescue. Take enough photos of yourself so that the trauma of having to drink something more complex than the Cold War is alleviated.
Tottering outside at a godforsaken hour, we went back to our hotel room, feeling so delightfully single.
We also switched to diet soda the following day, and ate a cheese platter and stir-fried crabs – like posh people – at a lovely restaurant at one of Mumbai’s suburban business districts. That’s when DF and I realised that many restaurants don’t want you to pay for what you eat. We tried all sorts of gestures – except the obvious one – to ask for the bill. But no, these blokes were completely unwilling to oblige. Ideally, I would have walked off, but we aren’t in college anymore. Why is the service industry in this country as efficient as our country’s civic workers?
We also decided not to eat like that again. I don’t know about DF but my whole enthusiasm towards “let’s eat and get fat” had gone a bit far. And now I am munching on carrots and celery sticks and wondering what to wear to rather weird date tonight. More on that later…
(Single and ready to mingle in restaurants, Miss Marmalade, our new humour columnist, is highly discerning when it comes to both food and people)
In which Miss Marmalade makes toast of a youthful breakfast/pub/who cares place
By Miss Marmalade
There are a few places in town one should not even think of going to after one has crossed 30. I only wish that this thought had come to me before, and not after, I was already at a place that I should not have thought of going to, now that I am way on the wrong side of 30. This sentence ought to confuse you as much as it confused me when I wrote it. If it hasn’t, you have achieved inner peace. Congratulations.
Now ideally it would require a cranelift to get me out of the house on a Sunday. I keep the day for my domestic chores, and they are sacrosanct. For instance, not making the bed; ordering in coffee when it takes me only five minutes or so to make a mug; watering both my disgruntled plants and going back to bed; skipping breakfast; ordering lunch; binge-watching murder related things on the internet. I don’t always do these alone; there’s always another equally committed soul around to share these tasks.
But last Sunday was different. Firstly because I was going to check out a place everyone was talking about – mostly for its ambience – and secondly, I had made the plan four days earlier, and was threatened of dire consequences if I cancelled. Some of you might know how that feels. This joint’s other brothers exude a cool and funky vibe. And I wanted to be cool. The drinks are mostly rubbish, and the food makes little sense to me. Except for their cheese chilli toast. But it’s a place where you can hang out at without having to worry about your clothes. Plus the beer is cheap, and I have cheap friends.
So there I was, with my ultra-intelligent and ultra-single friend at this seriously pretty restaurant. Or is a café? Or a pub? Oh, who gives a damn. It was eleven in the morning, which typically would still be Saturday night for me. But I had promised. I also realised that once in a while one has to be mature enough to make exceptions. Plus the thought of bacon, scrambled eggs, crisp toast (I am quite allergic to gluten) with jam, and other delicious and forbidden things were as tempting as Tom Hiddleston. I got to the restaraurant/café/pub (GAH!) as fast as my Uber perennially-on-the-phone-driver could take me.
Dear chef, revenge is a dish best served cold. Not breakfast. Unless I order yoghurt with various exotic fruits and berries and seeds, or cereal with cold milk, or something similar.
Toast cannot be cold.
Scrambled eggs cannot be served at room temperature.
Bacon cannot be cold. Most definitely not. No way Jose!
But you chose the one day I lugged myself out of the house to remind me that I had reached my threshold for BS five years ago. And I truly am way on the wrong side of 32. They didn’t warn you about us at culinary school, did they?
Having said that, I have to give it to them for making hash browns the way I like it, because I don’t like hash browns. And the baked beans came out of a tin (hurrah!), and the scrambled eggs hadn’t yet begun to turn rubbery because the eggs were feeling a little slow that day, and probably also because bacon said: “Hey, it’s my turn to taste like cardboard today!”
The toast looked toasted, but tasted like it was done the previous afternoon. And they forgot the butter, and when they eventually did remember (after I reminded them twice), they gave the butter and jam in the same little dipping bowl. Together.
“This is a place for the youngsters. They don’t care if a tiny drop of jam touches the butter. Don’t be a punctilious b****,” my other self kept reminding me. My friend was blissfully unaware of this ‘breakfast’ that was sitting on the table. He’s the kind you can talk to about politics and art for hours – and I don’t know much about either. This was the only time the chewy bacon came handy. Stuff your face with it and no one cares to know about your political affiliations. He was sipping on cappuccino that, and I kid you not, comes in a goblet like thing whose handle is literally near the base. “The centre of gravity of this thing is all wrong,” he says to me. But I was in no position to respond. My mouth was stuffed with bacon that I had already been chewing for the last hour.
We managed to stay there for an hour and a half – chewy bacon, smoke breaks, waiting for that darn butter for the toast – and got out. I needed a seriously calorific chocolate éclair later from a place near my house to recover from the trauma.
