Foo fighter: Sumessh Menon of Sumessh Menon Associates

Behind every success story are odds that have been fought, and this is even true of a wizard of hospitality design like Sumessh Menon.

“I eat, drink, walk, talk restaurants,” he declares after a quick walkthrough of Foo Bandra, his latest project in Mumbai… and that’s scarcely far-fetched for someone who has designed almost 120 restaurants over a decade or so. The little hole-in-the-wall Masala Times on Bleecker Street in New York’s Greenwich Village plays a large role in the design saga of Sumessh Menon, founder of Sumessh Menon Associates (SMA). This maiden project led to an invitation to unleash his creativity at the Spanish tapas bar in New York’s tony Manhattan neighbourhood, called Plan B… after which the designer didn’t really need a plan B.

A visit by one of the Tham brothers (celebrated for their Foo chain today) to that much-appreciated-for-its-interiors bar, set the ball rolling… and soon Mumbai’s swish set were clean bowled by Koko — which “did not have any difficulty in making its presence felt.” As the visibly grateful designer recalls, “Koko literally put us on the radar of hospitality design aces — and there’s been no looking back since then. This project is truly a benchmark to measure all future projects, for us and for our clients, in terms of its look, feel, layout, branding, etc.”

Foo means luck or fortune… and to Sumessh’s good luck, after the roaring success of Koko, the Tham brothers expressed their desire to launch another brand that would be just a notch below with a more casual ambience. They found their flagship Foo at Phoenix Mills — the trendy retail hub in Mumbai. “The property is almost like what you would find in a New York meatpacking area with skylights and all of that, so we did not have to do too much to the ceiling,” recalls Sumessh. Since they had a height of about 30 feet to play with, SMA decided to convert the almost square, boxy space with arches. They created two sections and a large bar. “I had all the freedom from the boys to do what I wanted to, so we introduced the colour burgundy (which you see in all the Foos today) and lots of cane, terrazzo, natural elements, et al,” he adds.

Restaurant designer sumessh menon's mantra is to not be repetitive. Image: yash shinde.
Restaurant designer Sumessh Menon’s mantra is to not be repetitive. Image: Yash Shinde.

Seated at Foo Bandra, you cannot help but notice certain key elements like the cherry blossom tree and the burgundy, that reinforce the brand — but otherwise, every Foo is different. Here, the focus is on the wonderful installation of ceiling lamps that transform the place at night. “Foo has always been excited about lamps, so we’ve done various kinds of lamps in each Foo. Another USP is that there’s an indoor and outdoor space,” discloses Sumessh. “I created the outdoor area [which was non-existent earlier], and it has become the most-sought-after… it has the most desired tables. Whenever there’s a booking, the outside goes first.”

The best part about Koko, Foo and his other projects, both hospitality and residential, is that they laid a strong foundation for SMA’s reputation — rendering it unshakeable through the storm that followed. The year before the lockdown pressed pause on life, Sumessh faced what is probably the darkest patch on his professional path. A restaurant he had designed caught fire, sparking off controversies that threatened to engulf him — but he rose like the proverbial phoenix. In fact, he is among the fortunate ones who took flight during the pandemic and not just survived it. All thanks to his people and leadership skills, apart from constant innovation.

Time and again, Sumessh reiterates that the mantra of SMA is not to be repetitive. He makes sure that every project looks different… and that’s just what his clients want. “Expectation levels of clients are really high when they get us on board. We research a lot on art and craft, closely work with a lot of artisans,” he explains. “Every restaurant is like an installation. Even the floors are not repetitive — we work a lot with natural stone as well as terrazzo. If there is Italian marble, the laying pattern is different. The ‘make or break’ of a restaurant has a lot to do with lighting, so we focus on that. And every bit of furniture is bespoke, we design it ourselves. The table tops are different, our layouts are different. In some places, there is pod seating; in others, there are community tables. Some have both, high and low levels of seating.”

Sumessh has been feted for his work for a while now, and should be accustomed to the praise — but he treasures the “generous compliment” paid to him by an “ace architect” from Mumbai, who christened him the Super Potato of India. It’s no small feat to have earned that title, for the firm in question is a renowned international hospitality design specialist… and Menon admits that he has been working towards that goal! His journey is an eye-opener for young designers who choose to travel on the same path. Recalling that restaurant design was very standard when he started SMA, he observes that it’s no more about just going to a restaurant to eat. Today, it’s a holistic experience. “Working on my earlier projects has equipped me with the required skillset to create not merely a restaurant, but an experience,” he concedes.

A unique element of each foo are the lamps. Image: yash shinde.
A unique element of each Foo are the lamps. Image: Yash Shinde.

Sumessh’s constant and relentless effort has been to excel in each project that comes his way, which is probably the reason why each of them has been a stepping stone towards success. “Over the course of my journey in hospitality design, I have been blessed to be associated with several hospitality giants — be it the Tham brothers, Zorawar Kalra, Priyank Sukhija or Sudhir Bahl,” he acknowledges gratefully. “In due course, Koko, Foo, PaPaYa, Farzi Café, DragonFly, 145 have all been landmark projects for me. More than executing them, the experience itself has resulted in a huge learning curve that has changed the very dynamics of my firm.”

Every project has been a challenge as well as an illuminating process for SMA. Right from contextual challenges within the site, to regulation constraints and adhering to a client’s brief seamlessly, there have been several hurdles along the way. But with each one, Sumessh learnt that there is always an appropriate solution once you give it due thought — and, of course, that design is in the detail. “Accepting the challenges and then pursuing the solutions has been my method of overcoming them,” he reflects. “An eye for detail has given me an edge when it comes to design, so I always make sure that detailing is a part of every project I undertake.”

Pigeonholing SMA does not do them justice — for they are equally adept at residential design. “Being slotted as a hospitality specialist is both an advantage and a disadvantage,” believes the designer. “The advantage is that we are associated with some of the most renowned hoteliers and project brands. Clients also trust our design instinct and encourage us to explore new ideas and concepts. The disadvantage is that smaller, simpler projects often slip through our fingers.” But this fighter against odds should be able to tackle such prejudices with ease.

Meanwhile, there’s a lot to look forward to… like a ‘heritage’ bar at the CCI in downtown Mumbai, apart from Asian restaurants in Pune, Mumbai, Kolkata, Delhi, Dubai, Dehradun…

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Life has been a design trip for Maria Louis, who embarked on her professional journey as a lifestyle journalist writing on people, art, food, travel and design before conceiving and editing a B2B architecture and interior design magazine that she nurtured for 11 years. After being at the helm of Society Interiors and Architect & Interiors India, she has become extremely judicious about how she uses her time and three-decade-long experience — but ask her to write about food, travel or design, and she willingly gets distracted from perfecting the art of lotus-eating.

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