Hindustan Times ST (Mumbai) - Brunch - - INDULGE - Vir Sanghvi

THREE UN­RE­LATED events over the last fort­night got me think­ing. The first had noth­ing to do with food. I went to see Naked, a one-man show by the stand-up co­me­dian Papa CJ. If you’ve seen CJ’s cor­po­rate shows or watched him host events, then you will know that he is witty, gen­uinely funny and has a great sense of tim­ing.

But Naked was more than just stand-up. It was part com­edy, part tragedy and a mem­oir of his life to date. I found the end, when he talked about his per­sonal life, in­cred­i­bly mov­ing (I won’t say more for fear of giv­ing away his act). But the bit that got me think­ing were his mem­o­ries of grow­ing up in pre-lib­er­al­i­sa­tion In­dia. He spoke of an era when it was a big deal to get a tele­phone at home, when hair con­di­tioner was a largely un­known and mys­te­ri­ous com­mod­ity, when peo­ple still used cam­eras with film rolls, and about the way we dated at that time.

The sec­ond event was food- and ho­tel-re­lated. I went back to the Hy­att Re­gency in Bom­bay af­ter nearly a decade. You may know the Re­gency, it’s the fancy ho­tel next to the ITC Maratha on the way to the air­port. On the other

Ho­tel chains need good restau­rants to suc­ceed, and yet stan­dalones of­fer stiff com­pe­ti­tion. Can they find a way out in the new lib­er­alised In­dia?

hand, you might also con­fuse it with the Grand Hy­att, its much-bet­ter-known sib­ling. The truth is that the Re­gency is Bom­bay’s lesser-known Hy­att and per­haps one of the lesser-known ho­tels in the clus­ter that has grown up near the air­port.

As it turned out, the ho­tel was ter­rific. The ser­vice was ef­fi­cient and friendly and I dis­cov­ered, some­what to my sur­prise, that ever since it opened, over a decade ago, the Hy­att Re­gency has been con­sis­tently prof­itable, which led me to ask: why haven’t more of us heard of it? Why does it crop up so rarely in con­ver­sa­tions?

I was there for an event, jointly hosted by Vi­rat Kohli (who got MS Dhoni, Yu­vraj Singh, Hardik Pandya and oth­ers to per­form on stage!) and my friend, the chef Vikas Khanna, in aid of a chil­dren’s char­ity. The Hy­att did a won­der­ful job and the food, pre­pared by Vikas’ chefs and the Hy­att team, was much bet­ter than you would have a right to ex­pect at such large ban­quets.

In fact, the food at the ho­tel, over­all, was good. I ate sim­ply at the cof­fee-shop buf­fet and from room ser­vice and was de­lighted by the qual­ity of the In­dian food. But my ques­tion re­mained: why did no­body talk about a ho­tel that had good food, or­gan­ised first-class events, and made lots of money?

My the­ory is sim­ple. It’s the ab­sence of restau­rants. I asked Sud­hir Gupta, one of the ho­tel’s own­ers, why they had built a ho­tel with such few out­lets. All that the Re­gency has is a large cof­fee-shop and an Ital­ian restau­rant. Its neigh­bour, the ITC Maratha, has thrice as many out­lets and down the road, there is the Leela, with Le Cirque, Cit­rus, Great Wall, and all the oth­ers.

Sud­hir Gupta said that when they made the orig­i­nal de­sign over a decade ago, they had taken a cal­cu­lated de­ci­sion to open fewer restau­rants be­cause they didn’t see much of a mar­ket in Sa­har.

Which brings me to the third event. I spoke last week to the grad­u­at­ing class at the Oberoi Cen­tre for Learn­ing and Devel­op­ment, eas­ily the most pres­ti­gious ho­tel school in In­dia, if not in Asia. Stu­dents were bright and sharp (and as­ton­ish­ingly well-in­formed) and we dis­cussed how the world of ho­tels would change by the time they be­came gen­eral man­agers.

Be­cause they were all so young, I fol­lowed in the foot­steps of Papa CJ and told them how dif­fer­ent pre-lib­er­al­i­sa­tion In­dia was. Un­less you had ac­tu­ally lived through that era, it was hard to rec­on­cile to­day’s In­dia with a coun­try where the only chains that counted were Taj and Oberoi, and peo­ple some­times even went vol­un­tar­ily to ITDC ho­tels.

Since then, many things have changed in the ho­tel sec­tor. ITC is now a ma­jor player and the Leela Group has a

rep­u­ta­tion for qual­ity. But the big change has been the in­va­sion of the for­eign ho­tel chains. Nearly ev­ery in­ter­na­tional group of con­se­quence is now in In­dia and all the oth­ers are strug­gling to get in.

