The rising number of speciality restaurants are testimony to the growing affluence of Indian consumers – and their widening culinary horizons.

Peking duck with Ossetra caviar for lunch and Kanzuri Shrimp and contemporary sushi with sparkling sake for dinner. Indians are getting more adept at choosing their “daily bread” from menus featuring exotic dishes and international cuisine, thanks to the increasing number of fine dining speciality restaurants such as Hakkasan, Le Cirque, Megu as well as Buddha Bar’s Indian version B Bar that are making a beeline for India. And they are lapping it all up with chopsticks and wine glasses.

Kunal Lalani, who along with his two partners has brought the fusion Asian chain B Bar to India, believes it’s the growing number of foreign vacations that Indians are taking and their high affluence and aspiration levels. B Bar is a version of Parisian company George V Eatertainment’s well known Buddha Bar format, which changed its name to avoid hurting religious sentiments.

“Post-liberalisation, there has been a growing number of Indians travelling abroad. They are well versed with fine dining and want the same when they come back home to India. Due to the lack of infrastructure, international fine dining restaurants initially chose five-star hotels. But with the growth in the mall culture, they are now finding the space to tap into the growing demand for fine dining restaurants,” says Lalani. B Bar has just opened at New Delhi and the next stop could be Bangalore, as the owners have carefully priced the menu to be competitive enough, while keeping in mind the Indian foodie.

Brands such as Le Cirque and Megu, housed at the latest luxury hotel Leela at Chankyapuri in Delhi, have added spice to the lazy dinners at the diplomatic hub of New Delhi. But others like the top-end Chinese restaurant brand Hakkasan have chosen to opt for non-hotel settings. Hakkasan, for instance, has just set up shop in Mumbai’s buzzing suburb of Bandra.

According to a Technopak report, the size of the gourmet food market in India is Rs 6,500 crore, growing at a CAGR of 20 per cent. The market is expected to cross Rs 13,700 crore by 2015. The Indian gourmet food market includes fine dining restaurants, café market as well as food retail.

Image guru and foodie Dileep Cherian says, “There are two reasons for the mushrooming of speciality restaurants – the Punjabi has discovered that the staple food is no longer the smart food. He is becoming adventurous, experimenting with sushi and risotto, and this is leading to a market for speciality chefs. Eating in five-star hotels, as a result, is no longer considered chic. Also the hunt for the new gourmet has become a lifestyle choice with the people spending time on deciding, ‘Khana kahan khana hain?’(Where do we eat?).”

Veteran restaurateur A. D. Singh, who runs Olive Bar and Kitchen, believes it’s the era of a comeback of sorts for the high-end fine dining specialty restaurants. “In the past five years, casual dining formats had taken precedence over the Indian food dining circuit. But in the past two years, fine dining restaurants have opened up and are tapping into the growing demand.”

But Singh points out that consumer sentiment being not at its peak and the slowdown in general makes the premium fine dining and specialty restaurants most vulnerable compared to casual dining formats.

The easy availability of imported ingredients is another factor. Ingredients such as truffles, artichokes, asparagus, Australian lamb and Norwegian salmon have found their way into the Indian food and beverage space. Lalani says restaurant owners do not need to import these products on their own as there are enough third party importers already bringing in these products.

Rohit Aggarwal, Managing Director of speciality restaurants group Lite Bite Foods, adds, “Nearly 15-35 per cent of the food cost of specialty restaurants depending on their cuisine is the cost of imported food products. But these products are now easier to get in the country.”

But what these restaurants are doing is essentially tapping the younger generation’s hunger for the exquisite. As Aggarwal said, “People want to be entertained and live their life. Gone are our grandfathers’ times when people would save up money. Today the age bracket of 16-35 has a huge propensity to consume.” Speciality restaurant owners as well as five-star hotels are increasingly catering to those in their late 20s-30s as they are more experimental and have the money to spend, believe analysts. One said that as a large proportion of consumers spending much money in international fine dining restaurants are increasingly Indian, brands are eyeing India to tap into that potential.

Meanwhile, football teams such as Manchester United and IPL team Delhi Daredevils, and Channel V, are all trying their hands at sports- or music-themed restaurants. For these brands, bars and lounges are a way of brand extension.

They are not the only ones looking to tap the consumer’s wallet via his stomach. As per the Technopak report, “One relatively new option still being explored is art and literature. Its connection with the F&B space is not well understood, and thus the existence of only a few players such as Mocha Arthouse and Indian Art Café, which encourage art and art appreciation, and places which provide books to read for customers, like Café Turtle.”

The growing interest in fine dining has benefited others too. Shows such as Masterchef Australia and Top Chef now get prime time slots on television, and there has been an explosion of cooking shows – mostly featuring exotic cooking – in lifestyle channels. And speciality restaurants are lining up to cater to this growing army of foodies.

(This article was published on September 27, 2012)
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