Why Restauranteur Pankaj Gupta Is Undeterred By The Impending Doom Hanging Over Fine Dining

Straddling F&B brands like Oye Kake, Taftoon and Cirqa 1960, the Mumbai-based entrepreneur finds casual dining ventures more profitable than fine dining establishments as the rules are open-ended and expenses can be controlled better, which could help them break even within 30 months
Pankaj Gupta, founder, Flavor Pot Foods
Pankaj Gupta, founder, Flavor Pot Foods

Growing up, Pankaj Gupta was fascinated by two things—fast cars and good food. However, while pursuing his college education, he traded this passion to join his family business, which deals in edible oil and food grains, for over eight years.

This is where he learnt an important business lesson—the fastest car can achieve its top speed only if it has adequate and good quality fuel in its tank. Similarly, a business can only succeed if the founder has the passion, grit, and financial forbearance to keep it going.

When he landed a job interview with Citibank after completing his Masters, Gupta realised he lacked the drive to pursue a corporate role with a leading financial institution. Neither did he want to work alongside his father in the family venture, despite the hands-on learning he derived.

Amidst this dilemma, he headed to Amritsar for introspection where he hit upon his a-ha moment! Whilst soaking in the sights, smells and food of the city, he knew what he wanted to do—open a restaurant in Mumbai that offered authentic Amritsari food, and not the mish-mash that is usually passed off as Punjabi fare. That he lacked any understanding of running a food business of any sort did not strike him as a hurdle.

Talking about why he chose to offer Punjabi soul food at a time when restauranteurs were more inclined towards opening fine dining outlets, Gupta shrugs disarmingly. “With no previous experience in the restaurant trade, I was realistic enough to appreciate I did not have the knowledge or the resources to consider opening a fine-dine restaurant. Additionally, the fine dining arena did not strongly appeal to me,” he said.

Food For Thought

Luck fortunes the brave, they say, and lady luck definitely had a soft corner for him as his first Oye Kake restaurant was born by happenstance. Searching for a small 200 square feet place in southern Mumbai to sell chole kulche, lassi and chaat, he chanced upon a ramshackle restaurant called ‘Mathura’. Since the place already had 10-12 tables, no major capital investment was required other than a facelift.

Gupta borrowed seed capital from his family, invested in kitchen equipment, convinced seasoned chefs from Amritsar to move to Mumbai and Oye Kake was born in 2011.

The Indian restaurant landscape is overpopulated with outlets serving cuisine from northern India, or the popular Mughlai and Punjabi fare, with items like butter chicken, dal makhani, chicken tikka and naan demanding place of pride on the menu. Opening brands like Oye Kake and Taftoon was a gamble.

But Gupta felt there was a gap to bridge for a more discerned approach to regional Northern Indian food, with a bigger focus on vegetarian options. Oye Kake attempts to showcase the variety of unpretentious North Indian cuisine in its true persona, while Taftoon does it in a premium format. Having tasted the fruit of entrepreneurship, he wanted to push the envelope with more brands.

During his frequent travels to Europe post-2015, Gupta experienced the cocktail culture at restobars and he conceptualised Cirqa 1960 to capitalize on the growing bar culture. “While the cocktail culture in Mumbai is still in its infancy, it is taking an exciting direction. There is growing interest from the consumer, often tied to alco-bev training and activations from the industry,” Gupta noted.

Pankaj Gupta with the Oye Kake team
Pankaj Gupta with the Oye Kake team

The Gravy Train Chugs Along

Today, Flavor Pot Foods has four brands—Oye Kake, Taftoon, Cirqa 1960 and Café Haqq Se. The flagship brand, Oye Kake, has four outlets which is the combined strength of the remainder three.

The company witnessed a steady 12% to 14% year-on-year growth, barring the pandemic months when all F&B establishments were shut. One thing that Gupta does as a restauranteur is to reinvest 70% of the revenues back into the flagship brand, keep a portion in reserves and use the remainder to expand Oye Kake’s presence. 

For now, he plans to open 12 outlets of the brand in cities like Pune, Bengaluru and Hyderabad within the next three years, opting for the company-owned route. This is to ensure product consistency, which is often compromised in some franchise models.

Establishing an Oye Kake outlet, which typically measures between 1500 to 1800 square feet, cost Rs 1.5 crore to Rs 1.75 crore, while Taftoon, which is spread across 3000 square feet could cost Rs 2.25 crore to Rs 2.75 crore.

Mindful of this, Flavor Pot Foods is raising investment for the brand expansion plans; it is in advanced discussions on a deal to open two to three outlets per city, rather than picking 12 different cities pan-India.

The newer generation of flair bartenders is instrumental in promoting the cocktail culture in India
The newer generation of flair bartenders is instrumental in promoting the cocktail culture in India

Nothing Casual About It

As more people lean into casual dining, some believe that the era of fine dining is dawning to a close as people increasingly crave comfort food over gastronomical experiences. This shift is due to changing consumer habits and spending patterns, with many preferring to dine out more frequently and seek elevated good food with a fail-proof experience.

Casual dining ventures are undoubtedly more profitable than fine dining establishments, because the rules of the business are relatively open-ended and expenses are easier to control. By following the optimal industry processes and keeping an eye out on evolving trends, an astute restauranteur can help his properties break even within 30 months.

While it has been said that consumers in India always seek a value-based route, it is about perceived value. If a customer feels that a product is worth it, they will pay for it accordingly. A restauranteur who is confident about what they’re bringing to the table will be unabashed about putting a number on their product.

“With Oye Kake, Taftoon and Cirqa 1960, we first focus on perfecting our product offerings and then target the right customer. This formula has worked for us as most of our guests are repeat customers; with some coming as often as four times a month. Any restauranteur with skin in the game knows that welcoming a guest twice in a month is a sure factor for success and a restaurant with guest loyalty will not just survive, but thrive upwards of a decade,” he claimed.

It also helps that post-pandemic, diners are also more habituated to ordering from their favourite restaurant regularly than visiting it in person. This is reflected in Flavor Pot Foods’ rising percentage of takeaway orders.

 “We get around 35% deliveries for Oye Kake spread across our channel and aggregators like Zomato and Swiggy, while the rest is dine-in. Since Taftoon is a premium dining experience, guests prefer to travel to the restaurant and the dine-in to deliveries is 90:10,” Gupta adds, and the same holds true for Cirqa 1960 too.

Gupta is currently elbows-deep on adding a fourth brand to Flavor Pot Foods’ repertoire. And he has his sights set on going global. “I strongly feel that there is a space internationally for Indian food to be enjoyed beyond curries and spices, and that is my long-term ambition,” he wistfully states.  

For now, he is happy living his dream of feeding people as a business and his passion. Every Thursday, guests at Oye Kake can enjoy the unlimited Guruvaar Seva Thali, where the brand donates a meal for every thali sold. To date, it has served over 5,000 meals, which is its small way of making an impact while driving business growth.

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