Adding dynamism to the fast evolving restaurant scenario in the country are the themed restaurants, each of them having a long term business strategy to develop brand loyalists by setting high benchmarks in terms of ambience, F&B and service. By Sudipta Dev
Themed restaurants are in the business of carving an indelible niche for one’s establishment in the customer’s mind space. In an era when ‘exclusivity’ is the buzzword, these restaurants and brands standout through their concepts, décor and F&B. While novelty might draw in the customers for the very first time, it is the high benchmark that an establishment sets in terms of F&B and service that ensures repeat clientele. Interestingly, the brand name, is made famous not just by the theme but by the consistent quality that the customer naturally comes to expect in such establishments.
India has quite a few iconic themed restaurants that have been in business for some decades, like Chor Bizzare in Delhi which was opened in 1990 and completes 25 years this year. Inspired by the ‘Chor Bazaar’- the typical thieves market which almost every city in India has and where all kinds of wares find its way, the restaurant has a collection of objects d’art, memorabilia and bric-a-bracs from the bazaars of India. “Every corner speaks of nostalgia, splendour and charm. You could find yourself at a four poster bed from the Kolkata of yore, that has been innovatively converted into a table for six, or maybe you’d rather spin a yarn or two at a Singer Sewing machine base that is now a table for two,” says Pratik Sinha, general manager, Chor Bizarre, Delhi. The piece de resistance at Chor Bizarre, Delhi is a 1935 Fiat Bolella that serves as a unique salad mobile, perhaps the only one of its kind in the world.
Another well known landmark in the national capital’s restaurant scenario is the Rodeo in Connaught Place, which was the first authentic Mexican restaurant to open in India in 1994. “When I was younger, I always enjoyed watching cowboy movies and thought they were very cool. Rodeo tries to provide its customers with an ambience of fun, great food, music and an unforgettable time,” states Saeed Shervani, MD of Shervani Hospitalities. When Shervani had opened the Rodeo at the time in Delhi, bars were present only inside five star hotels. If one wanted a drink outside of a five star hotel, it was not possible. “Furthermore, if the establishment was not a restaurant then it could not get a liquor license. So Rodeo was built as a saloon/ bar and tex-mex cuisine was considered best fit for it,” he mentions.
Then there are international brands like the Hard Rock Cafe that have forayed into the India market and have found instant success. Sanjay Mahtani, co-founder and joint MD of JSM Corporation that has brought the brand to the country believes that the restaurant speaks to its fans the language of Rock N Roll. “Hard Rock has become a haven for fans of music, food and good times. A brand that provides an overall experience to the guest-whether it is the Legendary Burger, Signature Cocktails or the Rock Memorabilia,” he adds.
Recent years have seen a number of restaurants and resto-bars coming up with interesting new concepts. Hoppipola by Speciality Restaurants has presence in Mumbai, Pune and Bengaluru, with expansion plans for more. Hoppipola means jumping in puddles in Icelandic and promotes the idea that you do not have to be young to have fun. Avick Chatterjee, founder of Hoppipola acknowledges that he has tried to create a a difference in terms of the environment. “Most bars in India are traditionally dark and stiff with their design, theme, service and interiors. The idea was to break away from it and create a live, happy, fresh and bright place. That’s when we realised the only time adults felt free and relaxed was as kids when there were no hangups and rules were meant to be broken,” states Chatterjee. Hoppipola takes its guests back to childhood days with chalkboard tables, 16 bit video games, fresh white interiors, real plants, comic books from Tinkle and Suppandi to Spiderman and Manga themes.
The recently opened Gangsta’s Cafe and Bar in Mumbai (see cover image), as the name suggests, recreates the ambience straight from a Mafiosi movie set in the heart of Bandra. Suved Lohia, director, Aallia Hospitality, which owns Gangsta’s explains why they chose the particular theme. “The building is Gothic, the location Bandra has many stories just like every gangster movie has many stories. Everyone wants to be bold and powerful and Gangsta’s makes you feel that,” opines Lohia. Pointing out that everyone is looking for something new today, Lohia adds, “We have achieved to give a good vibe, a good energy and a good ambience. We are very moderately priced, compared to our competitors in Bandra but the infrastructure, the service is way above. We are making it an everyday watering hole but keeping the standards very high. Gangsta’s enables you to have a good time, in excellent ambience, at the same price.”
Contrasting in theme and décor is Kipos, another Bandra based restaurant that recreates the magic of Greece in ‘Aamchi Mumbai’. Naveen Prem, founder of the Greek themed restaurant says, “Greece is where Gods themselves lived. We work on providing our customers a ‘heavenly’ experience.”
