Chef Manu Chandra’s Monkey Bar arrives in Chennai

The good chef talks about launching Monkey Bar in a new format, the challenges of entering a new geography and the future of the dining format.

Despite the crushing blows dealt by lockdowns both this year and the last, the restaurant industry seems resolute in the face of adversity. Although fresh lockdowns have marred sentiment a bit, the resurgence of demand with the easing of restrictions and rollout of vaccines has raised hopes of a gradual recovery. The Olive Group, which has 37 restaurants across six Indian cities, has just entered Chennai with the newest Monkey Bar, its gastropub brand.

We got a chance to catch up with Chef Manu Chandra, chef-partner of Monkey Bar, The Fatty Bao, Toast & Tonic and executive chef at Olive Beach, on the new opening, new menus as well as the domestic restaurants industry. The newest Monkey Bar has opened at Madras House in the VR Chennai shopping mall in the city’s Anna Nagar. Spread across 3,800sq.ft, the space has several different zones to accommodate a variety of diners and has been designed by interior design and architect firm WDA Spaces.

Monkey bar chennai interiors images devansh fomra photo 03304 min
The Monkey Bar in Chennai is spread across 3,800 sq ft and has several seating zones for a variety of diners. It comes in partnership with Madras House largely to avoid issues with the city’s strict licensing regime.

“This is the first new opening for the group since the start of the pandemic. Monkey Bar in Chennai, in fact, was supposed to open in 2020. But with the first wave, work stalled and the launch had to be delayed,” says Chandra.  

The experience, adds Chandra, was different, not just because of the circumstances but also because Chennai is an all-new market. While Monkey Bar is a standalone establishment in other metros such as Mumbai and Delhi, in Chennai, the format has been changed to integrate it with a mall and hotel space. Another reputed brand from the group, Fatty Bao, is also scheduled to open up in a space adjacent to Monkey Bar in a couple of months.

“The format has been modified in Chennai to open in a mall space with a 25-room hotel. This solves our license issues, which is a problem for standalone restaurants in the city. The liquor license laws in Chennai are very different from those in Mumbai, Delhi, Bangalore and even Hyderabad. The fact that we’re connected to the hotel makes the whole licensing process a breeze. It cuts out any need for us to compromise on our offerings, which is something we wouldn’t want to do, especially when entering new geographies. We’ve had some great learnings from this partnership and you could say, it’s sort of a rite of passage for us in Chennai, as we’ll obviously extend our footprint with our other brands soon too.”

Entering a new geography is also something that allows Monkey Bar to expand upon its menu. Every menu in regions it is present in has some unique offerings that are based on local ingredients as well as preferences. Based on feedback, some of these offerings then find their way onto the menus at other locations as well. The Chennai menu sees the introduction of new dishes such as Meen Veruthath, Nethili Fry and Beef Pepper Fry as well as cocktails such as Sip Semmai and Madras Men, among others.

And while menu engineering sees familiar models followed by the group thus far, what has seen a sea change is the way in which the business operates. “The new paradigm, with the sort of disruptions we’ve seen across the last year, necessitates a more streamlined approach for the industry. We have rationalised cost and manpower, as well as looked at better inventory management, among other measures. The idea has been to run a tight ship but without compromising on the consumer experience.”

Running a tight operation though hasn’t been an easy task. The restaurants industry has always been fraught by risks and hurdles, but with the pandemic hitting and no help from the government, things have become even more difficult. “Anyone who invests in a restaurant business is driven by passion. The returns are always long-term and it takes some time to see profits. So, the appetite for risk is something that’s inbuilt in restaurateurs. However, this industry is also one of the largest employers of human capital in the country and policies that affect it, affect a huge proportion of this working force. Policy is a state subject, and varies from one place to the other. There is aggressive lobbying from the industry just so that the governments can design policy in a way that is beneficial to all. We have to pay ridiculously high fees, in many cases, GST credits are still pending. And of course, knee-jerk reactions and restrictions have a massive impact on business.”

Disruptions and restrictions notwithstanding, the show must go on. Even as the second wave rages across the country, given the learnings from last time as well as the security offered by vaccines, the hope is for lockdowns to be less severe and shorter this time around. Will the new-normal bring about changes in dining formats though? Chef Chandra doesn’t think so.

“Now, delivery has really taken off as has the concept of dark kitchens. But, one has to consider whether these formats are even profitable in the long run. Naturally, when restaurants are looking at lower footfalls at dine-in, to sustain, they will make the inventory available to other platforms, such as delivery services. With dark kitchens, especially the many fly-by-night operators that have popped up beyond the digital plane, there’s hardly any information in terms of quality and hygiene. Trust is a big part of a restaurant’s business model and this is what a brick-and-mortar establishment has to offer the consumer. Yes, we are in the middle of a rather nasty second wave. Yes, it’s likely that we might go into another lockdown. Will people be worried about dining out once we emerge from it; very likely. But these are all factors that will play out over the next few months. In the restaurants business, plans are laid with the next five years in mind. Human beings are social animals and the concept of dining out is unlikely to change drastically,” signs off Chandra.

The way forward might be uncertain right now but there are some paths which seem clearer than others. One of them would be to declare operating staff at restaurants as frontline workers and hence, speed up their vaccinations. While this has been approved in one state so far, it remains to be seen how policy makers aid the industry in the days to come.    

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