Tuesday, 27 August 2013

AD Singh Goes Lean to Roll Out 20 New Restaurants & Bars by 2014-end

AD Singh's shares his success mantra for these tough times: trim project costs, limit seating and space, source local ingredients, rejig your HR policies and hold on to good people by making them partners or giving them Employee Stock Options (ESOPs), and go for acquisitions and mergers.

By Sourish Bhattacharyya
AD SINGH is the most unlikely restaurateur -- he set out to be an engineer, did not make it to an IIT so he went and completed his education in America (Lafayette College), became a boxwallah, and wrote restaurant reviews on the side. Yet, today, the "passion-driven entrepreneur" has become synonymous with new restaurant concepts -- starting with Olive Bar & Kitchen, which made fine dining fun at a time when it seemed like an impossible dream -- that make people in the industry sit up and wonder why those ideas didn't strike them.

Guppy by Ai, AD Singh's newest restaurant, cost him
20 per cent of what it took him to open its predecessor
at the MGF Metropolitan Mall in Saket, New Dellhi
Backed by funding from the Aditya Birla Group and ready to roll out 20 new restaurants and bars by 2014-end, AD today has a new operating philosophy to keep up with the straitened times, though he maintains "the future of the food business isn't as gloomy as the economy". Being lean is AD's new mantra. He says he's "trying to develop a model for tough times" and his new restaurants will reflect his new philosophy of delivering style and substance without searing the wallets of his investors.

AD was able to deliver his latest baby, the laidback Japanese restaurant Guppy by Ai at New Delhi's newest hotspot, Lodi Colony Market, at 20 per cent of the cost of its predecessor, ai, which opened six years ago at the MGF Metropolitan Mall, Saket, but had to shut down after being hugely successful. The old ai sprawled across 13-14,000 square feet and had a nightclub, The Love Hotel, attached to it; Guppy by Ai has 2,200 square feet and 45 covers per seating. Likewise, Le Bistro du Parc, AD's other new venture, across the park literally from the hardy perennial, Flavors, makes up for limited space with great everyday French food and an ambience that invites you to stay on.
AD Singh: passion-driven entrepreneur
"You don't need Italian marble to deliver a great dining experience. We need to combine charm and affordability," says AD, who has halved the running costs of his restaurants by trimming expenses and sourcing good local ingredients, such as yellowfin tuna from the Andamans. He mentions as a role model the success of The Rose at Hauz Khas Village (www.therosenewdelhi.com), a chic 12-room boutique hotel with a garden cafe and a spa, which cost its promoters all of Rs 80 lakh.
"For the longest time, the real winners in our business have been the landlords," says AD, "but we are seeing signs of maturity in the market. The larger real estate players are looking at restaurants that last for the long term. They want restaurants that will be around at least for the nine years of the lease term."
A great one for  sprawling, independent spaces,  AD has now signed up with DLF for two new restaurant concepts -- one of them being the first Olive Cafe -- at India's first dedicated food mall, The Hub at the Cyber Park in Gurgaon. "I am quite confident about The Hub," says AD. "It can be Gurgaon's No. 1 food destination because people want choice."
AD has also given a new direction to his HR policies. The shift has been inspired by the successful transitions made by his former staffers. "Three of the most popular new places in Delhi have been opened by people who have worked with me," he says, listing Rara Avis (Laurent Guiraud), Imperfecto (Nuria Rodriguez) and PCO (Vaibhav Singh). AD's is the first restaurant company in the country to offer "substantial partnerships to our managers".
The first beneficiaries have been the talented executive chef of Olive Bangalore, Manu Chandra, and Olive Mumbai's long-time business development manager, Chetan Rampal, who have been made partners in the company set up by AD to manage Monkey Bar and Like That Only in Bangalore, and roll out similar gastropubs across the country. AD reckons this company will be valued at Rs 25 crore by the end of this year.
Likewise, AD has extended the ESOPs offer to 14 of his managers. "This is a key process in our development because our managers have come of age," he says. "It shows our willingness to share the upside to attract and retain talent." For another powerhouse of talent in his team, Sabyasachi 'Saby' Gorai, AD has tapped into the young man's passion for teaching by setting up the Olive Culinary Academy, whose first batch of 14 graduates has just entered the work force.
Acquisition and mergers are AD's next big step. The country is teeming with bright young restaurateurs who are struggling against adverse market conditions. AD is offering them an opportunity to come on board so that "we can script exciting F&B stories together" and "work on building a common platform for sourcing, real estate tie-ups, back-end controls and talent management". To potential partner restaurants, AD is also talking about the near future when his company gets listed and together they get to earn from its market valuation.
All this corporate talk makes me nervous. Organisations lose their soul when the bean counters (read PE funds and the rest of the men in suits) start calling the shots. But AD's heart still beats for the right cause. "We see ourselves not as a chain, but as a collection of boutique restaurants." he says. That's reassuring, coming from a man who brought fun back to the business of dining at a time when fuddy-duddy five-stars ruled the roost.