W Power 2024

What makes legacy brands stay relevant despite changing tastes

Some of India's most iconic restaurants are nurturing their pasts to grow the future as Gen Z, dubbed the nostalgia generation, digs into vintage

Published: Apr 19, 2024 02:49:58 PM IST
Updated: Apr 19, 2024 09:34:11 PM IST

What makes legacy brands stay relevant despite changing tastesThe legendary chef JP holds up the show-stopper Naan Bukhara, in Bukhara Restaurant, ITC Maurya, New Delhi.
At a recent private dinner hosted by an ambassador of another country, there is a rather large naan-like bread served as an accompaniment to the mezze. The naan of course is a cousin of the pita, popular around the Mediterranean and served with olives, dips and grills. But this naan-pita crossover brings a smile on the faces of all the Indian guests, including yours truly, when it is revealed that it is inspired by the giant naan Bukhara served at what is arguably India’s best-known restaurant. Bukhara, at ITC Maurya, has just turned 45 years old, and the diplomat had apparently visited the restaurant recently, coming back impressed so much by the signature bread that they instructed the cook at home to try a little experiment of their own!

In fact, the iconic restaurant has been on the itineraries of almost every visiting head of state in its almost half-a-century’s journey. From Bill (and Hilary and Chelsea) Clinton, after whom platters are named at the restaurant, to Vladimir Putin, whose entourage apparently took a large takeaway order—of raan and naan, back to Russia. But important visitors aside, the restaurant is also incredibly popular with Indians of all hues—who can afford it.

Despite the fact that tandoori restaurants are a dime a dozen, to be found almost everywhere in India and abroad, where tandoori food is amongst India’s best-known exports, Bukhara continues to be coveted and treated as a show-stopper; an indulgence for thousands of its fans.

“When I used to come back from college in the US, I used to go to Bukhara straight from the airport without even going home. I just love the food there so much and would crave it,” says Anant Vijay Mandelia, who runs an organic and hydroponic farm in the capital and belongs to an illustrious business family.

In a crowded and competitive market for dining, where the shelf life of restaurants is sometimes as short as two years, Bukhara continues to do almost 400-500 covers every day, making it one of India’s top grossers. So, what’s the secret? What makes legacy brands like this and a few others across the country endure and stay relevant for so many years despite changing tastes?

What makes legacy brands stay relevant despite changing tastesBukhara Collage: True expertise at the tandoor is vanishing but Bukhara has maintained taste consistently for 45 years in the precise cooking and sourcing.

Past continuous

If you have dined more than a few times over the decades at any of the legacy restaurants, you would have immediately realised a key to their success: Consistency. The same taste and quality of food, and even if minor tweaks are made, the essence of the place has remained the same. Strangely, it is this rootedness to the past that draws in even younger customers with no nostalgia personally for the restaurant.

At Bukhara, for instance, great care is taken by the legendary chef JP Singh (who has been here since 1991), India’s best expert at the highly dexterous and underrated art of the tandoor, to maintain consistency and not change things. “Some people suggested we add gravies such as butter chicken to the menu, but luckily the company decided not to tamper with the concept (rustic frontier food, which is only grilled). We also maintain stringent quality control in the sourcing. If the prawns are even a millimetre short, we reject them,” says chef JP, who can also often be seen standing behind the tandoor in a day and age when senior executive chefs no longer cook and sit ensconced in offices instead. “You have to be able to judge and alter heat in the tandoor by covering it with a lid as required… at many places, you will see over-charred food that loses its juiciness, that is the result of inexpert handling. At other places, you may find flavours have not seeped in… I find many chefs even on Instagram now teaching using oil in the marination, how can flavours seep in if you do that? It is a science,” says the master, fastidious about processes, mentoring younger chefs who join the team to be as particular.

If at Chinese and Japanese restaurants making precise folds in a dim sum or constructing the perfect sushi take years of practice, the tandoor too requires similar nuance and years of practice. At Bukhara, chef JP is exacting about these things. Which is why the fabled Dal Bukhara is just so, as is the raan, the grilled jhinga and others on the unvarying menu.

What makes legacy brands stay relevant despite changing tastesHemamalini Maiya, co-owner, MTR, says that main sambaar cooks were hired from the family's village in south canara earlier. Now, strict training is in place as the restaurant expands internationally.

Secrets of the sambaar for the Nostalgia Gen

At the iconic MTR in Bengaluru, where queues of diners can be seen snaking out at any given time of the day, there is a similar adherence to the old. Traditional recipes are strictly followed, dishes served in exactly the same way as in the 1960s, and cooks preferred from the same village in South Canara as the owners’ family. The legendary south Indian restaurant has been around since 1960 at its Lalbagh Road location, and caters to a jaw-dropping 1,000 plus people even on weekdays.

Its sambaar is always cooked by the most experienced chefs, the senior most in the kitchen hierarchy. Earlier, these master cooks would be hired from Parampalli, a village in South Canara to which the Maiyas (MTR’s owners) belong, but over the years, as it has become harder to find skilled traditional cooks, a rigorous process of training has been established. “There is a danger to traditional tastes as there is a dearth of skilled hands and recipes are not being passed down generations anymore,” points out Hemamalini Maiya, co-owner of the iconic restaurant that has been expanding internationally post pandemic.

