From nightclubs to nigiri, Keenan and Ryan Tham have done it all, and have an unstoppable 2022 ahead. The duo talks evolution of Asian food, tapas trends, and what sets them apart.
When I walk into the new Foo in Bandra to sit down for a lunch and conversation with the Tham brothers, Keenan and Ryan Tham, the vibe reminds me of my first meal from Foo just a year ago, and the most sinfully indulgent dim sums I have had in Mumbai so far. Having moved out of the city, I wasn’t around when they launched KOKO—Mumbai’s favourite fine dining space for Asian food—but everyone I knew was there, raving about it. And when I finally got introduced to it, I understood why.
Ryan and Keenan Tham come from a legacy of top-notch restaurateurs that have given the city some of its finest Asian cuisine establishments. The iconic Henry Tham was set up by their father Henry Tham, and their grandfather owned two of the hottest restaurants—Kamling and Mandarin—among others, thus paving a natural curiosity for the duo to find out if hospitality was their calling too.
And find out they did. The then-young (their words, not mine) brothers decided to take off with the extravagant nightclub, Trilogy, in 2010. The club was where the who’s-who of the city hobnobbed, mingled, and hosted parties. As their tastes and interests changed, so did their ambitions, which led the duo to start their group, Pebble Hospitality, in 2014, starting their journey to building some of the most prominent resto-bars in the city—The Good Wife in 2014, KOKO in 2016, Foo in 2018, and Foo Town in 2019. Foo is a gift that has kept on giving, even during the pandemic (and thank God for that), with Foo Powai in 2020, and Foo Andheri and Bandra in 2021.
KOKO was already an Asian food restaurant, so why did you need Foo? I ask. “KOKO was built to fill a void that we found in the Asian space, especially in mid to south Bombay. While putting together KOKO, we realised that we have so much to offer in terms of food that it was impossible to deliver it from one kitchen. We have a huge menu bank, and we realised that Asian food is consistently desired. KOKO is quite premium, so we decided to also start another brand that’s more pocket friendly, with smaller dishes, and that’s how Foo was conceptualised,” says Ryan.
“When Foo first came to Phoenix Mills,” he continues, “we did, for a second, question if we’re eating into our own market with KOKO being next door, but we realised that it’s two different markets. We experimented with Foo, and then the others just happened.”
The idea of Foo, Keenan adds, was to make Asian tapas more popular. “We wanted to change the way people dine out, from focusing on the main course-driven activity for Asian food to more tapas-driven table, and it’s worked so well that we at one point thought let’s avoid main course altogether, but you can’t do that in India,” he laughs.
They were, in fact, the first to do the Asian tapas concept here because they observed the changing palate of the consumers. Asian food has gone through quite an evolution, and there has been a shift in how people understand food now. “But we realised that some classics are still required, so our menu balances the authentic and the modern classic, and that’s really worked for us,” says Keenan.
True, but I think we’re skipping something here. Why did they go from Trilogy to this whole food-centric life? “We got older,” they laugh. “We wanted to build restaurants, bars that we would go to. In our late 20s, partying is what we wanted to do. We’ve spent our lives going to our father and grandfather’s restaurants. So that’s what we knew. But because we have that nightlife experience, we’ve been able to add that mix to our spaces. Like KOKO is not just about the food; it’s also the place one would like to go to for a Friday night, so we got the right blend going. However, getting that blend was a challenge, honestly. We don’t do something we don’t like just because it works for our business. Our work is an extension of our personality,” they say.
That corroborates what they’re doing with each outlet of Foo—there’s something unique and area-specific with each Foo. The Andheri one, for instance, has great outdoor seating space that makes for an Instagrammable brunch spot. Keenan explains, “We’re not a cookie-cutter model, and every Foo has to have its own ethos. Also, the menu has its additions according to eating patterns. Bandra is more non-vegetarian and seafood-driven, south Mumbai is more vegetarian-driven.”
Speaking of vegetarian food, I notice some broccoli dumplings on our table. There’s a constant change and update in how the perception of Asian food being non-vegetarian-centric is evolving, and restaurants like this have a huge part to play to cater to the clear demand. Keenan explains that 55 percent of their revenue comes from vegetarian food. “I think we have a pivotal role in changing that notion in Mumbai. The proof is in the pudding. We see the kind of sales we have. I still have a lot of raw fish on my menu, but I sell more vegetarian sushi than I sell non-vegetarian sushi. In Japan, you’d probably not get vegetarian sushi. So I think we do have a role in changing that,” he says.
The mention of Japan reminds me of the sudden boom of new Japanese restaurants in Mumbai, contemporary and otherwise. Is Japanese becoming the next trending cuisine? “Japanese has been trending in the F&B industry throughout, with the whiskeys picking up,” says Ryan, and Keenan adds an important point. “I think the supply chain has drastically changed, and the ingredients available today weren’t available a while ago. Only the Tajs and the Oberois could fly those in. I am really glad to see this change happening because it opens up the door to do so much more,” he says.
And now to address the elephant in the room—Covid-19 and its impact on the F&B industry. Initially, the Tham brothers noticed that people weren’t able to go out, so they started ordering the most expensive food at home. “KOKO was a small vertical. But it became a huge vertical as people were willing to spend that kind of money and have this kind of atmosphere at home,” they say.
“I think after the first lockdown,” Ryan says, “when things reopened, there was a lot of fear because there was a perception that restaurants are the breeding ground for Covid. That paranoia set in, and I think it crippled our industry a lot. No support, plus severe restrictions on us, and a lot of fear was created in the mind of the public. That is why we signed the Andheri Foo outlet, because it has a lot of outdoor space, so people will feel safe sitting outside. I think common sense has now prevailed, people are vaccinated, and they are coming back.”
Keenan and Ryan were ready with Foo Powai right before the lockdown, and as the pandemic hit and their staff were heading back, they launched Foo Powai as delivery-only. They kept the kitchen running, and pushed for home deliveries, resulting in the fact that the delivery vertical did three times of what they thought it would do.
“Delivery was never that much of a priority, but now we respect that vertical a lot. A lot of restaurants started folding over, and a lot of properties were vacant. They started coming at really attractive rentals, so we decided to make the most of the pandemic situation, and we signed as many properties as we could. We signed three places,” Keenan adds.
The hospitality industry is kind of ‘Covidproofing’ their businesses in order to ensure survival and retention of staff, and when it comes to markets, the Tham brothers feel that while Mumbai and Delhi are saturated, a booming market right now for F&B is Goa.
And that’s why, the news is that KOKO, in its sixth year, is going to Goa. It will open post-monsoon in 2022. Foo, on the other hand, will go to other metros like Bengaluru and Hyderabad. “There will be three Foo outlets in Bengaluru in the coming year, and then I want to do one Foo in a tier 1 city, just as a proof of concept. We just feel in the other cities that if we just understand the palates and crack it, it becomes a highly scalable nationwide brand that can have 50-80 outlets in India,” shares Ryan.
With KOKO too, the plans are not stopping at Goa. The Tham brothers would ideally be doing a KOKO every year from now on. “But we do know that there are certain markets that can take a KOKO, and there are certain ones that cannot take it. So after Goa, we would look at Delhi. As and when the opportunity arises, we will definitely launch KOKO in the big four cities,” they say.
Looking at their expansion and city-wide popularity in just the past five years, this plan will definitely see the light of the day, we clink to that and sign off.