Forbes India 15th Anniversary Special

Everything can go virtual but not restaurants and bars: Zorawar Kalra

The founder of Massive Restaurants speaks about being on an expansion spree, his business strategy and why local and regional are the flavours of the future

Published: Mar 27, 2021 09:00:00 AM IST
Updated: Mar 27, 2021 12:16:24 PM IST

Everything can go virtual but not restaurants and bars: Zorawar KalraIn Mumbai, Zorawar Kalra's (above) Massive Restaurants opened a Sri Lankan restaurant because they realised that there are not many great restaurants that serve this cuisine.
In December last year, Bo-Tai Switch, a premium dining space that becomes a bar post 11 pm, was opened on Parliament Street in Delhi. This launch was followed by the inauguration of Swan, an al fresco Japanese and Italian restaurant that overlooks the Qutub Minar, in January, as well as Butter Delivery, a cloud kitchen, also in Delhi. Around the same time, +94 Bombay, a Maharashtrian and Sri Lankan food restaurant was opened in the Palladium Mall at Mumbai. A new Farzi Café, a modern Indian bistro, opened in Dhaka last month.

Besides these, over the next two months, Zorawar Kalra, founder and director of Massive Restaurants, that operates 34 restaurants in nine Indian and international cities, will also open three outlets of Farzi Café in Canada, Kolkata and Chennai. Its pan-Asian bistro Pa Pa Ya will also enter Chennai. And Bo-Tai, a modern Thai bar and grill, along with Swan, will make it to Goa along with another restaurant (that Kalra doesn’t want to talk about at present), followed by an all-day bar and restaurant, YOUnion, in Delhi.

Forbes India talks to Kalra, also judge of last season’s MasterChef India, about his expansion spree, business strategy and top dining trends. 

Q. While so many restaurants shut shop in the last few months, Massive Restaurants is on an expansion spree. What has been working in your favour?
A lot of the decisions to open the newer outlets were made before the Covid-19 pandemic. We opened new outlets after the lockdown ended. 

The ones coming up are part of our long-term vision and plan for the food business in India, and, I think we are still at a very nascent stage. There is a long way to go and grow, and you will see many more outlets coming up later this year.

So as and when we find good locations and great rental deals that have a long-term liquor licence, we grab them. Post the lockdown, real estate has become 30 percent to 35 percent cheaper, and that makes all the difference. The probability of making profits becomes that much more. Along with the great value that we are getting for great locations currently, we also have great faith in the restaurants business and confidence in our concepts. Covid is going to go away eventually, and the restaurant business will do well again.

One must remember that everything can go virtual but not restaurants and bars. You will always go there for a great experience.

Q. What are the factors that help you decide what restaurants to launch where?
There are two parts to this, one is data-driven market study, and another is your experience and gut feeling. We study the demographics of the place, get reports from local real estate agents to understand the neighbourhood better and study existing restaurants in the area. And then there is your instinct. 

In Mumbai, we opened a Sri Lankan and Maharashtrian restaurant because we realised that there are not many great restaurants that serve these cuisines. Italian cuisine is popular in Delhi, and in this pandemic, people are more comfortable dining in an open space. So we decided to open a terrace restaurant, Swan, in Delhi.

Q. What made you decide on three restaurants in Goa?
Goa is a new city for us, and we are very excited about it. Two restaurants are coming up in Vagator and one in Morjim. The real estate in Goa is cheaper than in Delhi and Mumbai and that factor is very attractive. Also, post Covid, Goa will see a huge surge in both domestic and international travel. 

Q. What lessons did you learn from the lockdown?In
the lockdown, the existence of the entire food and beverage industry was questioned. And that jolted all of us. We now do not take anything for granted. We have become a little less risk-averse and take more calculated decisions and have cut down extra costs. Most companies have become leaner, more efficient; hence, existence and survival ability has gone up. 

Q. How do you adapt in these uncertain times?
In Mumbai, the number of Covid cases has gone up and sales have dropped. We are preparing for these fluctuations by being very careful with the costs we incur. We are going to be shameless in cutting down costs and ensuring that there are reserves in the bank. If restaurants are working at 10 percent capacity, we can’t be paying our staff members for all 31 days.

They will be getting 100 percent salaries for the number of days they work, and those might be fewer until the crisis resolves. That said, we will not be firing anyone, not for the second time. But we must stay alive. And for that, unnecessary travel, unnecessary outsourcing of labour, will have to be cut.  

Having said that, except for Mumbai right now, we have been seeing a decent pickup in sales and if this trend continues, we will see 140 percent to 150 percent of pre-Covid numbers in the next six months.

Q. How has the restaurant business changed?
Loss-making restaurants, even those that were making minimum loses, have closed and most existing restaurants have become lean and efficient. Landlords have become reasonable as well. They have realised that the rents they were charging earlier were suicidal and leading to a non-sustainable environment. Cloud kitchens with limited menus are doing well. Our Butter Delivery menu just has five to six Indian items.

The larger the menu, the higher the chances of error. Health cafes are doing well, as people have become very conscious about their health and what they eat. Also, vegan is now considered the most responsible kind of cooking and eating. I myself am never going to be a vegan but I can understand where people are coming from.

Q. What will be the dining trends of the future?
Home cooks will gain a lot of importance and so will regional cuisines. For instance, Delhi now has quite a few kitchens serving food from Rampur and they are doing very well as people want to try different cuisines and local and regional are the flavours of the future. 

We will see a lot many restaurants in outdoor spaces because people perceive that it’s safer to dine there than in indoor areas. 

In international cuisine, good rustic Italian food is going to be in demand. Modern European cuisine is overdone, and people are tired of it. Rustic Italian is unexplored, however, it’s a familiar palette, something that Indians might enjoy.