The simplicity of sustaining a food outlet

We all know those small eateries that have been serving diners for decades, despite changing markets, consumer preferences and downtrends. What could be the secrets that make them tick?

Every business exists to make a profit, but it’s the successful businesses that focus on sustainable growth in the long term and don’t just expect to tide over their expenses and liabilities in the short term. While it might be impossible to predict the longevity of any business, the most successful ones are those that plan for the long term and execute in the short term, and food businesses are no different.

High point restaurant
Small eateries such as this one in Mumbai focus on a few factors that have kept them in business for decades.

If you had a favourite restaurant as a child, and it is still running, that’s a fine example of a sustainable business. For me, personally, it is a small restaurant at Lokhandwala Complex in Andheri West, Mumbai, called “High Point”. My favourite eatery since I was a toddler, it still caters to the who’s who of Lokhandwala and beyond. There’s much to learn from these little gems, scattered everywhere around the world. They may have different names, different cuisines, different locations and different client bases, but one thing is clear – they have a few common factors that could explain how they tide over most storms, be it financial, trend-related or a pandemic, like we are currently experiencing.

Here are a few points which made perfect sense to my inner chef-entrepreneur, although this list is non-exhaustive and certainly open to amendments, it could give us an insight into how to survive in this highly competitive world of food & beverage-based businesses.

A simple yet complex menu

A close examination of this establishment’s offerings reveal how masterfully the menu has been engineered and how vital that is to the survival of the restaurant. The menu can be divided into sections based on the mise en place it requires (chef’s jargon for pre-preparation). The sections could be classified as—dosa batter based, gravy based, sandwich bread based, tandoor based, juice based or hot and cold beverage based. The dosa batter would yield most variants of dosa, idli and utthapams. The tandoor would provide rotis, naans, kebabs and dals. The gravy base can be further split into red, white, green and yellow and when delicately combined with single vegetables (which also double up for the sandwich menu), can contribute more than 25-40 items to the main course menu. Adding an ice-cream counter could take care of desserts, or if you add outsourced or in-house brownies and gulab jamuns, a simplistic desserts menu can complete the offering. This is very pivotal, as the menu will govern the kitchen plan and the space allocation for the front of house and back of house areas.

Catering to the times

‘When in Rome, do as the Romans do’, is true of all such successful outlets, which understand their customer requirements such as age demographics, local taste preferences, spending power, meal portion size, home delivery logistics, and probably the most important of all, the prices! Smaller, localised restaurants have, somehow understood all this and are also harnessing newer necessities such as social media and online integration, social media influencing along with creating brand loyalty and forming interesting bonds with customers. I still salivate when I see High Point’s Zomato profile, it almost immediately transports me to my childhood days!

Charting your own course

Although these restaurants usually stick around for what feels like an eternity, they seem to operate in a way such that they aren’t affected by down-trends, social media maligning, online review mafia or even inflation. This is because the focus of such outlets primarily seems to be on increasing the number of tickets (diners) rather than on only the size of the ticket. One can attribute their grounding to always adhering to their core competencies, their value-based offerings and honesty with customers. Personally, I wouldn’t read a review of High Point, whether it gets 5 or 0 stars, mostly because I have experienced it all too often and would fall back on my own experience at the outlet over someone else’s. This kind of restaurant serves so many customers well that eventually, the ones that love it far outnumber the ones that don’t.

Human relations

It may not seem like it, but smaller businesses are often better at creating personal relations with not only their customers, but also with their staff. An adage can be coined to this effect, “People buy from people, not businesses” and smaller businesses are more human, more relatable and tend to offer a more interactive relation then a large mechanised, corporate-type, offer-based, statistical approach. Also, their staff seem to linger forever, and their attrition rates are not as high as the newer businesses with great starting packages that are impacted directly by business activities. Smaller outlets tend to offer this sense of nostalgia, affordability, great quality at a great price and is non-prohibitive to all levels of spenders. The cherry on the cake is a good owner with some good social skills, that actually goes that extra mile to connect to both her customers and her staff, because it’s not always about the money; it’s mostly about the people and if people are happy, they will stick around!

Owning it

From the real estate, welfare of the staff and upkeep of the premises to the improvement of customer relations, owning it, is literally the only mantra in such outlets. They own the real estate so they are not rent-slaves, they contribute to the upkeep of their customer relations, the premises and the surroundings and although with a little hesitation at first, take up the onus of garbage segregation too. They even build memories for life by offering children playing in the sun (if there are any these days) a glass of cold water from their water filter, for free! Their commitment to their staff may be questionable, but staff have a way of getting what they deserve in today’s market, so owners have to keep their workforce happy if they want to stay in business. That said, I have rarely seen such outlets fuelling a fuss over petty complaints; but that also means they may not always offer you that easy complaint-oriented discount either. Another one of my observations was that most of these outlets are managed and operated by their actual owners or have the owner visiting and presiding over operations at some point during the day. This is crucial for any owner, to get a feel of changing customer preferences and to exercise no-nonsense control.

From real estate, staff welfare and upkeep of premises to maintaining customer relations, owning it, is literally the mantra for most successful outlets.

Understanding numbers

Such outlets tend to understand the game of numbers better than most large restaurants, and only invest as is needed, shying away from over-staffing, over-spending and overtly glamourising their establishments. Instead, they focus on factors such as comfortable furniture, good air-conditioning, clean uniforms, filtered water, a clean restroom and hand wash area. Abundant space at such outlets is usually not feasible considering their operating budgets, so expecting a huge dining room is a tad impractical. They also avoid unnecessary advertising and tread carefully on the freebie offering culture, except for the cold filtered water bit, of course. Their efficient management of salaries and wastage, clever sourcing and affinity to adapt to modern technologies such as electronic kitchen orders and billing, material and customer relationship management and online orders, is probably what they are doing right to better their profitability. Even during the pandemic, these outlets operated online with great ease as they already had a delivery mechanism in place, much before the rise of Swiggy, Zomato and other such aggregator platforms.

As I mentioned, this list isn’t exhaustive and I’m sure there are many points I might have missed out on, as I was too busy salivating over the menu. I chose High Point as a reference as they bribed me as a child with gallons of free, cold filtered water and extra butter on my pav bhaji. But the same applies to most of the small, nondescript eateries which have been around for decades. If I were to summarise all my observations, the key to running such an enterprise would be to ‘simplify’. Allow me to elaborate; the motto of every food outlet should be, ‘Find your awesome and showcase it to the world, consistently!’

Chef kunal arolkar
Chef Kunal Arolkar is a pastry chef, night driver, educationist, spirits, food and history buff, with a degree in hotel management, a penchant for controversy and a guilt-free lifestyle. He also owns and operates Foodybreaks, Goa’s first City & Guilds, UK, certified pastry school and bakery in Porvorim, north Goa.

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