What then, would be the dis­tin­guish­ing fac­tor of a suc­cess­ful ho­tel? Some of the an­swers are ob­vi­ous: good ser­vice, great lo­ca­tion, nice rooms, etc. But we some­times for­get the im­por­tant role played by ho­tel restau­rants in creat­ing a con­nect with the lo­cal com­mu­nity. The Oberois are a much older chain than the Taj. But when the Taj had them on the run, in the early 80s, it was al­most en­tirely be­cause of the ex­cel­lence of the Taj’s food and its restau­rants. It is the Taj that opened In­dia’s first au­then­tic Ital­ian restau­rant (Casa Medici in Delhi), in­tro­duced south In­dian food to ho­tel din­ing (Kar­avali, Rain Tree, and Konkan Café among oth­ers) and changed the way in which In­di­ans looked at Chi­nese food with the Golden Dragon and House of Ming. In many ways, Varq, Wasabi and Thai Pav­il­ion were also huge break­throughs.

The Oberois took much longer to get it right. Baan Thai never got the ac­claim it de­served de­spite be­ing a pi­o­neer. The Brasseries never re­ally worked. And the Mughal Rooms were es­sen­tially Kwal­ity food at five-star prices. Only with the open­ing of 360 did their fo­cus change and now with Ziya, Amaranta and so many oth­ers, they are now play­ers in the restau­rant space.

I reck­oned that the for­eign chains that made an im­pact were those that took restau­rant­ing se­ri­ously. The Hy­att Re­gency in Delhi is your ba­sic five-star with small­ish rooms. But be­cause it has al­ways had ex­cel­lent restau­rants (La Pi­azza was a trend­set­ter, as was Djinns at its time and China Kitchen is the sin­gle-best Chi­nese restau­rant in In­dia), it has had a pro­file that is on par with any ho­tel in In­dia. So it is with the JW Mar­riot in Juhu, which may have the best food of any ho­tel in north Bom­bay.

Other ho­tels are now learn­ing the im­por­tance of restau­rants. ITC are world cham­pi­ons when it comes to In­dian food but the chain’s re­cent suc­cess­ful open­ings (Ot­timo, Edo, Tian, etc) sug­gest that it has broad­ened its am­bi­tion. The Delhi Shangri-La, which had a pretty dis­as­trous open­ing, has now trans­formed its im­age be­cause of three mas­sively suc­cess­ful new restau­rants.

But as I told the OCLD class, it is now more dif­fi­cult than ever to open a suc­cess­ful ho­tel restau­rant. The ex­plo­sion in the stand­alone sec­tor has been such that there is very lit­tle that ho­tel restau­rants can of­fer by way of ex­cel­lence in cui­sine un­less they re­ally work at it.

Mod­ern Ja­panese used to be a nov­elty, re­stricted to ho­tels, but now the stan­dalones are hir­ing the same chefs and turn­ing to the same sup­pli­ers. So it is with Euro­pean food. If you were go­ing out for din­ner in Bom­bay and had the choice of go­ing to the Ta­ble or Café Zoe, would you re­ally pay so much more to go to a ho­tel restau­rant? And even mod­ern In­dian, which the ho­tels ig­nored for so long, has now be­come a stand­alone phe­nom­e­non. The In­dian Ac­cents, Masala Li­braries, Farzi Cafés and Bom­bay Can­teens are cheaper, hip­per, and far bet­ter than most ho­tel restau­rants.

That, in a sense, is the chal­lenge faced by ho­tels. If you want to seem like a hap­pen­ing place and have a con­nect with your city, then you must open restau­rants that are both pop­u­lar and talked about. And yet, at no time in our his­tory, has it been more dif­fi­cult for hote­liers to open suc­cess­ful restau­rants. Partly, it is that there are so many new ho­tels with new restau­rants com­ing up ev­ery month. But mostly it is that in the post-lib­er­al­i­sa­tion era, when any­one can im­port any­thing, and more peo­ple have money to spend on food than ever be­fore, the stand­alone sec­tor has ex­ploded. By and large, the top stan­dalones do food that is eas­ily the equal of ho­tel restau­rants. And in al­most ev­ery case, they are much cheaper.

So, Papa CJ can’t be the only one who is nos­tal­gic about the pre-lib­er­al­i­sa­tion era. Many old In­dian hote­liers prob­a­bly share his nos­tal­gia.

OUT OF THE LOOP The Hy­att Re­gency is a suc­cess­ful ho­tel, but no one talks about it be­cause it has only a few restau­rants. Glass House is one of them

CHANGE IS AFOOT (Clock­wise from above) Stand­alone restau­rants like Café Zoe, Farzi Café and The Bom­bay Can­teen now of­fer stiff com­pe­ti­tion to five-star restau­rants like Konkan Café

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