Forbes India 15th Anniversary Special

'Fine dining died in the past decade': AD Singh

Millennials have turned fads and trends into a way of life that has shaped the F&B industry

Published: Jan 10, 2020 12:52:39 PM IST
Updated: Jan 10, 2020 02:16:01 PM IST

'Fine dining died in the past decade': AD SinghSocial media has given chefs recognition, but it also gives anyone the power to write malicious reviews that can be damaging for restaurants
Image: Bondar Illia / Shutterstock

The largest and most visible trend in the food and beverages (F&B) industry over the past decade has been the rise of a national market largely comprising the next-gen who’ve grown up with the kind of disposable income and exposure levels (thanks to TV and the internet) that their parents didn’t have. The global tastes and aspirations of this new set have shaped the industry over this period.

'Fine dining died in the past decade': AD Singh
This millennial market is hugely adventurous, which is exciting for restaurateurs like myself. Yet, despite being aspirational, they seek comfort in terms of the ambience, cuisine, music, price points etc. While they go out far more frequently than their parents, what drives them is the social experience. This has challenged what was typical ‘fine dining’ and driven instead multi-cuisine restaurants with a mix of Bollywood and western commercial music, and sans fancy jargons on the menu.

However, this new demography is maturing slowly and acquiring a taste for the more sophisticated. The coming decade will see a change of demands in the market, like the re-emergence of fine-dining.

The millennials’ familiarity with and overwhelming use of social media have greatly shaped the way the industry has been structured and marketed over the past decade. For someone like me who’s been around for nearly 30 years, the script for engagement has changed. The competition is much more, and customers far less loyal. We have to work far harder to build a relationship with our customers. 

On the other hand, while for a long time, the focus in F&B was on high-profile owners, social media has given chefs an identity and recognition. Now there’s a far greater connect between them and the diners, which is great. However the downside is the ease with which malicious and damaging reviews of restaurants can be created and I’ve urged my teams to build up credibility with consumers. 

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This new market has also forced restaurateurs to think differently, to look at what they care for. The millennials are concerned about sustainability, nutrition, transparency, and they are willing to pay a bit more for that. As a result, we’ve seen the rise of natural and organic food and they’re here to stay.

F&B products have also shaped their market strategies based on these and, for instance, are looking to tap into the benefits of the Mediterranean diet or the anti-ageing power of antioxidants in essential ingredients like berries, olive oil and honey. I don’t even look at these as fads, they’re a way of life for our audience and will continue to grow.

In terms of cuisines, regional or hyperlocal has been the buzzword over the past decade. Traditional food evokes a past filled with memories and recalls habits and lifestyle choices rooted in a specific socio-geographic context. Despite an explosion of global flavours, there has been an increasing propensity for diners to choose food that’s authentic, simple, and linked to childhood and family meals. But in terms of regional restaurants, there are still too few when compared to the vastness of the opportunity. Off the top of my head, I can think of only a handful of national chains doing credible regional food—Oh! Calcutta, SodaBottleOpenerWala, Rajdhani and maybe just another few—and here’s a huge market waiting to be tapped. 

When it comes to regulations, though, our industry’s had it pretty bad in the last decade; it possibly saw the worst ever in the last three years. Even the biggest players are struggling. Often, the authorities don’t do what they should be doing and come down hard on companies that are working closely with the law. Two and a half years ago, the Supreme Court passed an order banning outlets serving liquor within 500 metres of a highway to curb accidents resulting from drunken driving. It was only after six months that the courts clarified it didn’t apply within city limits but, by then, F&B hubs and restaurants within locations like CyberHub in Gurugram and Oberoi Mall in Mumbai had suffered huge damages.

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The Kamala Mills fire was the worst disaster I’ve seen in our industry but the arbitrary rulings that followed really hurt. Then, for instance, about a year ago, Bengaluru passed a law banning music at restaurants that served liquor. Music is an integral part of the experience at bars and pubs... if you stop that you may as well close them. So restaurants and bars that have invested and opened within the existing rules suddenly need to be shut down overnight.

These events have been quite harrowing for us and shaken up even someone like me, who loves being and working in India. Now, for the first time, I’m aggressively looking to put part of our efforts overseas. 

The last decade has also seen the emergence of foodtech companies [like Zomato and Swiggy] and we are still working on our dynamics with them. Of course, they are indispensable if you want to expand your reach, but quite a few of their policies are detrimental to the restaurant business. I don’t think that’s the smartest way to go. An industry which has built its business around other industry must do everything to ensure the success and the longevity of the former. I’m sure there is a win-win situation if we work this out.

There’s no doubt though that the delivery business is growing exponentially fuelled by a change in people’s habits around Netflix and so on. We’re working with aggregators to build our own delivery business. About their incredible valuations? I’m not so sure. I’m old fashioned and I don’t dabble in businesses that don’t make money yet are highly valued.

Finally, one of the most heartening changes of the decade has been the coming together of industry partners. Over the last four-five years, ably led by NRAI (National Restaurant Association of India) heads like Sameer Kukreja, Riyaaz Amlani, Rahul Singh etc, the industry has put together a united front in dealing with problems. This camaraderie, which wasn’t there earlier, is great to see.

(As told to Pankti Mehta Kadakia & Kathakali Chanda)

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(This story appears in the 17 January, 2020 issue of Forbes India. To visit our Archives, click here.)