The Bar Stock Exchange (TBSE) in Mumbai is India’s first stock market based pub chain where the drink prices change based on real time demand and supply. High-tech technology monitors this demand supply algorithm. “TBSE presents an experience similar to trading in the stock market – where you can monitor the price of your favourite stock (aka drink) and trade real time,” states Mihir Desai, co-owner, TBSE. Customers can trade live at the venue or via an Andriod / iOS app that relays a live feed of the current price, the high and the low of that day. “Also, in keeping with the concept, we have designed the entire bar to simulate a real stock exchange, with a propreitory software and trading servers designed exclusively for us,” adds Desai. The idea first came to him when in New York he came across a brewery trading in beer like a stock exchange trades in stocks. Though sports cafes came to India a bit late, nonetheless the popularity of these establishments is pointer enough to the fact that the trend is here to stay. SMAAASH is Mumbai’s new sports cafe where you can enjoy football matches, the World Cup, T20 or Kabaddi, on huge screens, with special menus and in the company of fellow sports fanatics. “SMAAASH is all about active entertainment. It made sense to create an environment that matched with the customer mindset of a non intimidating sports cafe, with large portions, classic dishes, jumbo cocktails, and large screens that show all the live sporting events in the world,” mentions Srinidhi Rao, CEO, SMAAASH.
Ask any smart restaurateur, and he would be quick to confirm that themed restaurants are good for business. The most important factor is that the customer has a reason more than food to visit the restaurant. “The ambience of a restaurant plays an important role in the overall experience of a guest. At Chor Bizarre we serve memories and meals from Kashmir to Kerala,” affirms Sinha.
Considering the fact that themed restaurants give different ambience than the regular ones, patrons understand that they can take their dining experience to a whole new level when they dine in a restaurant with an interesting theme. “It allows customers to get a break from their daily lives enjoying the atmosphere while at the same time having a great meal,” mentions Shervani. Prem avers that a themed restaurant, if well executed, simply stands out in the crowd of mediocre suburban ‘eat-outs’. An evolving theme restaurant always keeps the experience fresh.
Another significant advantage is the ease of marketing, which results in more footfall. “Also, people are always looking for something new to excite them – a themed restaurant and bar also titillates their taste buds and grey cells, making it a great winning combination,” points out Desai. Clarity of positioning is another important factor. Rao asserts that it a simple and clear positioning that can occupy greater mind space in the customer’s mind. This also removes many confusions regarding what experience to expect.
Brands like the Hard Rock Cafe manage to build its own legion of loyalists. “There is a distinct difference in our product, image, service, food, quality, people, innovation, creativity, engagement and style compared to other brands. This makes your restaurant the go-to place and creates loyalists that visit you for specific reasons. For example, a lot of guests visit Hard Rock Cafe for the exceptional live acts,” acknowledges Mahtani.
Establishments like Hoppipola that have expanded fast have worked on the strengths that make this segment so popular. The key advantages, according to Chatterjee are – ease of replication due to standardisation; the chance to retain the experience across setups; and the comfort factor once the theme is liked and accepted by customers for them to go to a branch without having to think twice.
There is no formula for success, and most owners who successfully run theme based restaurants and resto-bars, have understood that well. They have differentiated themselves in a fiercely competitive marketplace by keeping the benchmark high, and constantly countering the many challenges. While imitation might be the best form of flattery, when it comes to these restaurants, there is always the danger of someone else hijacking the concept. “Duplication is one challenge that we face on and off. The only way to sustain is to be innovative on an on-going basis and maintain consistency in our standard offerings,” says Mahtani.
Quality control and consistency are important factors particularly to ensure a loyal customer base. “With restaurants mushrooming up every week in the city, we need to ensure that not just the food but the training of the service staff is proper, audits are in place, uniforms, menus, décor, everything is just perfect,” mentions Sinha. Another handicap is the issue with space. Design, being an integral attraction in these restaurants, obviously demands more space than an average restaurant. “A themed restaurant typically involves much more design elements in order to bring ‘alive’ the themed experience,” remarks Shervani. Sometimes F&B can also be an area of concern. Prem of Greek themed Kipos, confesses that it is always a challenge to bring delicacies from across the world and translate these original recipes’ to the Indian palette.
The expectations of a customer visiting a themed restaurant is several notches higher. The reason is obvious. With a themed restaurant business, there is an added responsibility to deliver that which distinguishes the establishment in the market. “ The key is to deliver this with constant innovation, while maintaining regular standards,” states Mahtani.
Further, after the first few times the customers develop their own mindset and expectations as they start associating with the theme. Chatterjee explains that customers try and fit in things that the restauranteur had not considered or had intentionally left out. “Many a times not listening and living up to that could also mean losing customers,” he warns. No matter the theme, flexibility and innovation have to remain the long term success strategy of any themed restaurant.
Growth and popularisation
In the fast evolving restaurant scenario in the country, where many new owners are ready to risk, themed restaurants have a lot of potential for growth. “This is the way to go in the future, if the restaurant owner wants to make a mark in the industry and stand out,” states Sinha. Today the customer is well informed and well travelled, and this has drastically changed the local market dynamics in the last few years. As the customer is now open to experimenting and exploring new places and newer cuisines, Mahtani believes this leaves great scope of growth and development for themed restaurants in the future.
(With inputs from Akshay Kumar)