© Ravi Wazir, 2020

The Secret Longing to Own a Restaurant

I was at a friend’s dinner party recently, and over some delicious food met a completely new bunch of people from very different backgrounds – a banker, a chemical entrepreneur, a fashion designer, an MBA student, a film maker and even a cricketer thrown in for good measure. When I told them what I did for a living almost all of them, after asking me a few questions, animatedly began sharing their views on the restaurant business, and a few of them even confessed that they secretly wished they would open a restaurant one day.

I wasn’t too surprised, since over many years now I’ve found that the food business and restaurants in particular have attracted the attention of even the most surprisingly unlikely people. I’d say one out of every 9 people or so that I meet, professes their desire to start a restaurant. While one can’t be sure how many of them will actually attempt it, everyone certainly has an opinion. Whether it’s because they see food as a sensitive topic, since it’s something we must put into our mouths discerningly... or because they see food being cooked in their homes everyday and believe they know what it takes to produce it... even commercially.

But if you take the time to study it, you will find that the restaurant business is one in which many fail, few survive and even fewer thrive.

So “What Makes a Restaurant Tick?”

I’ve asked myself this question a thousand times, and over the past two and a half decades of having studied and worked with both successful and unsuccessful food brands, here’s what I’ve discovered...

Restaurants that succeed have a few things in common:

  1. Get their food right: Restaurants like Bukhara in Delhi or K.C.Das in Kolkatta are examples of places known for their good food. They focus on catering to their guests’ culinary needs and aspirations. Restaurants that offer tasty food in adequate variety, at a price and portion size that conforms to what its guests consider good value, inevitably attract and retain their patrons.
  2. Get their Service right: From Quick Service Restaurants like Anjappar in Chennai to Fine Dining ones like the Zodiac Grill in Mumbai and everything in between, those who focus on service ensure both attentive and non-intrusive delivery. Such restaurants are usually friendly without being familiar. They serve in a manner that their guests would best like to be served... either quickly enough or elaborately enough, based on the kind of involvement that their respective guests are looking for.
  3. Get their Ambience right: Restaurants, from simple ones like Mavalli Tiffin Rooms (MTR) in Bangalore to sophisticated ones like the Olive Bar & Kitchen, are designed using elements that appeal to the senses – sight, sound and touch (the food usually takes care of the taste and aromas). Their respective ambiences correspond to spaces which their guests will find most suitable to what they are there to do... a quiet meeting, a joyous celebration, a quick refreshment, or to be seen rubbing shoulders with people of similar accomplishments.
  4. Get their numbers to work: Money is the oxygen of any business. Without income in adequate quantities, restaurants die. Having worked alongside many restaurateurs, each with very different approaches, I’ve found that restaurants that flourish, without exception have their promoters or leaders personally keeping a sharp eye on costs and sales. Not necessarily because they are “money-minded”, as we unfortunately rather derogatorily say in India, but often so that they can uninterruptedly continue doing what they love most... the business of restauranting.
  5. Treat their People Well: If you’ve visited restaurants like Koshy’s in Bangalore or Swati Snacks in Mumbai, you will see recognisable faces of team members who’ve worked with them for decades. Yet nowadays, it is true that people in this industry often move jobs to those that pay better. Restaurateurs who genuinely care about others, are the best kind. They don’t only think of growing themselves but of progressing others as well. Caring is contagious... not always... but often enough. Restaurants that treat their people well have the greatest chances of success.

All of this is not to say that Bukhara does not also deliver good service or Swati doesn’t also serve good food. Successful restaurants may deliver on all or many of these areas, but may be best known for one or two things in particular. You will notice that the first three points need to be endorsed by their guests, the fourth by their accountants, and the fifth by their team and other stakeholders.

I find that it is the earnestness and personal attention of restaurateurs, in most if not all of these areas, that makes restaurants prevail.

If you look at restaurants like Flury’s in Kolkata, Karim’s in Delhi and others like them that have thrived for more than half a century, you will find that each of them are known for something special that they promise their respective people – guests, accountants, teams and other stakeholders.

Their continual delivery on their respective promises to each of these people groups, and their ability to adapt to the changing times, is what makes them continue to attract & retain people and also to stay relevant.

That, in my view... is the secret.

Some eateries like the Kohinoor Restaurant in Bangalore or Cafe Samovar in Mumbai, despite delivering on all their promises were forced to shut down due to legal or rent related issues that were beyond their control. It is therefore important to distinguish between matters which are within the restaurateur’s control and those which aren’t.

Remember from the outside one can only see which promises a restaurant is delivering on to its guests, very little of how it treats its team privately, and nothing at all of the extent to which it is keeping its accountants and other stakeholders happy.

So the next time you start imagining how wildly successful a restaurant is, or how long it will tick, don’t forget that from the outside one can only see the tip of the iceberg.