How Vikram Mohan of automotive firm Pricol is spearheading the group’s foray into specialty restaurants

When Vikram Mohan, chairman of VM Hospitality, credits one of the country’s leading luxury hospitality chains for setting him on his current path, make no mistake, it is a left-handed compliment. Mohan heads Coimbatore-headquartered, listed automotive solutions firm Pricol, with a consolidated turnover of over Rs 1,000 crore, and a host of other businesses, including real estate and travel, but his latest foray has been into the ultra-competitive restaurant business. The group has launched five restaurants,including, arguably, India’s first Ethiopian restaurant, Abyssinian, in Chennai, where even the furniture has been shipped all the way from the East African country.

Since Pricol has operations in the north and the west, Mohan had clients looking for a “nice south Indian meal”. He would take them to a south Indian restaurant of a five-star hotel. “But the food would be nothing like it was meant to be.” Yet, the clients found the food fantastic. “That got me thinking about how we need to take south Indian food outside the region – most people either think south Indian food is idli-vada or that mediocre is great.”

That’s how VM Hospitality’s first restaurant, Savya Rasa, showcasing south Indian food, particularly lesser known cuisines like Kongu Nadu dishes, was launched two years ago in Pune.

Mumbai is likely to be the next port of call for this outlet while the broad plan is to open at least 30 restaurants across formats in different cities by next year.

This will include Parsi chain Batlivala & Khanabhoy; Meena Tai , which serves cuisine from five regions of Maharashtra; and outlets in the quickserving restaurant (QSR) format dishing out sandwiches and Tex-Mex. Mohan is also chairman of Double Roti, the Gurgaon-headquartered fast-food chain.

It is evident that food is a passion for the entrepreneur, from his minute directions on what to order when we meet for lunch at the Coimbatore outlet of Batlivala, the city’s first Parsi restaurant. The bespectacled 42-year-old, in a standard-issue Pricol tee, says he began cooking when he was working on his first venture, straight out of college. The contract farming business failed, but when he was farming in a village, far from home, he began to cook and fell in love with the process. “I’ve been exploring food since. I’ve been to 76 countries, done a lot of sampling and, at last count, had eaten 28 kinds of meat, including elephant and hippopotamus.”

Is this a case of one more enthusiast trying to convert a hobby into a business? He is not deterred by the many tombstones in the sector. “The failure rate is high because people think they just need to hire two chefs and an interior decorator and can roll out in three months. About 90% of these restaurants don’t have a USP. I’m here for the long term, to build brands. I’m not looking to recover my money from the third month onwards,” he says.

The proposed outlay for the venture is Rs 24 crore with the expectation that “serious money” would come in once the group has opened 30-35 restaurants, the target for next year. The plan is to have a pyramid structure, with a limited number of fine-dining restaurants such as Savya Rasa and Meena Tai at the top, the Parsi restaurant as the mid-segment chain, and QSR for the volumes. “This way, we can hedge our risks and be in multiple cities.”

PROOF OF THE PUDDING
The research and other pre-launch work took some 18 months, he says. “We needed to standardise so that any chef would be able to replicate the dishes at any location. We built a 3,000 sq ft trial kitchen on a one-acre patch next to my house and invited ‘master chefs’ from eight regions — not chefs from five-star hotels but ordinary women who are famous for a particular dish.”

To tackle the challenge of sourcing regional ingredients, a central processing unit was set up where items like gongura (sorrel) puree could be made as well as a 25 acre farm to grow ingredients like the Byadagi chilli used in Mangalorean ghe e roas t chicken .

Being the arm of an established business group provides certain advantages to the hospitality group. It drew on the automotive company’s supply chain experience, used the realty arm’s expertise in construction and the corporate team’s for compliance.

The proof of the pudding is, of course, in the eating. At lunch, the gravy cutlets, guava ni curry and a santrani kheer turn out to be good and distinct from the standard Parsi restaurant menu. Ameeta Agnihotri, the editor of Times Food Guide, Chennai, says all three of the group’s restaurants in that city are quite authentic. The Abyssinian, with its injera meals, “is small (24 covers) but they have done all they can to make it as authentic as possible, even importing ingredients from Ethiopia” Only the Parsi restaurant needs a little more effort in getting the cuisine right, she adds.

Mohan says it is the excellent response to Abyssinian that is pushing him to open in Pune soon, and that both Abyssinian and Meena Tai are close to break even. But Agnihotri strikes a note of caution. “To be successful in this business, you need to constantly be there to monitor and evaluate. You cannot leave it to a manager or the chef. A disappointed guest might not give you a second chance.”

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