With over 25 years of expertise, AD Singh is one of the trailblazers of India’s fine dining revolution. The man behind some of India’s most iconic restaurants—like Fatty Bao, Guppy, and Olive Bar & Kitchen— gets candid about the huge financial liabilities that the pandemic has brought upon the industry, the rising popularity of home deliveries, and how the government can help. By Adila Matra
Restaurants are now gradually opening in many parts of the country. What do you see as the biggest challenge?
The entire industry is evaluating whether it makes any sense to open restaurants without alcohol, with reduced seating, with 9 pm curfews, and amid reduced consumer demand. This has clearly been the biggest challenge the industry has faced, and my biggest learning has been the need for preparedness for something like this. Most of us will bleed heavily as it makes little sense to reopen the industry with all these conditions. In the long term, the liabilities created during the lockdown and the expected losses will be a load that many restaurants won’t be able to bear.
Olive Bar & Kitchen changed the way Indians viewed fine dining, with its revolutionary menu and free-spirited experience. Is there a need for yet another revolution in dining out, given the situation?
There has been a paradigm shift in the F&B space due to the pandemic, the resultant lockdowns, and the work-from-home scenario. There’s no doubt that this will help the delivery market come of age in India.
The meal experience at restaurants will not be the same, and a new set of innovative ideas is needed to keep ourselves viable. The Olive Group with brands like Guppy, Olive Bar & Kitchen, SodaBottleOpenerWala, Olly, Fatty Bao, etc. is working hard to implement all the necessary steps required for contactless dining. These could include digitising of menus and valet experience, stringent sanitisation, mandatory use of masks and gloves, temperature checks, partitions in some restaurants, and much more.
Restaurants are also looking at alternative F&B models like introducing DIY meal kits and subscribed meal plans. For instance, at Olive Qutub, ready-to-plate gourmet meals come with a virtual chat, where our chefs connect with guests to guide them into having a stellar three-course meal at home served with our signature touches—Moroccan tea glasses for candles and complimentary petit fours. At Guppy, your order comes with a lot of playful things, like specially designed fridge magnets, laptop stickers, and puzzle cards to while your time away.
In what ways can the government help businesses like yours?
Our industry, directly and indirectly, supports about 20 million jobs, and hence, the survival of the F&B industry is critical for the government. Many governments around the world are helping restaurants pay wages, and we, too, need something on those lines. Most companies have been paying a percentage of the employees’ earnings to the Employee State Insurance Scheme (ESIC)—this provides a network of free medical facilities. However, the corpus that ESIC currently has, owing to the contributions from employers and employees, is about INR 94,000 crore. This money must be disbursed immediately.
Are you looking to change or limit your menu to adapt to the situation?
As we get ready to reopen, the menus at all our restaurants are being revamped. The supply chain will take a while to recover, so focussing on what’s available locally and trimming the size of our menus make sense. We are also looking at trends that are popular among customers now and offering those as well as we can.
Any traditional Indian food trends that you see making a comeback?
Home cooking is big these days, so DIY meals will see a lot of interest.
Tell us a bit about your CSR activities during this difficult time?
The Olive Group’s initiative, Kitchens Against Hunger, is targeted towards serving the hungry, particularly children. We supported the Youth Feed India initiative of SAFA Society to raise funds to provide meals and rations sourced from local wholesalers and distributed it to the less fortunate. We also helped raise funds through personal and public channels for NRAI’s (National Restaurant Association of India) campaign, Feed The Needy.
On a brighter note, which restaurant would you visit first when the shutters open? And what would you order?
I’d like to head to Guppy, our Japanese restaurant in Delhi, and begin my meal with my regular, the salmon tartare. I would follow this up with the udon noodle soup with prawn tempura and half a portion of the unmatchable miso pork belly!