(Single and ready to mingle in restaurants, Miss Marmalade, our humour columnist, is highly discerning when it comes to food and people)
In a no holds barred piece, chef Floyd Cardoz tells us where to find the best Indian food in the US; and why he thinks restaurant in the “West” generally do a better job than Indian restaurants in India!
By Floyd Cardoz
When I moved to the US in 1988, the only good Indian food you could eat out was the dosa. I didn’t see any of the Maharashtrian or Goan Catholic food I had grown up on. It’s ironic that over the years the expression of Indian food in NYC only became all the more bastardised. It was the same saag paneer and chicken tikka masala, and theone-pot curries that were being adapted to fit many dishes. And that practice continues even today.
It’s probably one of the reasons why I never wanted to start an Indian restaurant back then.
There were a few exceptions though. The erstwhile Raga by The Taj group, at Rockerfeller Centre had incredible food, for instance. It’s not that the chefs and cooks who came to work in the US in the first place didn’t know anything about Indian food – they were knowledgeable - but replacing them was arduous. And then immigrants, who were primarily famers and truck drivers started to work at the restaurants. Most of them had never cooked before, and the game of Chinese Whispers with recipes began. That led to guests who had practically no clue about about good Indian food. A wide gap developed between those who loved the cuisine, and those who didn’t. And therefore were probably more haters.
In 1997, Danny (Meyer) asked me to join hands with him to open the Indian restaurantTabla. It was an opportunity for me to introduce a new perspective to the cuisine, and to familiarize people with the flavours of India – one that was not really Indian per se, but had an Indian soul. We began to give Americans the food they hadn’t eaten before - Patrani Machhi for instance - and not the 6th Street (also known as Little India) versions. And these dishes were presented in a way Americans could connect with. We sourced local ingredients, and not ingredients only from India.
In fact, what I am doing today is sourcing farmers in the United States who are willing to grown Indian ingredients in the seasons they are supposed to be grown in the US – squashes and greens for example.
When Tabla closed in 2011, I thought someone would take over the work I had started and continue to cook food that was user friendly, but nothing happened. Smaller places came and went, and we reached status quo. Indian food went back to its good old place, and no one was willing to take a chance. But the most interesting part is that American chefs were all the while travelling to India to explore our amazing cuisine.
Americans are adventurous, and they are willing to try. Of course there are still those who go back for the curry and kebab, but a lot of them are now eating new dishes not seen in the West - fish reachado, sorpotol, pao and choriz for instance – things they’ve never seen anywhere else.
To me, modern Indian food (and I use the term loosely) is all about looking at food differently. Really old recipes that you pull out, ones that people haven’t really seen, and execute it with ingredients from that region, and serve it in a non-traditional way. For instance, you should be able to eat multiple small plates, such as a pakoda, balchao, and kebab, so that you can try more dishes. Traditional Indian food was not like that in the US – it was all about big dishes.
There are quite a few chefs here that are doing a good job with the cuisine today. There’s Vishwesh Bhatt of Snackbar at Oxford, Mississippi; Anita Jaisinghani of Pondicheri in New York, Asha Gomez (owner of Spice to Table, and Third Space) from Atlanta, and Srijith Gopinathan at Taj Campton Place, and Vikram Vij in Vancouver – all these guys are doing great things with Indian food.
Now if you look at Indian food back in India – I find that the chefs in the West do a much better job. There are of course a few chefs here who are doing good work too. They bring the knowledge and passion on to the table – something that’s extremely important. But restaurants in the West believe food should first speak to the soul of the guest, instead of trying to shock them. Very few chefs in India get the fact that it’s important to consider all the important elements in a dish. Chefs in the US are much better at balancing all the right flavours.
Restaurants in India use a lot of smoke and mirrors; it’s almost Bollywood-isation of the cuisine. But chefs who are successful connect with the soul, and it takes a lot for them to break down the barriers and say, “I have the guts to do things differently because I believe in them”. That’s what we wanted to do with Bombay Canteen in Mumbai. Our vision was simple; serve food we had grown up on, and source local ingredients. That’s what makes restaurants special.
Over time Americans have come to understand that Indian food is not just about flavour but also about health benefits. Take the turmeric drink for instance; it’s quite the rage here.My journey in this business has been a big learning curve. Today I am unafraid to present what I want to, and I don’t have to explain myself to anyone.
And to get there, passion is key, at least nine out of 10 times. You just have to cook from a place within your soul.
Floyd Cardoz, the celebrated Indian-American Chef, is the Culinary Director and Partner at The Bombay Canteen, Bombay. He is also Chef –Owner of the recently opened modern Indian restaurant ‘Paowalla’, in NYC. Winner of Top Chef Masters Season 3 in 2012, Floyd is also the author of two cookbooks, One Spice Two Spice and Flavorwalla. A four-time James Beard Award nominee,Floyd regularly works with Share our Strength, City Harvest, C-CAP: Careers through Culinary Arts Program, and Young Scientists Foundation.