Innovative restaurateurs who took on the pandemic

Even through one of the worst crises of our times, there were some who dared to dream and face uncertainties head on.

Even before the pandemic hit last year, F&B was always a tough business. The overheads start accruing even before customers walk in and the lockdowns only went on to cripple the industry further. But even through the crisis, some restaurateurs saw hope, and with the vision that once the lockdowns lifted, patrons would be raring to go out for a meal, they created spaces to cater to that demand.

We caught up with some of these dreamers to try and understand what it has been like to set up a restaurant in these challenging times and what drives them to take such a bold step.

Abhayraj Singh Kohli

Tori, the latest entry on Pali Hill that replaces Sanchos, is a complete Covid baby. “In fact, it is a Zoom baby,” owner Abhayraj Kohli tells us. Kohli, the managing partner of Gourmet Brothers LLP, runs other restaurants including the Mumbai classic Pritam da Dhaba and the popular Grandmama’s Café.

From locking the venue to hiring staff to even convincing Thomas Catly, his head chef from Cotswold, UK, to come on board as chef partner, every detail was finalised online. The rentals, Kohli admits, were at an all-time high and landlords in the mood to negotiate generous deals. “We are working with a 20-25 per cent rental waiver which has helped us recover better,” says Kohli.

While there are still hints of the previous establishment Sanchos in the Aztec-printed carpet wall piece, Kohli has added Asian influences in the form of a koi fish installation. It’s a fitting depiction of Tori’s blending of Asian and Latin American flavours. “In 2005, I was part of the launch team of Zanjo, in Washington DC and I always wanted to bring this cuisine to India. Having dabbled with VFM (value for money) restaurants, I knew it was the high-end restaurants that would spring back first and this is my first luxury product.”

Zorawar Kalra

Zorawar Kalra opened four new spaces in the lockdown – +94 in Mumbai, Swan and Bo Tai Switch in Delhi and a Farzi Café in Dhaka. “A restaurant is never a last-minute call. These were ventures planned before Covid. We opened a few locations in December 2020 and in January 2021,” says Kalra who believes that strategy pays.

When the lockdown was first announced in March, most of the spaces were in various stages of construction. The only challenge was to bring back the workers once the government allowed work to commence. “For every other department, people were itching to get back to work which actually smoothened the process.”

With big announcement launches out of the question, Kalra adopted a safe way of opening doors to a few influencers and food writers and giving them a sit-down dining experience. “In Delhi, Swan as well as Switch are outdoor spaces and they have become a rage,” says Kalra.

The customer, he grins, has changed. The rude ones, too, are accommodating and the ones who called the servers every other minute are not indulging in old habits. “Today, people prefer going to a place they trust. We are following all safety norms with the food covered and the menu smaller as we have reduced kitchen staff. The smaller menus have not only helped us reduce our food cost by 6 per cent, but it even helped us cull fancy dishes that were not hot-sellers.”

Sheetal Saxena and Nishant Sinha

For Nishant Sinha and Sheetal Saxena of Colocal, the idea to open a chocolate café came to them in July 2019, after which, the couple spent a few months travelling to places reputed for chocolate across the world – from Paris and Milan to cacao farms in Venezuela. In February 2020, they were ready to start a restaurant dedicated to the cacao bean in Chhatarpur, Delhi. For the bean-to-bar manufacturing process, the beans are sourced from Eruki Hills in the south, then roasted and processed at the facility. However, the journey to setting up was not an easy one.

Says Sinha, “We knew of Covid but we were confident that it wouldn’t come to us. Finances were extremely difficult to figure out. We were 35 per cent short on funds, which we borrowed from family. Around 25 per cent of the construction was done during the lockdown, so in April and May, we couldn’t do anything. When we opened on October 31, there were a whole lot of changes we had to incorporate with the new norms such as creating an open-air courtyard space and undertaking other structural changes across 5,000sq.ft. After all this, on the first day, we made Rs 860. The first 15 days were a real challenge and of course, we’re still learning new things every day. My advice to anyone looking to venture into business is look for cheaper spaces. I’ve seen two recessions, yes, but the lockdown was possibly the worst.”

Freny Fernandes

Chef Freny Fernandes, a twenty-something with a riveting resume, that includes the Culinary Institute of America and Michelin-starred restaurants, was all set to open up Monèr – Bistro and Dessert Bar in Mumbai’s Bandra last year. To her, the concept of a dessert bar, already popular in major capitals such as New York, is still untapped in India. But with the pandemic, life came to a standstill.

With workers having to leave, the French design-inspired interiors were half-done and even when it did start up again in July, it was difficult for her to inspect the site by commuting from her home in the far-flung suburb of Vasai. Even with a downsized staff, the problems didn’t stop. There were leakage issues and ingredient sourcing challenges. “People were telling me not to open — will a dessert bar even work in India, people are not stepping out, the call for delivery catering is stronger. But my dream was set in my mind and I knew I just had to do it,” says Freny.

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