MW Men Of The Year: Pawan Shahri On Launching Two Successful Properties During The Pandemic
One of the youngest restaurateurs in the country is keen to develop his brand of casual dining in India and the world. Pawan Shahri opened the two busiest places in Mumbai during the pandemic, and has even bigger expansion plans ahead.
Walk into any of 27-year-old Pawan Shahri’s latest outposts, be it Silly in Khar or Blah! in BKC, a few kilometres in the heart of the business district, and you might wonder if you’ve stepped into a wonderland. Even though Shahri is not associated with Silly anymore, he was the mentor behind the restaurant that everyone in Mumbai wants to be at, and another always-packed place, Blah!, that stuns you with its abundant natural light and Instagrammable décor.
For Shahri, who is one of three partners at Chrome Hospitality and its founder and CEO, these were conscious details that clearly explain his understanding of the new diner in the post-lockdown world. “We decided, at a group level, that we wanted to create spaces where the new Indian would be comfortable. Someone who has a job but also enjoys a social life, someone who wants to be a part of communities — be it art, coffee or cocktails,” he tells MW.
At 16, when most teenagers are busy with girls and gadgets, Shahri began working, whilst in college. After dipping his toes in the F&B industry, Shahri made it his mission to get as much crowd into outlets and maximise sales. He also dabbled with artistes and concerts, eventually leading to the creation of his brand, Chrome Nightlife. More than three years later, he created a marketing agency called Chrome Communications that worked with 80-odd restaurants and 45 employees across the country to help with branding, social media marketing, and other requirements.
Shahri says he kept his motto of delivering sales numbers at the core of his marketing initiatives, and met some of the biggest names of the food and beverage industry during this time. It was during one such conversation with the founders of Mumbai’s famed Shiv Sagar chain of restaurants that the idea to open Butterfly High came about in 2017.
“The owners are legends in the industry and when they asked me to be Managing Partner for Butterfly High, I was determined to make it a success. We hit a bullseye when we opened the restaurant (in 2018), both from corporates in the area as well as non-corporates,” Shahri shares. The look and feel of the overall concept is that of a ‘social butterfly’ — one that has multiple thoughts, moods, and perspectives; a concept that has recently travelled to Thane for another outpost.
Post Butterfly High, Shahri became Managing Partner for London Taxi in Mumbai, which had become a must-visit spot when it opened its doors.
Shahri says that he has found his calling in the F&B industry with the casual dining bar segment. “We want to have maximum market share in this category,” he says. While over-the-top and premium restaurants have their own mindshare, Shahri believes that people like to visit casual dining places three-four times in a week compared to once a week when it comes to fine dining.
Shahri is clear that all future projects of Chrome Hospitality will follow the casual dining bar format. Further expansions by the group into Delhi and Goa are planned for 2022. The lockdown was especially hard on the restaurant sector that was forced to stay shut for long durations, did not receive government aid, and was opened with restrictive rules and curtailed timings after long gaps. Indeed, as per a recent report by National Restaurant Association of India, more than 25 percent operators in the industry shut down permanently, with job losses rising to the tune of 2.4 million across the country.
“While revenues and capex for everyone, including us, had reduced drastically, we also saw that rentals had come down. It was a great time to invest, and we closed some long-term rentals that would make the business viable over the long run. We closed some properties, and began construction on new ones during this period,” Shahri says.
Silly was the first one to be ready in March this year but soon after it opened, the disastrous second wave struck. Blah! opened after restrictions were eased, and remains one of the most difficult places to get a reservation at during the weekend.
“We had started to see revenge buying (and revenge eating). We also saw some fundamental shifts in the diner’s profile. They would get up early, and so we started opening at 8 AM, and began serving an all-day breakfast menu. As a group, our strategy had changed to ensure that we were designing places keeping in mind that they would be places to visit throughout the day,” Shahri says.
Another interesting development has been in the types of cuisine diners now prefer. With home cooking going up during the pandemic, demand for Indian food has fallen. Dishes that can’t be cooked easily at home, such as Asian and Continental, European and American dishes, are ones that sell the most.
“Our brands are all multi-cuisine so that they become a place with no mood. So basically, if you’re not in the mood for Asian, you can always come and try something else. We want our restaurants to be spaces where anyone from six to 60 years can walk in anytime, and order anything,” Shahri adds.
Shahri says that his dream location to open a restaurant is in London, and that his team is working towards launching a casual dining space sometime next year. “There are a few places that do casual Indian dining, but London can do with a few more I believe. Besides London, another place I really want to open in is Bali,” he adds.
Chrome Hospitality’s next venture has just opened up as well. Called Kyma, the new casual dining place has come up in Mumbai’s Bandra Kurla Complex, in the same vicinity as Butterfly High and Blah!. Kyma has been created in partnership with the parent company behind Shiv Sagar that first led Shahri into the exciting world of F&B. In a way, Shahri is going back to his roots in the industry for a glorious second innings post lockdown.