Chennai gets a serving of Dhansak and Nagpuri Vada Bhaat

Walk down Chennai’s Maharaja Surya Road and you are met with a black board with a colourful hut-like picture and the words Abyssinian in bold red letters. ‘Coming Soon’ is printed just below it. This isn’t the announcement for a movie or a play, but a new Ethiopian restaurant that is all set to welcome the city’s food lovers in April-end.

Incidentally, it will also be the country’s first restaurant dedicated to Ethiopian cuisine. The hut-like image is actually a Mesob — a traditional Ethiopian table made out of woven straw and around which people sit to eat communally.

Raise your head and you notice the boards for Meena Tai’s and Batlivala & Khanabhoy, serving Marathi and Parsi cuisine, respectively. The two restaurants opened in February and have been catering not only to the city’s large Marathi population, but also to those wanting to eat something different.

A few kilometres away in Teynampet, a trendy cafe called Double Roti that serves a variety of sandwiches, wraps and burgers has been doing brisk business since it opened in April last year, catering to the young and old alike. All the restaurants are part of one person’s desire to convert his passion into a business. “I’m a born foodie. I told myself when I hit my 40s, ‘I’ll get into the food industry because that’s not just a business for me, it’s a passion’,” says Vikram Mohan, the 40-year old Managing Director of ₹900-crore auto components major Pricol, about his latest business.

Passion vs business
In the past few months Vikram has opened seven restaurants in three different cities and plans to have 24 restaurants up and running by end 2017. “When you open just one restaurant you are doing it to fulfil a passion, but if you want it to succeed as a business it needs scale,” he explains.

Savya Rasa, a South Indian fine dining restaurant in a curated architectural setting, opened its doors for Pune’s discerning palate six months ago. The restaurant is a replica of a traditional South Indian home with genuine antiques spread all around. It serves food from different regions of Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka and has an extensive non-vegetarian menu besides vegetarian.

“It’s a misconception that South Indian food is only vegetarian. There is so much diversity of the non-vegetarian cuisine in the southern states,” explains Vikram. The restaurant serves Kongunadu, Chettinad, Malabar, Nasrani, Mangalore, Mysore and Nellore cuisines.

“Most people in Pune and Mumbai identify South Indian food with the Udipi-style. We wanted them to know there is so much more to it,” says Vikram, adding that they will be opening another Savya Rasa in South Mumbai soon.

Over the last two years Vikram and his team have been researching the food industry extensively. “We didn’t want to do another Italian, Chinese or Mexican restaurant. We did our research and found out the gaps in the market. We then zeroed in on Marathi, Parsi, South Indian and Ethiopian,” he says.

The Double Roti brand was started by someone else but Vikram bought a share in it. Of the four Double Roti restaurants, three are franchises and one in Pune is owned by Vikram. “In the food pyramid we didn’t want to be only in the fine dining segment. We wanted to have cafes, all-day dines, QSRs — the entire spectrum — so that it becomes a more sensible business. Double Roti, which is a QSR, fit into our plans.”

So what made Vikram decide to set up an Ethiopian restaurant? “I love Ethiopian food. It is similar to South Indian food in terms of robust flavours. The Injera (Ethiopian bread) is like a dosa and they have so many vegetarian and non-vegetarian curries.” To research the cuisine, Vikram’s team camped in Ethiopia for six weeks. “We are importing everything from there, including the furniture, decor, mesobs etc. The chefs are also from Ethiopia.” Vikram expects the restaurant to do well. He says he has already been receiving calls from people asking when the restaurant will open.

Since Ethiopian food is traditionally communal eating, Abyssinian will provide both communal eating and individual portions. The food will be served like a thali and they will have six combo platters.

Post the launch of the Chennai restaurant, two more will open in Pune and Gurgaon respectively.

Putting it together
Unlike most people who decide to give shape to their passion by finding a place, a chef and opening a restaurant in 3-4 months, Vikram has gone about it systematically. “We have put in over two years of work getting the back-end in order. The cuisines, art, decor, everything has been researched,” he says.

A 3,000-sq ft master kitchen was set up in Coimbatore with a full-fledged training centre. Each ingredient was researched and a supplier found for it. For instance, at Meena Tai’s, a particular rice called Ambemohar is used that is grown only in Ratnagiri in Maharashtra. Similarly, the Mangalore ghee roast chicken at Savya Rasa uses only the byadgi chilli from Karnataka to give it the right colour and smoky flavour.

“We set up an entire supplier base and ensured that we have consistent supply. We have a full team to do vendor selection, vendor management, vendor reviews, etc.” explains Vikram.

And where finding a supplier was difficult, they have gone into production directly. Teff, a grain much like ‘bajra’ (pearl millet) is an integral part of Ethiopian cuisine as Injera is made of it. Instead of constantly importing teff, Vikram has set up a farm in Coimbatore and they are now growing their own teff which will be ready for use six months down the line.

“One thing we refused to do was to take away the authenticity of the food. Many places dilute the flavour to meet a western or regional palate. We wanted the purity of the food to be there,” says Vikram, who is himself an enthusiastic cook and over the last two years has spent four hours cooking daily in the master kitchen. He can cook any of the dishes on the menu.

A large number of housewives and food historians were taken on board to actually curate the food. Eight chefs were hired from various regions to train others. Instead of going for chefs from established restaurants and hotels, Vikram hired home cooks or ‘Maharajs’. “Our food is home food where the purity of the cuisine is maintained.” For instance, there is no Misal Pav and Vada Pav on Meena Tai’s menu even though that’s what most people associate Marathi food with. “That’s what you go out to eat. It’s not ghar ka khana (home food),” justifies Vikram.

Next came training. “We wanted a full-fledged robust system where any restaurant anywhere in the country you walk into, the food quality should be the same. So whether you order a dish at Batlivala & Khanabhoy in Chennai or in Coimbatore, where the next restaurant will open in a few months, the food will be exactly the same,” says Vikram. “There were days when we did up to 42 tastings in a day. By the end of it I had put on so much weight,” he laughs.

All restaurant employees have undergone a 196-hour training programme and have been trained in fire safety and confrontation management. Vikram has also put in place an ERP system so each dish comes with its own bill of materials which is linked to consumption.

It was only after getting all this in place at an investment of almost ₹5 crore under a separate holding company called VM Hospitality that the first restaurant was rolled out. “We built a backbone for 24 restaurants before the first restaurant opened. Now it is easy to quickly roll out one or two a month,” says Vikram. On the cards are restaurants in Hyderabad, Goa, Coimbatore, Kolkata, Gurgaon, Mumbai, Pune and Colombo.

While Vikram is responsible for the food, his wife Lakshmi handles the decor of each of the restaurants. Vikram’s brother Uday Balaji is in charge of the overall operations.

While all 24 restaurants will be self-funded, Vikram says they are open to private equity investment when they decide to expand further.

Besides the restaurants, Vikram is also foraying into the hotel business. He plans to set up eight boutique hotels over the next six years. “These will be small 10-12 room experiential non-hotel hotels under the brand Dwara,” says Vikram, adding that the first will open in a couple of months in Silvani at the foothills of the Western Ghats.

Published on The Hindu Business

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