Though Maiya says it is inevitable that tastes change, she believes “we continue to survive because traditional food is still enjoyed by most,” and that Gen Z, which is experimental, does seek out flavours rooted in specific cultures. The insistence on not tampering with tradition and rigorous staff selection means that MTR is slow to expand despite “many offers, but we prefer to work with families we know,” as Maiya says. In the last two years, the restaurant has grown outlets in Seattle and Kathmandu, and Toronto is on the anvil this summer.

The adherence to heritage is in fact serving legacy restaurants such as these well as Gen Z gets dubbed the “nostalgia generation” for seeking comfort and inspiration from an older, often romanticised past.

Globally, various studies, including by GWI, a leading audience research company for the global marketing industry, have found how Gen Z is attracted to ideas of a past it never experienced. In its 2023 study, GWI reported that 37 percent of Gen Z (born between 1997 and 2006) it polled said they were nostalgic for the 1990s. About 15 per cent said they’d rather think about the past than the future. Marketing trends in fashion, music and media are now being fuelled by this desire to go back to an idyllic past at a time when an overwhelming number of Gen Z say they feel anxious about the future.

Also read: Why restaurateurs are betting big on India's new penchant for luxe dining experiences

What makes legacy brands stay relevant despite changing tastesApart from the football sized bhature, Kwality's charm lies in a nostalgia for old style "continental" and a vintage Delhi that even Gen Z is drawn to.

Retro food and a romanticised past for Gen Z

Retro food and restaurants that connote a stable, romanticised past seem to be getting rediscovered by younger customers. Though in India we do not have any studies reporting this trend, anecdotally, the interest in legacy restaurants and foods seems to be at an all-time high.

At Kwality, Delhi, that dates back to 1940, the Lamba family (founder PL Lamba’s son and grandsons now look after the business), the vintage charm is all around us with leathered upholstery, old photographs of Lutyens’ Delhi by the historic Mahatta & Co studio (now shut), and a menu with its famous football-sized bhature as well as ‘Continental’ dishes of yore such as chicken a la Kyiv—neither Continental nor Ukrainian.

Instead, these are 1950s-1960s style American dishes invented in New York as Russian restaurants started opening in global financial and cultural hubs. These dishes became popular all over the world as the American pop culture grew and influenced youth trends.

Circa 2024, Gen Z is now ironically discovering what was hip in their grandparent’s or even great grandparent’s times—and taking to it. “I recently took a friend from my university, who belongs to Shillong, and she was awestruck,” says Aaliya Ashwin, a student of OP Jindal University in Sonipat.

“It was a necessity back then, to serve a smattering of Continental and Punjabi restaurant dishes for the elite (and anglicised) Delhiites who patronised the restaurant,” says the Yale-educated Divij Lamba, who came back to join the family business, “but we haven’t tried to tamper too much with this DNA.” The younger generation, observes Lamba, has taken to “our Continental food with a gusto, I guess, because they like nostalgia and the fact that this is non-apologetic Continental food, which you do not get anywhere else. There are perhaps just three restaurants serving this kind of food, and it does very well,” he adds.

The family, that also owns Gaylord in Mumbai, has recently redone that restaurant too with “a very interesting heritage interpretation”.

What makes legacy brands stay relevant despite changing tastesFlurys breakfasts still draw long queues but the enduring popularity of the restaurant is also because of an emotional connect with Kolkata. No Bengali film was complete without a Flurys situation and the "nostalgia gen" revisits this history via the food.

An idea of Calcutta

That nostalgia is selling as the world around us changes rapidly is also something hotelier Priya Paul, chairperson of the Apeejay Surrendra Park Hotels that recently went public, is perhaps betting on as she grows her Calcutta legacy.

Flurys tearoom and pastry shop on Park Street has been one of Kolkata’s legendary institutions since 1927. Now, it is set for a phenomenal expansion, pan India.
Though there are 75 outlets (cafes, kiosks and five restaurants) of Flurys already, 68 of these are in West Bengal, and the rest of India perhaps does not recognise the taste the tearoom stands for even as it recognises the brand name. But Paul aims to grow the chain to 350 in five years across cities, including a stunning new marquee restaurant at the Gateway of India, Mumbai, this year in mid-May.

The quintessential “full” English breakfast has always been a star at the Kolkata restaurant. When I visited the city during Christmas last year, there were queues outside the door waiting to get in for a ‘Burrah Din’ brekkie, and through my own avocado toast and pancakes breakfast, I could overhear conversations from neighbouring tables of people who had flown in from Bangalore or California and were on a sort of pilgrimage to discover a Calcutta of old, of their parents’ and grandparents’ times.

Though the food at Flurys has continued to evolve with changing palates (“We source top quality ingredients both locally and from international vendors and maintain quality, but we have also added dishes that appeal to current sensibilities,” points out Paul) and you may find even a Thai curry or Indian appetiser on the new menus as per local tastes in different markets, yet staples such as the big breakfast remain and exert their own pull.

More importantly, what Paul says has been the historic draw is the idea of a family place for everyone, for all occasions. “Right from the beginning, it was a local hangout… not even the third place after home and office. But the second place for Kolkata families. It is entwined with the history of Kolkata, and no Bengali film is complete, for instance, without a Flurys situation,” Paul says with a laugh. She has found many people with roots in Kolkata becoming Flurys ambassadors, and is hoping this idea of the city will have a larger resonance even with those who don’t belong.  

As legacy dining not just survives but thrives, it is this emotional connect to the past, it seeks to nurture.

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