As AD Singh Looks Overseas for Growth, He Talks About Revival of Fine Dining Closer Home
I FIRST met AD Singh, the consummate restaurateur behind the Olive Bar & Kitchen and Soda Bottle Opener Wala, 15 years ago, before he officially opened the Mehrauli outlet of his signature Bandra restaurant. Since then, we have met at least two or three times a year, so I caught up with him last week at the opening of Olly Cafe, AD’s latest brainchild, at the Cyber Hub in Gurgaon. He has had his highs and lows, and he has just come out of a severe attack of meningitis, but why is he now looking at only overseas venues to expand his 37-restaurant business valued at Rs 300 crore after an infusion of capital from Rabobank?
One obvious reason is the growing interest around the world in Indian cuisine beyond the obvious butter chicken and ‘naan bread’. This interest has been responsible for the success of restaurants such as Farzi Cafe in Dubai, Dishoom and Jamawar in London, and Indian Accent in New York City. The other and more worrying reason is the difficulty of being in the restaurant business in an uncertain regulatory environment where laws are as unstable as the panic reactions of the authorities to crises.
Mumbai’s Kamala Mills fire was really the party pooper, tragic though it was, for it made the municipal authorities in Delhi insist that all restaurants with an area of more than 1,000 square feet must have a fire NOC, an additional burden on an industry already weighed down by 14-odd licences it must get before it can operate. Sure enough, AD had to shut down Lady Baga, the Goan restaurant operating in the Outer Circle of Connaught Place, because its staircase, built in the 1930s, was not wide enough.
In Mumbai, where AD had opened Lady Baga and Fatty Bao at Kamala Mills, just two days before the fire, the two restaurants saw their business tank. And in Bangalore, the mayor personally raided AD’s restaurants (among others) with television cameramen in tow, scarring their business for quite some time. “The past financial year was without doubt the worst in many years,” AD said in his usual understated style. With such uncertainties dogging the business, we may have to start going overseas for a meal at a reputable Indian restaurant.
Yet, the Indian market is not without hope, as it would seem from AD’s ‘look out’ policy. His experiment with The Grammar Room at Olive Mehrauli, which he let his social media team of two twenty-something women run, has convinced him that there’s “a huge market of youngsters” — the Millenials — who did not have money to spend five years back, but are now re-discovering fine-dining options. It may be because they are better off or better travelled than before, but they certainly have a more discerning palate, which may explain why Olive is doing its best numbers ever this season. That’s good news for those of us who had written of fine dining with the advent of the Millenials. And for those restaurateurs who thought they had figured out the Millenials, it’s time to go back and feel the pulse of the market yet again.