In Indore, it can get quite chilly in November. The temperature by the poolside at Sayaji Hotel was hovering around 7ºC, and restaurant manager Prosenjit Choudhury was getting complaints that kebabs served to the guests were going cold.
One evening at home, Choudhury saw a television programme about nomads facing a similar problem while camping on riverbanks. They erected a grill using stacked armour, and roasted meat on it.
Choudhury began serving kebabs, which were 90 percent cooked, on mini-grills at the tables. It was a hit.
After a successful stint in Sayaji Hotel’s banquets division—he had started with parent company Sayaji Hotels as a management trainee in 1995—Choudhury got the go-ahead from Sajid Dhanani, then MD of Sayaji Hotels, to enter food retail. As CEO of Barbeque Nation, Choudhury brought the idea from Indore to Mumbai in 2006, with the city’s first Barbeque Nation at Pali Hill, in Bandra.
Between 2006 and 2008, Barbeque Nation grew from a single outlet to 13. Today, it has 35 outlets, 18 of them opening in the last year alone. With a revenue of Rs 200 crore last year (it is expected to touch Rs 350 crore this fiscal), the chain brings in roughly Rs 9 crore per store, one of the highest for restaurant chains in India. Profit margins are 19 percent, which, for a buffet service serving unlimited meat and seafood, is remarkable.
The chain—it operates on economies of scale, which is difficult to replicate—has found a way to scale and replicate standards across 14 cities by offering customers an ‘independent’ dining experience: They pay a flat price (between Rs 650 and Rs 800 per head, depending on location and time), get a choice of five vegetarian and five non-vegetarian starters that they can season and cook on the grill at their table, move to the main course buffet, and eat as much as they want.
At the back end, purchases are meticulously planned, while at the front end the service is homely and the atmosphere informal. The chain expects to serve 55 lakh guests in 2013-14.
The Dhanani family owns Sayaji Hotels. After visionary MD Sajid Dhanani passed away in November 2012, brother Kayum took over. “The enterprise he created wasn’t so easy to understand initially, but now I’m discovering my brother through his work,” says Kayum, who recently secured Rs 110 crore in PE funds from CX Partners to help fund further expansion. He plans to use the money to strengthen the existing centralised kitchen system, invest in marketing, and add 34 new outlets by the end of 2016. He has also moved the corporate office to Bangalore for better access to a talent pool.
Setting up shop
Starting in Mumbai was a challenge for a little known brand from Madhya Pradesh. The owner of the Pali Hill outlet premises had had trouble with tenants and was cautious about letting it out. Choudhury had to pay advances on rent and building material to convince all parties concerned that he was there for the long haul. Luckily for him, the store generated a steady income from the first day itself. “I wanted to see if the hoopla around the live-grill would wear off, but after six months, we had 50 percent return customers,” he says. “Two rivals copied the idea but failed miserably after three months because they tried to cheat the customer.”
“I let my servers assess how to deal with customers, since they are closer to god,” he jokes, “The customer is god.” Everything at Barbeque Nation, he says, is about the customer, rather than the process. It has done well because it doesn’t short-change the customer. Jacob Kurian, partner at New Silk Route (investors in Udupi restaurant chain Adigas), says, “Barbeque Nation doesn’t begrudge you on portions. If they say they are serving prawns, they will really give you unlimited amounts of prawn.”
“Advertising unlimited prawns and then putting in more vegetables or giving smaller prawns won’t work,” says Choudhury, “You cannot fool the customer.”
Kurian also feels that a fixed price makes it easy for groups of professionals to visit because there’s no uncertainty about the bill. He adds that although the concept of an unlimited buffet is not new, Barbeque Nation’s execution has been superior, making imitators struggle to compete. It has been able to deliver consistency at every outlet: Unlimited food, prompt service and clean toilets.
But the journey hasn’t been without its challenges. Last year, Choudhury’s mentor and friend Sajid Dhanani suddenly passed away after an illness. Choudhury attributes much of the chain’s success to lessons Sajid taught him. “I learnt my hoteliering from him,” he says, “His style helped me take key decisions pertaining to customers, staff and systems.”
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(This story appears in the 28 June, 2013 issue of Forbes India. To visit our Archives, click here.)
Barbeque Nation is a great concept!on Jan 21, 2016
I think they bring the superb idea of grill at you own table,,,the problem they faced about Cold kebabs are removed and new think for the peoples created.....on Oct 5, 2015
I was in Baroda after attending Vibrant Gujarat and came across Barbeque Nation, and this is the first time ever in my life i felt happy eating at a restaurant by all standards - food, ambiance, service, price etc etc for first time i felt this elated experience and first time i am writing a review without being asked for. I congratulate the founders and mentors of this great institution. I consult globally for brands, branding and other expertise, I would love to render free consultation to Barbecque Nation. Thank you for being wonderful, Fortune Blueprintson Jan 16, 2015
Impressed with the entire thing - right from concept to after sales feed back procedures. Interested to be part of the professional team by taking Frenchise in Ahmedabad . Please let me know the procedure. Thankson Sep 20, 2013
How can we meet the person who is reposible for all the technology used there Regards Amit 9250000790on Sep 12, 2013
I was an ardent lover of Barbeque Nation when it started operations in Janakpuri; it was one of my favourite hangouts for group parties. The food was great and service was spot-on. However, lately, despite the service being same, the quality of food has downgraded badly. It is no more a foodie\'s havenl; there are far better options. BBQ sells because of the concept! Also, I feel that they are quite clever with food presentation. If you observe closely, prawns (most expensive item) often arrive last amongst food items, and in the meanwhile, the customer would have had other stuff and quite filled up his only stomach.on Aug 24, 2013
Barbeque Nation has been One of my favorite Dining outle in Delhi. The concept is gr8..food it awsome..on Aug 5, 2013
Barbeque Nation has been \'One of my favorite and most preferred dining outlets\' and will continue to be so. Only thing that i would like to suggest is the management should strive better to create a niche in the menu also concentrating harder on main course and desserts and establish a \'wow\' factor in the starters as well.on Jul 17, 2013
the concept is good ...have eaten and both Pali hill and Nerul (Navi Mumbai) outlet....but the taste is nothing great....can go for novelty once or twice and more so to take parents/friends from town who have never seen such a concept ... can\'t eat frequently.....on Jun 21, 2013
Are you serious? The food is so so awesome. You should have given your complaint when you get a call the next day. BBQ Nation is the best!on Jul 17, 2013