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‘If you consistently offer good food, people are going to return for more’

Restaurateur Nikesh Lamba, who now runs 15 restaurants in four cities, on his successful journey, lessons from the pandemic and the service-charge issue

What does it take for a restaurant from Chennai to make its presence felt in Delhi? Sommelier-turned-restaurateur Nikesh Lamba has learned over the last five years, with 15 restaurants across four cities, that it’s the food and the consistency of experience. Lamba, who is the co-founder and executive director of Chennai-based Pricol Gourmet, which has Savya Rasa — a South Indian fine-diner; Soy Soi, with seven kind of South East Asian cuisine; Little Soi, which offers a selection of Chinese and Asian dishes; Double Roti, a chain of cafes; Delish, a dessert studio; Bread and Chocolate, a bakehouse and cafe, and Green Meadows, a boutique resort. Then there are cloud kitchens such as Mex Bowl, Chinese Bowl, Bangkok Bae, and Madurai Military. He is hoping to diversify the cloud kitchens now, collaborating with international chefs and restaurants, and have more presence in Delhi. Excerpts from an interview:

A lot of restaurant brands started in Delhi and went into other cities. But your journey has been in reverse.

Pricol Gourmet has been running successful restaurants in Chennai and Pune since 2015, so for us, entering Delhi was more about being present in a much larger market. Every city has its own way of functioning and there is a lot of difference in the eating habits and also the way restaurants are perceived in the two cities, but one thing is common; if you consistently offer good food and experience, people are going the appreciate that and return for more.

Most of your restaurants focus on a single cuisine. Why is multicuisine not on the menu?

Actually, this isn’t entirely true. Our brands focus on the depth of a particular regional cuisine rather than going wide. This is because we believe that there is so much diversity in India and Southeast Asia that if we focus on one part also, many unique flavours and textures can be offered.

Why do you think regional Indian food is currently a big trend? In terms of global food, have people across India moved beyond Chinese and Italian?

Regional Indian is definitely big now. A lot of factors are responsible for that including pandemic-induced domestic travel. In a country where the language and food change every 100 odd km, it was only a matter of time before this trend caught on. When this is coupled with global exposure through travel, it resulted in people becoming more adventurous and willing to try cuisines as diverse as Lebanese or Peruvian.

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What is the difference between eating out culture in Chennai and in Delhi?

Chennai as a city eats out more often than any other city in the country. This is as per data published by the National Restaurant Association of India. However, until recently, most of this was concentrated at tiffin centres for idli and dosa. Now, the city is evolving and customers are willing to experiment and try out more cuisines at slightly higher prices. Delhi on the other hand has all the leading players and one is never short of new and exciting places to visit

How big is the service charge issue for restaurants outside of Delhi?

” Our brands focus on the depth of a particular regional cuisine rather than going wide,” said Nikesh Lamba. (Photo: PR handout)What does it take for a restaurant from Chennai to make its presence felt in Delhi? Sommelier-turned-restaurateur Nikesh Lamba has learned over the last five years, with 15 restaurants across four cities, that it’s the food and the consistency of experience. Lamba, who is the co-founder and executive director of Chennai-based Pricol Gourmet, which has Savya Rasa — a South Indian fine-diner; Soy Soi, with seven kind of South East Asian cuisine; Little Soi, which offers a selection of Chinese and Asian dishes; Double Roti, a chain of cafes; Delish, a dessert studio; Bread and Chocolate, a bakehouse and cafe, and Green Meadows, a boutique resort. Then there are cloud kitchens such as Mex Bowl, Chinese Bowl, Bangkok Bae, and Madurai Military. He is hoping to diversify the cloud kitchens now, collaborating with international chefs and restaurants, and have more presence in Delhi. Excerpts from an interview:

A lot of restaurant brands started in Delhi and went into other cities. But your journey has been in reverse.

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Pricol Gourmet has been running successful restaurants in Chennai and Pune since 2015, so for us, entering Delhi was more about being present in a much larger market. Every city has its own way of functioning and there is a lot of difference in the eating habits and also the way restaurants are perceived in the two cities, but one thing is common; if you consistently offer good food and experience, people are going the appreciate that and return for more.

Most of your restaurants focus on a single cuisine. Why is multicuisine not on the menu?

Actually, this isn’t entirely true. Our brands focus on the depth of a particular regional cuisine rather than going wide. This is because we believe that there is so much diversity in India and Southeast Asia that if we focus on one part also, many unique flavours and textures can be offered.

Pricol Gourmet has been running successful restaurants in Chennai and Pune since 2015. (PR handout)Why do you think regional Indian food is currently a big trend? In terms of global food, have people across India moved beyond Chinese and Italian?

Regional Indian is definitely big now. A lot of factors are responsible for that including pandemic-induced domestic travel. In a country where the language and food change every 100 odd km, it was only a matter of time before this trend caught on. When this is coupled with global exposure through travel, it resulted in people becoming more adventurous and willing to try cuisines as diverse as Lebanese or Peruvian.

What is the difference between eating out culture in Chennai and in Delhi?

Chennai as a city eats out more often than any other city in the country. This is as per data published by the National Restaurant Association of India. However, until recently, most of this was concentrated at tiffin centres for idli and dosa. Now, the city is evolving and customers are willing to experiment and try out more cuisines at slightly higher prices. Delhi on the other hand has all the leading players and one is never short of new and exciting places to visit

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How big is the service charge issue for restaurants outside of Delhi?

Service charge as a practice has been around for a long time in India as well as globally. Specific industries are designed in a way that the welfare of their employees is directly proportional to the effort they have to put in and service charge is a great way to do the same. The confusion has been that it is forced, in all of our restaurants it was and is discretionary, if the customer feels that the service was sub-par they can always get the charge removed. Outside Delhi and Mumbai, the issue hasn’t been as big, as many restaurants do not have a service charge, and the few who do, keep it voluntary.

What has been your learning from the pandemic? Has it changed some things permanently?

There’s been a lot of learning that the pandemic brought. Smarter and tighter formats that reduce the burden of rentals, and innovative models like a cross between self-service and order on the table are here to stay and help reduce manpower. Multitasking manpower also helps in reducing the need for too many people. Also, the concept of delivery is here to stay so we need to adapt our menus accordingly.

What does the future look like?

A lot of collaborations and experiments because that is the only way to learn and unlearn. For instance, Pickle in Dublin by Chef Sunil Ghai focuses on North Indian food, while Savya Rasa redefines coastal cuisine. We are trying an amalgamation and offering a tasting menu at a pop-up later this month. Next year, Chef Ghai will travel to Savya Rasa for a two-day collaboration. Also, Singapore’s favourite bar, Elephant Room, arrives in Chennai this weekend at Origin, our cocktail and Tapas Bar.

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