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The Taste with Vir: Restaurant branches or originals?

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Do you like the idea of going to a chain restaurant? By that, I don’t mean McDonalds or Chillis or The Big Chill or something sufficiently downmarket for the quality not to matter so much. I mean restaurants that operate at a slightly more elevated level but still manage to reproduce themselves around the world.

It is not a new idea. When I was growing up, there were restaurants called Kwality in many cities and towns all over India. They had separate ownership (though many had family connections) and often the menus were different too. But there was something about the concept that united all the outposts.

Abroad, too, the idea of a restaurant brand with multiple branches is not new. As far back as 1934, Victor Bergeron founded the Trader Vic’s chain and probably invented so-called Polynesian cuisine and the cocktail Mai Tai. The concept was so popular that Trader Vic’s restaurants opened all over the world, often in partnership with Hilton Hotels. Hilton’s rival, Sheraton, opened a chain called Kon Tiki at its hotels to compete. And the idea even came to India where the Oberoi group opened The Outrigger in Mumbai and Polynesia in Kolkata. 

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In India, not all expansions have been as successful. As far as I can tell, there are at least three different groups that use the Moti Mahal name for the hundreds of restaurants that sport this brand all over the world, and quality can vary from place to place dramatically. It is much the same with Nizam’s, the Kolkata restaurant that invented the Nizam’s Roll now better known outside Kolkata as the Kathi Roll. The original Kolkata restaurant says it has no branches.

On the other hand, mini-chains of upmarket restaurants have sprung up in India in this century. Priyank Sukhija’s Lord of the Drinks is a big-time national brand. So are AD Singh’s Olive and Sodabottleopenerwalla. The Lite Bite empire has many operations but by far the most successful is Punjab Grill which must have around 30 outlets by now. The cornerstones of Riyaaz Amlani’s empire are the Smokehouse and Social chains. Zorawar Kalra has taken his Farzi Cafes all over the world.

Within hotels, ITC is guaranteed a customer base because of the popularity of Dum Pukht, Ottimo, Pan Asian, Dakshin and Peshawari, all restaurant concepts that it has successfully rolled out all over India. When you go to a Dum Pukht, for example, you know that the biryani will be good; a guarantee of quality that you don’t necessarily have when you walk into a restaurant you have not heard of.

And that ultimately may be what it comes down to. People go to restaurants with brand names they recognise even if they have never been there before because they think they know what to expect. A large part of every restaurant’s struggling years consists of building up its reputation, perfecting its menu and getting the food right. But when you open, say, the 20th outpost of a famous brand, all the hard work has already been done for you. The brand is well-known, the menu is ready and the recipes have been perfected.

It gets more complicated though when great chefs get in on the act. A few, like Alain Ducasse and the late Joel Robuchon, manage to maintain standards at high quality places. Ducasse has three stars for his restaurants in Paris, Monte Carlo and London. Robuchon’s L’Atelier chain kept his high standards at lower-than-haute-cuisine prices all over the world.

But what about restaurants that have a certain sense of place? I ask because the restaurant scene in the UK is agog with news of the spectacular falling out between Jeremy King, Britain’s greatest restaurateur and the Thai conglomerate Minor which has led to King losing control of his restaurant.

King is a legend in the restaurant industry. He first sprang to fame when he and his partner Chris Corbin revived such old restaurants as The Ivy, J Sheekey and Le Caprice and turned them into London’s trendiest places. You never ate badly at a Corbin and King restaurant but you never had a three Michelin-star meal either. People went for the ambience and the service.

Corbin and King sold that empire and built another one centred around the Wolseley, a former car showroom that they turned into the hottest restaurant in London because of the sense of place and the warmth of the service. They opened many other restaurants, usually inspired by Middle Europe or France. I interviewed Jeremy King for Rude Food some years ago and was greatly impressed by his ability to conjure up great restaurants out of nothing more than his imagination. One of King’s maxims has always been that the guy who orders an omelette or a hot dog should get the same level of attention and service as the guy who orders caviar.

But even as Jeremy King was building up his second empire, the restaurants he had originally started out with became jokes. New owners opened multiple branches of The Ivy, turning the brand into a comic punchline and the old Corbin and King restaurants lost their cachet.

When I spoke to King, he said that he was not against the idea of opening more than one branch of a restaurant in principle. It was just that the restaurants he had created were based on a sense of place and were not designed to become chains. He was horrified by what had happened to The Ivy and shuddered to think that something like that could ever happen to his new restaurants.

Well, it might.

King acquired a new partner, some years ago, Thailand’s Minor group, with whom he later fell out. Minor pushed King’s group into administration. It was then put up for auction where Minor bought the whole company and ousted King.

What happens next? There are conflicting reports about Minor’s plans. Did it really plan to open a Wolseley in Saudi Arabia as King’s friends suggest? Will there be Ivy-style Wolseley branches at Minor’s hotels all over the world? So far, nobody is sure.

King himself has opened many new restaurants over the last few years. But each has had a distinctive character of its own. Perhaps Minor will abandon that principle. Or perhaps it won’t.

So, back to the bigger issues: branches or originals? Well, here’s my view. If there is something distinctive about the cuisine, as there is say with Dum Pukht or Indian Accent (which has a New York branch), then I see the point. In many ways Nobu is the modern Victor Bergeron. He has invented a cuisine and taken it around the world.

But if a restaurant has a charm that depends on a special sense of place, on its ambience and service, then every time you open a new branch, you trample on the spirit of the original.




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