Food was dubbed ‘half a beat’ when journalist Anoothi Vishal started out in 2000, and as a new reporter, it was handed to her. “Almost from my first column, I started getting great responses from readers. It was gratifying to know as a 24-year-old that people would buy the newspaper on the day of your restaurant review column only to read about your new discovery…it was a heady feeling,” says Vishal. This encouraged her to write better, with a fresh approach, often going the extra mile; and once, “very early on, I even sneaked into a hotel kitchen to write about hygiene standards there.” Her focus was to “do stories that were both, entertaining as well as informative or analytical,” feeling responsibility toward her readers. “So always, my approach to this traditionally ‘light weight’ subject was serious and journalistic,” explains Vishal.
And after almost two decades of food journalism, Vishal has written Business on a Platter: What Makes Restaurants Sizzle or Fizzle Out, essentially a guidebook for aspiring restaurateurs, comprehensively detailing the Indian food business. “Mostly, as a writer, it was great to be in the thick of things,” says Vishal, who’s witnessed the growth and evolution of this industry first-hand. She also feels a closeness with the food community, having formed strong connections with people in the business, “many of who were dabbling in this field out of a sense of passion and adventure.” In Business on a Platter, Vishal assesses the food industry as both an insider and an outsider. “I see the business both from a consumer point of view and also from the other side, from an insider, entrepreneurial side, what with many restaurateurs and chefs confiding in me over the years,” she says.
The book traces the history of ‘eating out’ in India, and studies the evolution of the industry over the past two decades, following India’s economic liberalisation. It also methodically breaks down every step of setting up a restaurant, discussing different business models and approaches, assessing different reasons for success and failure, and offering comprehensive insight into the industry. “The way I wanted to write this book, and hopefully that is how it comes across to the readers, was not as a dry business book — while at the same time addressing the hard business basics in a direct and upfront way that gets obscured when restaurants and restaurateurs cultivate an image of glamour, because so much of this business is about the image too.”
Business on a Platter also pays studied attention to changing audience behaviour and demand. “Going to restaurants was frowned upon even till a generation or two ago in many communities,” she says. With this ‘eating out’ stigma slowly making its way out of the Indian psyche over the past decades, a new perspective on going to restaurants as a form of 'entertainment' is seen taking shape. And within this mindset, the demand is that restaurant food be, primarily, different from home food. “Chatpatta, big bold flavours suffice, even if they lack nuance or high quality ingredients you would be particular about at home.”
This lesser concern with the quality of food stems from wanting a meal to be not just about the food, but an outing, a memorable experience.
Audiences, explains Vishal, “seem to function on buzz; there is a fear of missing out, and people will spend money if something is deemed trendy. A lot of this behaviour comes from a more nouveau-culture where people are still new to money and a lifestyle that involves frequent eating out, lack of exposure, maturity, and confidence.” It’s also this concept of ‘eating out’ as an outing rather than a meal that means audiences will be less willing to spend handsomely on quality meals, often accepting mediocrity. Depending on one’s disposable income, the idea is to "stretch a certain budget to more outings than to eat one high quality, high priced meal in a month,” she says. “Since the demand for quality is low, the supply is low too,” she explains, adding that “chefs and restaurateurs will be driven to up their game if they feel there is enough of an audience that is discerning. It is a business, after all.”
Within this milieu then, Vishal outlines the ingredients that make for a successful restaurant. Most important factors seem to be, quite simply, clarity of thought, and a well-researched and planned concept. “It is shocking how so many people with no clue about restaurateuring want to get into the business, because they feel it is big business and ‘life set hai’ after one! It is most definitely not that,” she says. Without considering the high rate of failure, the challenge of striking a balance between various moving parts, and a lack of psychological safety, many seem to be opening restaurants because “they see the glamour of it as consumers and fail to see what is behind it. As a lifestyle business, everyone feels there is no special skill required in cracking it.”
Anoothi Vishal walks readers through the different aspects one should pay attention to when opening a new restaurant, including market research, location, food and chef, branding, interiors, and more. She also looks at numerous case studies, from AD Singh’s Olive Bar and Kitchen to Riyaaz Amlani’s Impresario and from the MTR Family to Camellia Panjabi’s MW Eat Group, studying the trajectory of the enterprise and personality of the founder. Vishal considers self-awareness one of the strongest pillars when conceptualising a restaurant, since the entrepreneur’s personality should seep into every aspect of the business they run. “I feel much of business, especially a business such as restaurants that is connected to people at every level, is driven by a certain instinct.
My hypothesis is that a restaurateur can create a successful brand if he understands his core values, applies these within his brand, and connects with an audience that shares these.”
Today, there is enough audience for every type of restaurant, and before developing the concept, “anyone interested in opening a restaurant must first ask themselves — honestly and clearly — what it is they want to do and why… Don’t do a restaurant because you think something else somewhere else is successful, you can’t fake it,” she says. “The key is being able to do what you believe in consistently and hold on for a period of time,” Vishal adds. Finally, the writer thinks the way forward lies in offering better quality food, and continuously raising the bar, figuratively. For instance, “No one knew chef’s tasting menus until five years ago.” Today, despite the harsh policy conditions and a lack of audience willing to pay for higher quality food, “there seems to be a zeal to do better food and better restaurants.” She adds that now, the time is ripe to figure out “how to do ‘premium casual’ in a viable way, since the category is deeply stressed and cluttered. It is a struggle for survival currently for many.”
Moving forward, Anoothi Vishal believes that it is possible, and important, for restaurants to work as educational tools for audiences, introducing a nuanced approach towards food and dining as something desirable, whilst still being profitable as a business.
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Updated Date: Nov 08, 2019 10:11:39 IST