Rude Food by Vir Sanghvi: The great adventure – Hindustan Times

Restaurant News

For some years now, I have been writing about individuals who have determined the shape of India’s restaurant scene. But nearly everyone I have written about has emerged out of a food background: they were already in the business; they had a family connection or something like that.

Among the few exceptions to that rule are the founders of Lite Bite Foods, one of India’s most successful diversified restaurant groups: Amit Burman and Rohit Aggarwal.

Burman is Chairman of the giant Dabur group and Aggarwal was part of his family’s textile business. Both men were close friends who loved food and restaurants. And one day, they had a thought: why not have some fun in the restaurant business?

Neither needed the money but they thought restaurants could be an adventure. They bought a Subway franchise and then went off to Subway headquarters in New Jersey for training, learning how to make sandwiches from scratch— including baking the bread. They had so much fun that they came back to India and ran more Subway outlets.

Rohit Aggarwal (left) and Amit Burman are close friends who loved food and restaurants. One day, they had a thought: why not have some fun in the restaurant business?
Rohit Aggarwal (left) and Amit Burman are close friends who loved food and restaurants. One day, they had a thought: why not have some fun in the restaurant business?

After that, things happened more or less by chance. They met Jiggs Kalra, who was running small outlets of two brands, Punjab Grill and Street Foods of India. Jiggs needed funding and so, Burman and Aggarwal put money into the operation, eventually owning 55 per cent of the brands.

Then, they were approached by restaurateur Nikhil Chib who had the idea for a mid-priced pan-Asian restaurant. They liked the idea and opened Asia 7 at Gurgaon’s Ambience Mall. When that worked, they began to open other Asia 7s.

With the success of Punjab Grill and Asia 7, they realised that they were now full-fledged restaurateurs. A Spanish company approached Burman to take the India franchise for a casual brand called Fresco. He agreed and soon Aggarwal moved from textiles to restaurants full-time. Burman still had the Dabur empire to look after but he began to get more and more passionate about the restaurant business to the extent that he now spends more time in the office of Lite-Bite, their restaurant company than he does at his office at Dabur.

In India, Punjab Grill has subtly tweaked dishes at different locations, like the (above) Ahuna Mutton
In India, Punjab Grill has subtly tweaked dishes at different locations, like the (above) Ahuna Mutton

Having started restaurants as an adventure, Aggarwal and Burman suddenly realised that they were in the food business at a time when it was booming. As new malls opened, they discovered new location opportunities for their brands. They branched out into QSR versions of many of their brands and opened in food courts: Asia 7 is now primarily a QSR brand as is Street Foods of India.

When that was a success, they began to get ambitious. They first opened restaurants at Delhi airport and then when the new terminal at Mumbai Airport was being constructed, they bid for all the food and beverage outlets and opened 24 stalls and restaurants.

Along the way, they learned the restaurant business on the job. They discovered the best ways to centralise ordering, they opened commissaries and learned the parts of the business that even adventurous foodies never see (how kitchens are run, how dishes are created etc.). It was a new experience for both of them and Aggarwal says now that his biggest learning experience was the execution of the restaurants at Mumbai airport. He moved from Delhi to Mumbai while the project was underway and opened the restaurants on time.

When Punjab Grill goes abroad, the format is even more upmarket, like the Washington DC outpost
When Punjab Grill goes abroad, the format is even more upmarket, like the Washington DC outpost

Along the way, there had been many changes in the model. They bought the Kalras out of Punjab Grill (Jigg’s son, Zorawar, went on to launch his own restaurant empire), Nikhil Chib departed; the Fresco experience taught them that they were happier creating their own brands.

Soon, they were confident enough to launch new brands—and even to open one-offs. The Artful Baker is a tiny outlet in Delhi’s Khan Market which they opened with super-baker Sahil Mehta. When chefs Julia Carmen D’Sa and Jatin Mallick were looking for new backers after the original Tres closed down, they invested in them and opened the new Tres. They were approached by the son of a Korean diplomat and opened Hahn Kitchen in Gurgaon with his family.

Punjab Grill has continued to boom in its post- Kalra avatar, with dishes like Arbi ka Kofta
Punjab Grill has continued to boom in its post- Kalra avatar, with dishes like Arbi ka Kofta

As they understood the business, they saw the need to change with the demographics. They recognised that a younger generation of diners wanted dim sum, sushi rolls and ramen and created a new brand YouMee to cater to this segment. It now does even better than Asia 7 ever did. They learned also to create a company that was less dependent on individuals. Punjab Grill has continued to boom in its post-Kalra avatar. The departures of Nikhil Chib and Sahil Mehta did not affect the performance of Asia 7 or The Artful Baker.

And they learned how speed of response is the key in the business. When the lockdown began, they quickly shifted focus to delivery, opening cloud kitchens to supplement their existing restaurant kitchens. During the lockdown, YouMee became a delivery phenomenon and Aggarwal is intrigued to see that even though the restaurants are now open, the delivery business has not gone away. Ironically enough, they have come out okay from the pandemic with a new revenue stream because as restaurant earnings have returned to normal they have been supplemented by new revenues from delivery that were not there in the pre-pandemic period.

The Chicken Teriyaki Ramen at YouMee, which became a delivery phenomenon during the lockdown
The Chicken Teriyaki Ramen at YouMee, which became a delivery phenomenon during the lockdown

Meanwhile their primary focus is back on Punjab Grill, their first big brand. In India, Punjab Grill works differently at different locations because the product is subtly tweaked. In less upmarket locations , it gets by on the usual dal makhni-butter chicken-tandoori formula which guarantees steady revenues but in fancier locations it supplements these dishes with more adventurous (and not just Punjabi) dishes. At Delhi’s Aerocity, for instance, the Punjab Grill is a deluxe Indian restaurant offering food from all over India.

When Punjab Grill goes abroad, the format is even more upmarket. The Washington DC outpost, which I visited a few years ago, is the most elegant (and probably the best) Indian restaurant in the US capital. The Abu Dhabi branch (at that city’s Ritz Carlton Hotel) has long been a success. And last month, I ate at the Dubai outpost, where the food is innovative and different (and the interiors by Soni Mahdi Aggarwal are subtle and classy).

In fancier locations, Punjab Grill supplements these dishes with more adventurous (and not just Punjabi) dishes, like the (above) Paneer Roulade at their Dubai outlet
In fancier locations, Punjab Grill supplements these dishes with more adventurous (and not just Punjabi) dishes, like the (above) Paneer Roulade at their Dubai outlet

It is unusual to pitch a single brand at so many different levels and get away with it but Aggarwal and Burman think that the multi-level success is a mark of how strong the Punjab Grill brand is. It seems clear that their primary focus in the immediate future will be on growing Punjab Grill (which is also a cash cow) in India and all over the world.

Both men are bullish about the restaurant business but are ready for any unexpected setbacks. Having ridden out the pandemic, they faced a new problem when Burman was hospitalised in London after a fall. He is better now (Aggarwal speaks to him on the phone). But the experience has made them aware, Aggarwal says, of how important it is to seize the day and speed ahead. Because you never know what tomorrow will throw at you.

The views expressed by the columnist are personal

From HT Brunch, October 24, 2021

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