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Cuisine countdown: Indian gravy train rolls to the West

New Delhi, June 6: India’s hash and chow peddlers are heading abroad.

After years of serving up an eclectic cuisine of uncertain provenance, India’s restaurateurs are headed West: to London, the chow capital of the world, America and West Asia.

The westward shift comes at a time when Indian cuisine — not to be confused with the balti hash that masqueraded as the real stuff — has started making waves in London.

Indian restaurant chains, which have built up sufficient critical mass in their local operations, are now looking to cash in on the opportunity thrown up by the craze over Indian cuisine — which isn’t just confined to kebabs and curries.

So, move over Veeraswamy, Indian cuisine is not just hot, but haute.

Restaurateurs as diverse as Grain of Salt, Yo China, Filmi Masala, Khaaja Chowk and Chor Bazaar are getting ready to toss up a spread that will tickle the palates in the west.

The Calcutta-based Grain of Salt, a multi-cuisine restaurant, is trying to expand overseas. The owners are at present in talks with real estate agents in London.

“We hope to finalise a property in London by the end of this year. If plans go as scheduled, the restaurant should be operational by the middle of 2005,” Grain of Salt director Nitin Kohli told The Telegraph.

The owners of the restaurant are open to the idea of either purchasing a plot or refurbishing an existing property, whichever is suitable. The initial cost of the project is pegged anywhere between Rs 7.5 crore and Rs 10 crore, he said.

While the Indian chain situated on Camac Street is built on a sprawling 25,000 square feet area, the restaurant in London may only find a space of 5,000-7,000 square feet. Slated to be a world-class multi-cuisine restaurant and a close replica of the Indian chain, it will serve Indian, continental and Chinese food, with banqueting facilities. “There is no question of changing the brand name,” said Kohli.

Justifying the move to expand overseas, he said, “London is a tourism hub. Indian food is really popular and there is a huge market. It is a very competitive place and therefore, one always will have to try hard to maintain quality,” he added.

Stating that the group is not averse to expanding within India as well, Kohli said they had a long-standing plan to make a foray in the international market. Few years down the line, one may expect to see the chain in other parts of India as well.

Grain of Salt will face some tough competition from other multi-cuisine chains, including Chutney Mary, Zaika, Veeraswamy’s, Saffron and Moti Mahal among others in the London market.

As for its Indian operations, PDK Shenaz Hotels Pvt Limited, the parent company, is all set to introduce ‘the lounge’ — a separate entity within the premises of the restaurant in October this year.

Kohli says the group has chalked out plans to make investments once every two years. The chain made a similar investment when it opened its ‘hukkar bar’ — Shisha, which it claims is the first of its kind in eastern India. The annual turnover of the company is in the range of Rs 5-6 crore, claimed Kohli.

Other restaurant chains that plan to spread their wings overseas include V. N. Dalmia-owned Filmi Masala, a stand-alone restaurant in Gurgaon (near Delhi). “Our business plans is to start nine other outlets within India in the next two years. We intend to go to London in the near future. But we are determined to establish our chains at places that appreciate the Bollywood theme.”

Besides the complete filmi-style decor, menu and theme, the other USP of this restaurant is that it cooks everything in olive oil. This olive oil is marketed by Dalmia Continental (a group-owned company) under the Leonardo brand. The company imports this oil from a contract manufacturer based in Italy.

Ashish Kapoor, owner of the year-old Yo China (a Chinese restaurant with an American ambience that boasts of a full-meal in the sub-Rs 100 segment) says, “Along with London, the West Asian market is totally unexplored. In these places, good quality Indian cuisine is a sure-shot success. After establishing a critical mass in India, we see ourselves exploring the overseas market in three to five years.”

Khaaja Chowk, the ‘Indian sweet food house’ owned by Vicky Nair (brother of filmmaker Mira Nair), is also aggressively exploring the options of going overseas. “It’s a myth that Indian cuisine can do well only where the diaspora lives. The unending range of Indian variety and flavours does not deter me from even considering a place like Uganda. But we are considering places in the US and Dubai for our first foreign venture.”

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