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Wednesday, February 24, 2021

Zorawar Kalra: Smaller restaurants are the future

The restaurateur on opening new restaurants and starting a delivery-only brand after a bruising year

Written by Pooja Pillai | New Delhi |
February 10, 2021 11:40:25 am
Zorawar Kalra, Zorawar Kalra interview, Zorawar Kalra restaurants, Zorawar Kalra restaurants in delhi, Zorawar Kalra restaurants in Mumbai, Zorawar Kalra jiggs kalra, indian express lifestyle, indian express newsOne cool thing is that because of COVID, deliveries really picked up, said Zorawar Kalra. (PR handout)

Last year was brutal for the hospitality industry. “We’ve been through hell,” says Zorawar Kalra, founder and director of Massive Restaurants, which includes brands such as Farzi Cafe, Masala Library by Jiggs Kalra and Pa Pa Ya. “There have been so many closures,” he says. This year, however, may just be different, says Kalra, who describes himself as an “eternal optimist”. In a phone interview, Kalra talks about why it felt like it was the right time to launch his new restaurants as well as the delivery-only brand, called Butter Delivery (in Delhi). “With the vaccine launch, it feels like a light has been switched on,” he says.

Are all the new restaurants you’ve opened recently — Bot-Tai Switch and Swan in Delhi and +94 Bombay in Mumbai — an indication that you’re optimistic about the hospitality industry’s post-COVID future?

In this industry, which is one of the riskiest and most volatile industries in the world and has a high failure rate, you have no option but to be eternally optimistic. That said, when looking at the metrics, it looks like things are improving. Once the COVID vaccine was rolled out, the fear reduced. It also feels safer for our restaurant staff and for guests. They feel like they can move around freely, like they did in December 2019. In India, we’re a hardy lot. In the overall scheme of things, I think India will bounce back quicker. You’re seeing a lot of revenge consumption. The vaccine announcement was the biggest impetus for going out.

swan, zorawar kalra, zorawar kalra restaurant, zorawar kalra news Swan is a very serious restaurant, with yummy and repeatable food and a menu that’s passionate and precise. (Photo: PR handout)

How is Bo-Tai Switch different from Bo-Tai?

Bo-Tai has got the right atmosphere, with al-fresco dining and a high energy vibe. All that has been extended down to Switch, but we’ve made it a little different. It’s a place to switch off. You can have a great meal, spend time with friends. And then there’s a switch, from a gourmet restaurant to a nightlife spot after sunset. That’s the idea of Switch: it’s like an oasis in central Delhi.

Swan seems like an ambitious and unusual concept, combining Japanese and Italian food.

Japanese and Italian cuisines are poles apart: one is fresh and light and one is creamy and full of carbs and fat. We wanted to come up with a restaurant that focused on simplicity and ingredients. Japanese food is all about simplicity and technically, so is Italian. We’ve got out of the way to let the ingredients do all the talking. We’ve focused a lot on sourcing, and at 1500 sq ft, the restaurant’s kitchen is the largest in our system. It’s a very serious restaurant, with yummy and repeatable food and a menu that’s passionate and precise.

swan, zorawar kalra, zorawar kalra restaurant, zorawar kalra news Jamine jujitsu hiball at Swan. (PR handout)

In a social media post in October, you wrote that the pandemic had offered the company a chance to reflect and reboot. In what ways have you done so?

We’ve been able to look inwards and we found a lot of stuff we don’t need. We’ve incurred many unnecessary costs. So we’ve come up with a way to make sure every restaurant is profitable. Even a few restaurants making losses is bad for the whole system. COVID shocked us; there’s no guarantee in the future. So we needed to get lean and more into detailing. Our company is now doing one weekly food cost report, unlike most who do a monthly report. So we are able to immediately assess a problem and fix it. We’re also allowing people to work from home. We’ve become a flexible workplace. We’re also going to be very tough about taking rental decisions. We’re are not going to sign crazy rents anymore. No more white elephants. We will only be at landmark locations and we won’t expand just for the sake of expansion.

In what ways has COVID-19 changed the Indian restaurant industry? Are delivery-only brands, which emerged last year, here to stay?

Smaller restaurants are the future. It’s better to avoid monstrosities because unforeseen circumstances will affect white elephants the most. The food costs were flying high in the industry and will be looked at closely. Real estate is the biggest problem and people must look at that. Rents will come down. Menus will be smaller, so there will be less waste. Indians like to see variety, but they order the same 10 per cent of the menu. All these things are what will make the industry survive.

One cool thing is that because of COVID, deliveries really picked up. Even for restaurants like mine, which are dine-in destinations. We have now built a delivery-only brand, called Butter Delhi. There’s huge scalability, with huge possibilities for growth. We won’t just utilise existing restaurants but will have delivery-based hubs. There will be some fallout, as there’s a lot of clutter in the cloud kitchen system. But (the system) is here to stay.

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