The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Big bucks from big bites

It sure sounds like a fine job, doesn’t it? Owning the most coveted commercial address on the corner of the city’s main street, where lip-smacking dishes are tossed up day after day, and where the city’s glitterati habitually drops by to literally eat off your hands. Signature dishes being written about in the city’s newspapers, publishers turning up to sign a deal for a best-selling cookbook — even a TV show, maybe, in three years’ time? Surely, the restaurant business couldn’t be about anything but glamour, could it?

If you think the answer is “yes”, think again. For no matter what the whole food business might look like from the outside, the real picture — behind kitchen doors — is far from pretty. In his bestselling book Kitchen Confidential, celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain labels the food business an industry which has one of the highest failure rates. It is commonly estimated that out of every 10 new restaurants that set up shop about eight down shutters within the first year of operations.

“In the food business, we live on a day-to-day basis,” says a Calcutta-based chef. “We can be here today, gone tomorrow. Fortunes change in a flash. And nothing can be taken for granted.”

Still interested? Frankly, there’s no reason why you shouldn’t be. For despite the downside — job stress, high attrition and sky-high investments, to name a few — people have indeed made a name for themselves in the industry. And while dipping your toe in the business entails sundry risks, there’s simply no stopping you if you happen to strike gold.

So what exactly do you need in order to go speeding down this all-or-nothing highway?

“Passion. Determination. Drive. Every bit of it,” says Anjan Chatterjee, king of the restaurant industry in India today. “Youngsters desirous of getting into this profession have to be totally committed,” he says. “The dynamics of the industry are simple. One needs to be 100 per cent hands-on in this business.”

Coming from a person who has risen to the helm of a host of premium eateries across India, with brands such as Mainland China, Oh! Calcutta and Sigri to boot, that couldn’t be wrong. And Joymalya Banerjee, star chef who commands the kitchens of Oh! Calcutta, can only second Chatterjee’s views. “In the food business, there are no weekends, no Saturday nights, no Christmas vacations. You’ve simply got to be at it all the time,” he says.

Moving on to practicalities, one cannot expect to do well in the restaurant business without a proper understanding of the ropes involved. Much of the knowledge required, however, can be picked up along the way by enrolling at a reputed hotel management institute — such as the Indian Institute of Hotel Management, Catering Technology & Applied Nutrition (IIHM) — where certificate or diploma courses in food and beverages can prove to be helpful in the long run. Like IITs, there are several IIHMs across India. While the Calcutta branch is in Taratala, there are quite a few other IIHMs in Delhi, Bangalore, Lucknow and Goa to mention some.

“A hotel management degree is undoubtedly the best foot forward,” says Ranjit Chaudhury, principal of IIHM, Calcutta. “The three-year course at IIHM, for example, deals at length with the restaurant industry, so graduates are professionally trained for everything that lies ahead. Besides, in the second year of the course, students are given a 20-week industrial training with a star-grade hotel or restaurant, where they learn hands on,” he says.

Once out of college, you have the choice of joining a good restaurant, where new things can be learnt from more experienced people. That, of course, is the easy option. A more daring option would be to amass some money — and we’re talking of several lakhs here — and open a restaurant of your own, where you’re the boss, and give out orders instead of taking them.

Loans, if needed, should be garnered through personal contacts. “Banks and venture capitalists are wary of lending money for the restaurant business, since there’s a high possibility of these ventures going in the red, and they will not dish out money unless there’s adequate collateral to fall back on,” says a venture capitalist. In which case, money has to come in through personal trust and reputation.

Now that might sound rather romantic. But then, as opposed to working in someone else’s ship that sails on even keel, opening your own joint could potentially see you being swept away by the tide, before pushing your brave but futile effort to the verge of extinction.

“The initial years in the business are always very difficult,” says Banerjee. “It isn’t before a good five years or so that one can actually lean back and see the money coming in. The gestation period for a restaurant to thrive is very long.” Most ventures, predictably, don’t live through it.

If one is starting out as a junior chef in someone else’s venture, one starts on a monthly salary of about Rs 10,000-12,000. The increment is directly proportional to performance; it is not uncommon for a good performer to earn Rs 50,000 a month in three years’ time.

If one opens a restaurant, the monthly profits can range from Rs 50,000 to a couple of lakhs (or even more), depending on the restaurant’s profile, size, turnover, quality and popularity.

Nonetheless, if you’re hell-bent on going your own way, a few pointers may be of help. Most chefs and restaurateurs agree that a restaurant has to reek of personality, from its branding right down to its service on every table. A restaurant reflects the personality of the person running it. Much like human relations, people can develop either an affinity or an aversion to an eatery.

Ritu Dalmia, chef and co-proprietor of the fine dining restaurant Diva in New Delhi, dwells on this point at length. The location of a restaurant, she says, is of paramount importance. “You might have the best product, but no one will find it if it is in gooney-lands,” she says. Once the location has been selected, focus on the décor. Nothing too fancy or expensive, just enough to make your guests feel perfectly at home. “Decide on a particular theme and then follow it without mixing too many elements,” says Dalmia. In other words, keep it simple yet comfortable.

Next, of course, is the cost factor. While it’s nice to be adventurous, it’s foolhardy to give in to fancy and go overboard on fixed costs. “It is, at the end of the day, a business, and has to make commercial sense. If you’re not careful, it is very easy for monthly costs to go out of hand,” says Dalmia. What might happen next is only a matter of conjecture.

Once these stock issues have been taken care of, there are other smaller things that need to be observed. The lifestyle of your clients, their food habits and spending power, and their preferences or reservations over ingredients — all these, if studied well and addressed accordingly, can work wonders for your business. “The distinctiveness and contours of a restaurant’s character should connect with the target group,” says Chatterjee.

And yet, after all those things have been taken care of, your restaurant might still go kaput. The reason? The food is yucky. “At the end of the day, it all boils down to what you serve on the platter,” says Banerjee. “Your clients are a discerning lot and you just can’t stuff anything down their throat. Your food simply has to be sumptuous,” he says.

So coming down to the basics, if you have problems boiling an egg, just forget it. But if you’ve matched your mother’s skills at more exotic fare such as mochar ghonto, maybe you’ve got what it takes.

So pamper yourself with a brand new chef’s knife, and get chopping.

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