Sujata Assomull on the special bond between Sanjay and Rachna Narang, their success story, and more.
Sanjay Narang is better known for his romantic liaisons than his success as one of Mumbai’s new-age restaurateurs. Not very long ago he was engaged to singer, actress and television VJ Raageshwari. His most recent love interest that gets him frequent mention in the film press is the former Miss Universe, Sushmita Sen. But there is another long lasting liaison, that has remained mostly under wraps, but which has played a major role in the making of his business reputation—his partnership with younger sister Rachna. The brother-sister team has worked together for nearly a decade now building their company Mars into one of the best known restaurant chains in the business.
Eateries with names like NJ-Jazz by the Bay, Dosa Diner, Taste with Trim, Pizzeria, Three Flights Up and Roti! are now part of the must-visit list of Mumbai’s well heeled. The company is fast expanding into other cities as well. Also opening soon is Gordon House Hotel, Mumbai’s first international style boutique hotel located not very far from the Taj in the south of the city.
The siblings have been very close for much of their lives. They went to the same school in New York before relocating to Mumbai in the late eighties to work in their family hotel—the Ambassador. Sanjay took charge of the airline catering division which was also the major supplier to a new fast food chain that Rachna set up under Ambassador’s aegis called Croissants etc.
But much of all they did came to nothing when the Narang family split in 1990. In the settlement Rachna and Sanjay were left with some real estate properties, and Talk of the Town, a run-down restaurant which was once a very successful Mumbai night-spot.
But instead of trying to set up something on their own immediately after the split, the duo decided to work elsewhere. Sanjay worked with the Taj Hotel group for four years, running their airline catering business. “I decided to stop working for the family after a while for a different kind of experience,” he says, “When you work in the family business you always have a false sense of always being right in everything you do.” Rachna at the same time teamed up with Taj to start a chain of cake-shops called Birdy’s By Taj (Birdy is her nick-name). “The Taj already ran some cake-shops but they were not doing too well, so we entered into a joint venture with them to set up Birdy’s,” she says. The newly successful Mars is now hoping to buy out Taj’s interest in the venture.
In 1996, with four years of Taj experience behind them Sanjay and Rachna set up their first restaurant. The duo converted Talk of the Town into a jazz bar, calling it Jazz By The Bay. Though neither are jazz fans, they saw opportunities emerge from the ongoing globalisation of the 1990s, which was transforming urban lifestyle in the country. “Jazz bars are popular abroad, and we thought it would be popular here as well,” Sanjay says. Jazz By The Bay was followed by the night club Three Flights Up. And in the last three years they have set up three restaurant chains, self-service eatery Just Around the Corner, Dosa Diner and most recently, Roti! The chains which already have multiple outlets in Mumbai have made their presence felt in Pune and Chennai as well. They will soon find their way into other cities like Delhi, Hyderabad and Calcutta.
Of course not everything the duo has touched has been successful. Though Jazz by the Bay had a couple of good years, its popularity has declined, while Three Flights Up never really took off. “People do get bored with the same thing. And if something does not work, we just close it down and come up with a new concept,” says Rachna. Three Flights Up has been turned into a Dosa Diner, while Jazz By the Bay was transformed by adding ‘Not Just’ to its name and adding more musical variety to the everyday fare. Says Sanjay, “People wanted more than jazz so we gave them that by adding karaoke and other forms of live music to the venue. Three Flights Up did not work because of the change in government regulations, they started closing all discos outside hotels early.”
Despite the setbacks with their first two restaurants, Mars has done remarkably well considering that it is less than ten years old. Outside the international chains like Mc Donalds and Pizza Hut, it is the only new restaurant company in the country to harbour a national ambition. The soon to be opened Gordon House Hotel will be the company’s biggest project yet, and by all accounts Mumbai’s hot spot for the next few months. The 30-room boutique-hotel will have fancy restaurants and night clubs. It will however be a one-off project, as Mars wants to concentrate on diners. The company is now run by a professional team with Sanjay as the CEO. He sees his role as that of a facilitator. “The real success of our company is the great people who work for it. We have a very flat organisation. My job is to recruit the right people and then keep them happy,” says Sanjay. As for the division of labour between the brother and sister, Rachna who is designated as Executive Director says, “Sanjay handles the day-to-day planning and I handle the creative side, the marketing, the menu, the name of the places, the uniforms and the interiors.” And they try not to interfere with each other’s job. “And if we do disagree I eventually agree with Rachna as she is normally right,” Sanjay claims.
Despite their success as restaurateurs neither Sanjay nor Rachna are great connoisseurs of food. Sanjay has never tasted alcohol or seafood. “His idea of a good meal is a take-away from Burger King,” says Rachna. “You don’t need to be a great food lover to be in hospitality, you need to have good ideas and to know how to implement them,” says Sanjay. Eventually they hope to expand Mars into cities abroad. They would like to have a base in either New York or London and split their time between Mumbai and one of those cities. And will Sushmita be joining them? Well Sanjay has no comment, but goes on to say, “I do have a new-found respect for the film industry. I have been for a couple of shoots and realised how much hard work goes into the whole thing.”
This article was first published in the May 2001 issue