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Zorawar Kalra Believes In Comeback

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Despite the sudden onset of the pandemic, restaurateur Zorawar Kalra, and his group of restaurants, are so optimistic that the worst is behind us

The first time I had a call with Zorawar Kalra to do this interview was around March 10th. We didn’t realize that in two weeks the future for the rest of the year would be so bleak, the world would fall apart, and a story about the hospitality industry wouldn’t make sense without a conversation about the pandemic. of coronavirus which particularly hit the sector, very hard. Almost six months later, as things very slowly start to improve, I am calling him for an update, and his optimism is contagious.

Kalra is a man of few words, but a job that speaks for itself. He’s built a brand that can make high-end (and I mean really high-end) food like Masala Library, or catch up with millennials with a YOUnion. You would think that with a scale as large as its upscale restaurant brand, Massive Restaurants, Kalra could try a bit of everything, and not get enough. But its clarity about its restaurants, Indian cuisine on the global map and the future of fusion cuisine will change your mind.

Food at YOUnion

“We are all in the same boat. It’s a new way of life, and it was unprecedented. Of course, our industry has been particularly affected. Restaurants were on a downward spiral before, and it’s basically like starting from scratch. We kept developing menus, started working on our NLP, removing all the excess costs because we knew when we restart it will be quite slow. In fact, it was in July that we started to open up a bit, ”he recalls the difficult months. The response when they started opening a little was lukewarm, but week after week they saw improvements. “We are between 30 and 35% of sales before COVID, because we are now able to serve alcohol on the tables, and that has made things better,” he adds.

During the last week of January, a few of us from MW The editing team had visited ShangHigh, a new ‘high performance restaurant’ with the old Shanghai vibe, bright colors, wood and red accents, outstanding cocktails, performances and food that we enjoyed. have left them perplexed. It was an experience that helped us deal with the half-year-old no-restaurant shitshow that turns out to be this year.

Food at ShangHigh

ShangHigh was his way of elevating the dining experience. “We made molecular food, we made theatrical food. But I wanted to introduce a real theatrical feel to a restaurant space, ”says Kalra.
From a business standpoint, what worked for him and what didn’t? “Touchwood, all of our restaurants and concepts worked. We have a very clear position in the mind of the consumer on what to expect when he walks into a restaurant with us. Pa Pa Ya is known for its high quality food but decent prices, Farzi Cafe is known for its theatrical food, Made In Punjab is shameless Punjabi food, and so on. We never crushed the concepts and kept that clarity, that’s the beauty of it, ”he says simply.

And when it comes to the food space in India, what is working for us? “As a restaurateur, I can tell you that value for money is something that works. Either a place is extremely premium or it is cheaply. The mid-scale locations will no longer work because you cannot confuse the consumer. ShangHigh is by far the cheapest Asian cuisine we’ve cooked considering it’s more about experience than food. We wanted to surprise people and when they saw the prices they were blown away, ”he says. And I agree. ShangHigh’s hefty price tag is pretty amazing for its quality.

So, is gastronomy not dead? Kalra is convinced that this space will thrive and survive. He says: “India will always have a market for high quality food and restaurants, because it is the high end of the spectrum that will not be affected by the economy. Indians love to eat out and be pampered, and they will continue to eat out as long as they see value. It’s enough.

Kalra, in one of her interviews a while back, said it was exciting that we are a country with such a variety of cuisines. Before moving on to the state of our food in the world, does he think that we sufficiently value traditional Indian cuisine in our country? Without pause, he retorts: “Of course. It’s our main food, it’s in our DNA. We are never going to stop eating traditional Indian food. Other cuisines will find their place on the table, but the most popular cuisine for centuries to come will be Indian.

As an advocate for promoting Indian food on the global map, which her brand over its seven years of existence has attempted to do, Kalra believes she has made Indian food more accessible internationally. “Honestly, we always want to come to the market with something new and let others follow. And I think with brands like Farzi Cafe, among others, we’ve done it, ”he says proudly.

Yes Indian food is gaining popularity around the world, everyone wants some of our food (they tried to make haldi ka doodle cool you guys). But where does Kalra see Indian food placed internationally? “We’re getting there, but we’re still behind Japanese, Italian or Mexican. These kitchens are much more accepted around the world simply because of their availability, access and quality. You see, the point is, Indian food is amazing, and once someone has some great Indian food, they’re going to love it. But it’s important to market the same and make this type of food accessible to people. You might have the best food, but what’s the point if no one knows? ” he explains.

Many people, especially chefs, complain about the westernization of Indian dishes, or vice versa. Kalra, however, makes it seem like as long as it’s done with sensitivity and the end result is something delicious, what’s the deal? “I’m fine with the merger as long as it doesn’t become a confusion. Instead of merging, I like to use the word progressive. We use all kinds of ingredients, cooking techniques, influences from several geographic regions to create a dish, ”he says.

As more places slowly recover from the pandemic, Kalra feels supportive of the government’s Unlock 4.0 movement. While none of us want to see this period as the new normal, restaurant habits and consumer behavior in the near future will obviously not be the same. “I think old habits die hard. Indians love to eat in restaurants. Hospitality is the first sector to provide entertainment. We’re 40 times bigger than Bollywood, just to put it in perspective, in terms of entertainment. Restaurants are a way of life. People will start to come out, but we cannot be complacent. Social distancing, masks, disinfection are a must. But in general, Indians will bounce back. By December, I have high hopes that we will be closer to the pre-COVID era and by March of next year, we hope things will get back to normal, ”he says with optimism.

Precautions taken at Kalra

And what about the kitchens? Surely they can’t have people like they used to be. Kalra explains that they have taken the necessary precautions. “We are adding people at a rapid rate, but other measures such as shortening menus and reducing opening hours are being implemented to control costs. As sales improve we will be able to bring more people back, ”he says.

As India slowly puts its feet on the ground, the group’s restaurants abroad are recovering. In London, sales are already around 60%, places like Oman and Kuwait are doing well, and Dubai is a little mixed. “International markets have picked up, but India is showing promise. Indians love to eat in restaurants and we will be back there very soon, I tell you, ”he says.

One world, one love. Food.

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