By Madhulika Dash
“The future of Indian dining is new formats,” says new-age restaurateur Avik Chatterjee.
He’s already the chief disruptor of the company; for his father, a restaurant industry legend, he is the ‘spark plug’ that has brought the much needed newness in the company; competition – including some seasoned brandmakers, consider him to be “the one” to look out for; and diners – food writers included – cannot stop raving about his latest product, which has created quite a stir in the business of food. And yet, the first thing one notices about this young – really young – restaurateur in making, is his good looks before his sharp, mature mind hits you like a bolt. Meet Avik Chatterjee, son to the famous Anjan Chatterjee and the Innovation Head of Speciality Restaurants, the only restaurant company to have an IPO.
When you are an heir to the immensely successful company like Speciality Restaurant and a legacy of Anjan Chatterjee, it's but easy to assume that you are born with the proverbial “spatula” and the acumen to run the vast empire. But tell this to the lad of 25, who has already created some envy and lots of hopes with his recent project POH, and you are likely to find him amused. After all, it isn’t the first time in his short career of “being Anjan’s son” that he has been asked this. “I have heard that plenty of times. And have now got used to it, after I have started seeing that more as a compliment than a comment,” says the scion with all the boyish charm he has been accidentally gifted with.
But, he continues sipping on a balmy cup of Darjeeling tea, “I can tell you first hand, with hands-on experience that it is tough being his son. Not because I have the kind of expectation and pressures that come along with the name, but the legacy itself can be overwhelming when you have a father who built an empire from scratch and a mother who is like this encyclopedia on food, the culture of taste and the tradition. It is a great privilege, but it also involves a lot of hard work – harder than probably what most would like to believe.”
“But in a way, of course, it’s good as it constantly helps me push the limits.” Hearing something so profound from someone so young while is heartening, it is also intriguing – and can only come from someone who has worked harder to learn the ropes early. In case of Avik, it is exactly the case. Very few people know that before joining his father’s empire, Avik had his own food start-up: a midnight food delivery system called “MadBites.”
It was a necessity that led to the idea, admits Avik, who has inherited a “traveling palate” just like his dad, and much like him loves trying food “from anywhere and anything.”
“If you don’t try it, you would not know it,” says the pianist, who was all of 18 when he started the startup, which had its fair share of success at “feeding people” (a family motto). MadBites was the venture that cued Avik to the business side of food, or as the “necessary bitter pill.” The venture ran through his college days as Avik graduated from Kingston University and completed grade 5 in music from Trinity College. What however, didn’t change was his hunger for knowing food that took him to UK, Hong Kong, Dubai, Greece and Spain. “Then it was a gorge vacation.
I just ate and ate. But now looking back, I think my little venture and the travel gave me a glimpse of some of the best dining formats that have changed the business of food,” recalls Avik, who took a fondness to the likes of Nobu, Novikov, Park Chinois, HuTong, Senior Sassy, Patty & Bun Burgers and Zuma to name a few. “They gave me more than just an evolved, open palate, they gave me an insight into which plate sells and why,” he adds while sheepishly admitting that there is much to be seen, studied and taken in.
Fresh from college, but a few months experienced in running his own “venture,” Avik entered the world of Speciality Restaurant as a novice who does everything or as he puts in “Chief Bellboy.” “I went through all the process, systems and plans to have an appreciation of what we have, and how have we achieved it,” says the heir, who admits that their biggest strength is the training and store management. “No one does a near flawless back of the house management like Speciality.”
In those initial years, little did Avik– or those training him at Speciality – know that soon it would be this “spark plug” (a name given to him by Anjan) idea that would steer in a new direction. With the second recession tide, restaurants – even those well established - felt the brunt and had to look within. Speciality, which had already tied up from one “situation” that led them to start the Asian Kitchen & Bar by Mainland China was feeling the need to redesign. And that’s where Avik, then 22, came with the concept of a format where beer, music and the casual ambience pulled people – and food made them stay. “You can imagine when a company has worked on a successful model for many years, and has a certain kind of reputation, a change so radical isn’t like a home run,” says Avik, who had to spent more time getting the “Uber Coolness” in other places to make the team (and the board) understand.
“It was one of the most amazing times I had with my father, when slowly he began understanding my idea, as with food business, you need to balance passion and economics together.” The brand was Hoppipola. Based on the new-age concept of casual meet place, the restaurant pulled a client that was ready to pay for a fun experience than the conventional “experiential”. Hoppipola, says Avik, “in fact turned to be my research base to understand where were the loops, what were we missing in the market and how to create a vertical that could be fresh, exciting yet follow our companies philosophy of expansion with standards.”
Six months later, Avik was working on another concept, Gong, which was based on food selling, but in a format that would entice people to come again and again. “It was a package and it had to be easily available and accessible,” says Avik, who inspired by his father’s strategy of creating different-scale concepts that complimented brands, began working on what would be his most ambitious project called POH, the uber luxe outlet of Speciality Restaurant. It was a huge risk, admits Avik, “but it was an opportunity too, given that most of our finest restaurants here are formal. It’s not every day that you can go to have that excitement and experience, which is a significant part of dining out today.”
For Avik, his two projects would have to be format-based and focused on a certain segment of people who spend on “engagement and indulgence.” “It is the segment that is young, knows what it needs, is well travelled, and is looking for something more than just a meal that is value for money, and yet needs it to be aspirational in a manner of excitement.” The choice of menu, given his love for Asian food was the Orient.
Bonus: Chef Vikramjit Roy, a name well established with credentials that could mark up any Pan Asian place. “The plan was simple with POH: to create a space, where every inch could start a conversation. So we have a bar based on the traditional Chinese apothecary with a few twists to provide diners with a delightful, sensorial experience, much like the sushi bar next to it. The seating is based more on the zen factor than a typical restaurant layout. In other words, it’s indulgence right from the entrance. Gong on the other hand is more relaxed, easy on the foot, but nevertheless with its own ‘engagements’,” says the soft spoken, upcoming restaurateur, who feels formats and not gimmicks will be the future of Indian dining.
“When it comes to business of food, there is this much of food that you can play with. But what presents an endless opportunity is the format. And in coming years, it will be the formats that will rule the roost, if it has not started by now, ” says the 25-year-old, who someday would like to have an entertainment park next to the restaurant – even if for a “whim”.