With 20-plus restaurants that are always packed, and have already met their financial goals for 2017, Priyank Sukhija may be India’s most prolific restaurateur.
New Delhi arguably has the best food scene in India. Lots of new, experimental venues have cropped up in the last five years, and they provide stiff competition to the few long-standing restaurants that have survived the test. Among them is Lazeez Affaire, which has been around since 1999. Its owner, Priyank Sukhija, started it at the age of 19 with no experience in the industry — just a great passion for food. He didn’t even have a relevant degree. Being dyslexic, he hated studying and had struggled through his three years of BCom. The restaurant started on the back of some initial capital put down by Sukhija’s lawyer father, once a good location in Connaught Place had been found. The food — predominantly North Indian cuisine — was carefully curated and cooked with love, including a phirni recipe that his mom shared with the chefs, who struggled to get the right texture and balance.
18 years on, Lazeez Affaire is thriving — with the same team that opened it still working there – and is set to get a second location. What many may not know is that in the time between these two openings, Sukhija has opened over 30 restaurants. His current tally stands at 27, but I’m pretty sure that by the time this interview has been published, the maverick may have opened at least a couple more.
Among them are an outlet of his successful chain, Lord Of The Drinks, at Mumbai’s Kamala Mills, an Indian ingredient-driven restaurant, Café Jalwa, in Bandra, a nightclub at the JW Marriott Sahar as well as new openings in Pune, Bengaluru and Chennai.
We’re sitting at his midtown restopub, Tamasha, on a weekday afternoon. The fact that it’s fairly full at lunch hour is testament to Sukhija’s success in his endeavour to create a dayto-night module for all his properties. “I don’t want to own the place you go to once or twice a year on occasions. I want mine to be the places you can drop in to any time of the day, every week,” he tells me.
For Sukhija, Mumbai is still relatively new territory. For the longest time, he stuck to home turf – and very well at that. His tally includes 12 venues in Connaught Place and six in Saket. They range from Lazeez Affaire and RPM (“it might be Delhi’s longest running standalone bar”) to chains like Tamasha, Flying Saucer and Lord Of The Drinks. “I’d have to say my growth has been really slow. It’s only in the last 4-5 years that I launched a lot more brands. The market has exploded, because people don’t wait for occasions to go out like they did a decade ago,” he says.
An audience with an increased pocket size and the willingness to experiment has only aided Sukhija’s efforts in churning out venues at blistering pace. “I love taking up a location, creating a concept and then marketing it. I get very involved with the design, menu etc. Standing in a corner and watching people enjoy the final product is what makes me the happiest,” he tells me.
In recent times, his successes may outnumber failures, but the restaurateur has seen a fair share of his concepts not clicking with his clientele. “Pure Punjab in Delhi’s Khan Market didn’t work. There was a Bollywood themed bar called Lights Camera Action that also failed. I did a gourmet burger restaurant called Fork, which worked for a year and then went bust. I think it might have been ahead of its time, because earlier, people didn’t have the psychology to spend Rs 500 on a burger,” says Sukhija, adding, “I remember opening a pan-Asian place and serving sushi back in 2004. No one was ordering it. I’ve now reinvented my strategy – I try to get iconic locations so that, in the event that the product doesn’t work, I can always revamp it.”
With such an overwhelming share of the market under his belt, Sukhija’s venues pretty much compete with each other, especially with some of them located a stone’s throw from each other. “It happens all the time. We keep setting benchmarks for ourselves and then beating them. Having said that, while each product is slightly different in terms of ambience, music, food etc, the essence is the same — the aim is to capture the millennial audience,” he says, matter-of-factly.
I bring up a two-year old interview that he gave to the Economic Times, stating that he’d like to have 75 properties by 2018, and Sukhija grins. “I was opening small places left, right and centre at that time. If I went on like that, I’d have about 40 by now, but I realised that’s not my ball game. I’m doing fewer but bigger places now.”
That brings me to the all-important question — with so many unique venues under his belt, how does he decide what he wants to do next, between opening the fourth or fifth outlet of a hit chain and wanting to create a brand new concept? Sukhija doesn’t need much time to reply. “A lot of work goes into creating new concepts. Café Jalwa is a passion project that is taking a lot of my time. But even if it’s the same brand in two cities, the menus will be almost the same, apart from a few local flavours. To present it in a different style and still retain its essence is very exciting for me.”
Sukhija cites a couple of examples to illustrate his point. “Go to any outlet of Hard Rock Café across the world and it’ll look the same. Enter a Social anywhere in India and each one will be different. This is one reason why I admire Riyaaz Amlani, who happens to be a dear friend,” he says. Like Amlani, Sukhija has achieved enviable success, with over two dozen F&B outlets across the country – and while work is ridiculously hectic, he’s addicted to it. “At the back of their head, some restaurateurs want to cash out some day. They think ‘let’s make a good company and then sell it.’ I can’t think of that. I can’t see myself doing anything else.”
I don’t see any reason why he would, either. In less than two decades, he has gone from funding his own small venues with help from his family, to finding HNWI investors. “Now, the restaurants churn it out themselves. I raise some debt if I have to, but the company’s numbers are good and can handle everything,” says Sukhija. Sure enough, the company has met its target of profits of Rs 100 crore this year in less than seven months, and will aim for Rs 300 crore next year. Ask Sukhija for a parting note, or a bit of advice for budding restaurateurs, and he issues a warning instead. “Only get into this industry if you’re willing to get your hands dirty. Having good PR or 2000 friends on Facebook will not make you successful.”