Despite the sudden onset of the pandemic, restaurateur Zorawar Kalra, and his group of restaurants, are ever so optimistic that the worst is behind us
The first time I got on a call with Zorawar Kalra to do this interview, was around March 10. Little did we know that in two weeks, the future of the rest of the year would be so bleak, the world would be crumbling, and a story on the hospitality sector wouldn’t make sense without a conversation about the coronavirus pandemic that especially hit the sector, really hard. Almost six months later, as things very slowly begin to look up, I ring him up for an update, and his optimism is infectious.
Kalra is a man of few words, but work that speaks for itself. He has built a brand that can do upscale (and I mean really upscale) food like Masala Library, or catch up with the millennials with a YOUnion. One might think that with a scale as wide as his brand of premium restaurants, Massive Restaurants, Kalra might be trying a little bit of everything, with not enough of it. But his clarity on his restaurants, Indian food on the global map, and the future of fusion food, will change your mind.
“We’re all in the same boat. It’s a new way of life, and it was unprecedented. Of course, our industry has been especially hit. Restaurants were already in a bit of a downward spiral before, and this is basically like starting from scratch. We continued to do menu developments, started working on our PNLs, removing all excess costs because we knew that when we’ll restart, it’ll be fairly slow. In fact, July was when we started opening up a bit,” he recalls the tough months. The response when they started a bit of opening up was tepid, but week by week, they have seen some improvements. “We’re between 30 to 35 per cent pre-COVID sales as now we’re able to serve liquor on the tables, and this has made things better,” he adds.
In the last week of January, a few of us from the MW edit team had visited ShangHigh, a new, “high performance restaurant” with the old Shanghai vibe, bright colours, wood and red accents, outstanding cocktails, performances, and food that left us stumped. It was an experience that has helped us cope with the no-restaurant shitshow of half a year that this year’s turning out to be.
ShangHigh was his way to elevate the dining experience. “We’ve done molecular food, we’ve done theatrical food. But I wanted to introduce an actual theatrical feeling in a dining space,” Kalra explains.
From a business perspective, what has worked for him, and what hasn’t? “Touchwood, all our restaurants and concepts have worked. We have very clear positioning in the minds of the consumer of what they’re expecting when they enter a restaurant by us. Pa Pa Ya is known for high quality food but decent pricing, Farzi Cafe is known for its theatrical food, Made In Punjab is unapologetically Punjabi food, and so on. We’ve never mishmashed concepts and maintained that clarity, that’s the beauty of it,” he simply states.
And when it comes to the food space in India, what’s working out for us? “As a restaurateur, I can tell you value for money is something that’s working. Either a place is extremely premium, or it’s at value rate. The middle-of- the-ladder places won’t work anymore because you can’t confuse the consumer. ShangHigh is by far the best-priced Asian food we’ve done, given that it’s more about experience than just food. We wanted to surprise people, and when they saw the pricing, they were blown away,” He says. And I agree. ShangHigh pricing is quite unbelievable for its quality.
So, fine dining is not dead? Kalra is confident that this space is going to thrive, and survive. He says, “India will always have a market for fine dining and high-quality restaurants because it’s the top end of the spectrum that doesn’t get affected by the economy. Indians love eating out and getting pampered, and they will continue to eat out as long as they see value.” Fair enough.
Kalra, in one of his interviews some time back, had said that it’s exciting that we’re a country with such a massive variety of cuisines. Before we move on to where our food stands globally, does he think we’re valuing traditional Indian food enough in our country? With no pause, he retorts, “Of course. This is our main food, it’s in our DNA. We are never going to stop eating traditional Indian food. Other cuisines will find their prominence on the table, but the most popular cuisine for the next several centuries will be Indian.”
As an advocate of putting Indian food on the global map, something that his brand in its seven years of existence has tried to do, Kalra feels they’ve made Indian food more accessible internationally. “Honestly, we always want to come to the market with something new, and let others follow. And I think with brands like Farzi Cafe among others, we’ve done that,” he proudly says.
Yes, Indian food is gaining its popularity globally, everyone wants a bit of our food (they tried making haldi ka doodh cool, you guys). But where does Kalra see Indian food placed internationally? “It’s getting there, but we’re still behind Japanese or Italian or Mexican. These cuisines have far more acceptance worldwide simply because of availability, access, and their quality. See, the thing is Indian food is incredible, and once someone has good Indian food, they will love it. But it’s important to also market the same, and have that kind of food accessible to people. You may have the best food but what’s the point if no one knows about it?” he explains.
Many people, especially chefs, complain about westernising Indian dishes, or vice versa. Kalra, however, feels like as long as it’s done with sensibility with the end result being something delicious, what’s wrong with it? “I’m okay with fusion as long as it doesn’t become a confusion. Instead of fusion, I like to use the word progressive. We are using all kinds of ingredients, cooking techniques, influences from multiple geographies to create one dish,” he believes.
With more places slowly recovering from the pandemic, Kalra feels supportive of the Unlock 4.0 move by the government. While neither of us want to think of this time as the new normal, eating out patterns and consumer behaviour in the near future will obviously not be the same. “I think old habits die hard. Indians love eating out. Hospitality is the number one industry to bring entertainment. We’re 40 times larger than Bollywood, just to put it in perspective, in terms of entertainment. Restaurants are a way of life. People will start coming out, but we can’t be complacent. Social distancing, masks, sanitising are a must. But in general, Indians will bounce back. By December, I am very hopeful that we’ll be closer to the pre-COVID era and by March next year, hopefully, things will be back to normal,” he optimistically states.
And what about the kitchens? Surely they can’t have people like they did before. Kalra explains that they’ve been taking the precautions needed. “We’re adding people at a rapid pace, but other measure such as shortening the menus, and reduced hours of operation are being implemented to control costs. As sales get better, we’ll be able to bring back more people,” he says.
As India slowly places foot on ground, the group’s restaurants abroad are recovering from the situation. In London they’re up to about 60 per cent sales already, places like Oman and Kuwait are doing well, and Dubai is a bit of a mixed response. “International markets have picked up, but India is showing promise. Indians love eating out, and we will be back to it really soon, I’m telling you,” he says.
One world, one love. Food.