Olive branch

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A.D. Singh's Olive opens at Bangalore, after storming the culinary landscapes of Mumbai and Delhi.

Aditi De

A spread of ochre flooring. Pure azure on slant tile roofing. Roughly daubed white walls, enhanced by random niches, antique furniture and incandescent chandeliers. Sunny blooms in a chunky mug. A bamboo thicket amidst a sea of white sand.

Cane chairs and random tables. Alfresco dining by candlelight. A classy bar that serves divine cocktails, choicest wines. The finest of global ingredients, rendered as New Mediterranean fusion cuisine, inspired by the kitchens of south Europe, Asia Minor and North Africa.

Olive Beach launched in Bangalore this month, is an offshoot of Mumbai's famed, five-year-old Olive Bar and Kitchen. Conceptualised by restaurateur extraordinary A.D. Singh, it takes off from the Olive in a classic Delhi haveli, which was launched in 2003 and voted one of the world's best new restaurants by the Conde Nast Traveller. That's besides recommendations by the New York Times and BBC.

With brilliant interiors by Mumbai's Nozer Wadia, the Olive brand fuses the talents of its partners. Henry Tham's restaurant expertise (Mumbai reveres him!). Martin da Costa's event management skills. Singing star Sagarika's aesthetic eye. Sabina Singh's originality. And, at the very heart of it all, A.D. Singh's visionary style.

"We've raised the bar, pushed the envelope, so that people are coming up with better products now. The first Olive took us 15 months; the Bangalore one took seven. The restaurant business is not about money or glamour. You have to work at conceptualising, positioning, getting it all right. Then, your product will last 10-15 years," says Singh.

What triggered this concept? "My wife and I were at a beach at Phuket seven years ago, when we found ourselves returning to the same restaurant every day. Why, we wondered. It was because of a lazy, timeless feel. Exactly what an urban environment needed."

Back in Mumbai, the electrical engineer from Lafayette University and former Cadbury's and TCS employee, chose to launch Olive in the western Khar suburb. Before Singh could spell lobster on mini bliny or kiwi soufflé, his sun-drenched restaurant had been adopted as a happening place by the Page-3 crowd.

But that was no surprise. Especially since Singh's forte is ideation. He proved it with Party Lines, which he launched after an NGO stint to organise corporate dos at sea. Then with Just Desserts in 1990, a jazz café that India Today termed the "phenomenon of the Nineties." By 1996, he had launched Copa Cabana, Mumbai's Latin bar with a buzz. Soul Fry and Soul Kadi, serving home-style coastal cuisine, followed in quick succession. Next came a landmark leisure concept, the Bowling Company.

As for the Olive brand, since 2000 it has done standalone Indian restaurants proud. "We'd like it to be a space where a customer can enjoy various facets of an evening-out drinking, eating or hanging out. Almost unknowingly, we tapped into a move away from formal dining, into more informal, casual dining, to relaxation without compromising on quality," asserts Singh. "We've made sure our food is as good as any you'd get at Mumbai's Zodiac Grill or Bangalore's Jockey Club. Our service is customer-responsive." He adds, chuckling, "We respect our clientele, but we can't give them tomato ketchup with their pasta!"

How exclusive is upmarket Olive? "We're the fussiest with our admissions policy. If you dress badly or wear chappals, you're not respecting the space. Or if a group of drunks wants to make masti or tease women. I don't like that," confesses Singh. "When people go to a good restaurant, it's to enjoy fine food, wines, malt, cigars and gourmet coffee. That's why we're strict about kids under ten during dinner, though I would allow infants. Besides, we're a bar, so it wouldn't be fitting for kids to hang around."

Recalling the Delhi experience, Singh says, "We couldn't get our liquor licence in time. Yet, from November to March, we were full every night as a gourmet food destination. And when we did open our bar, it was for members only, exclusively women and free! By avoiding a rowdy crowd that might mess up the restaurant scene, we lost money, but created the right position."

On the fine features that mark Olive dining, Singh says, "We use very high quality ingredients, be they salmon, lamb, beef, and top of the line local seafood. Very good oils and cheeses. The chefs at each restaurant can take the credit for the food. We're not trying to standardise it. Because our food combines different influences, it's difficult to maintain consistency. But we do have some signature dishes. Such as a shashlik-like dish from Portugal, dramatically served on a stand. And a pita platter with hummus, black bean hummus, baba ghanoush and so on. Even pizzas on a one-metre tray. I'm a big believer in table display... "

Since each Olive restaurant cost about Rs 2.5-3 crore to establish, with a three-year breakeven period, what essential aspects did the entrepreneur focus on? "Firstly, it's important to create the idea. What is your concept, your positioning, your USP? It could be about breaking into the suburbs. Put your business plan together. Understand what the numbers are. Concentrate on your backend the supply chain, the control systems, and the fund flow. These are critical," he says.

And the bottom line? "Most consultants have their own agenda. If you don't have experience in the industry, bring in a professional," he says with deliberation.

Now that Olive is a restaurant brand the world is taking note of, with close to 500 staff, has Singh slammed the door on his former NGO self? Smiling, he replies, "At Just Desserts, we worked with the Sadhana school for mentally challenged kids. We did PR and raised funds for them over 12 years. Olive, Mumbai, contributes Rs 4 from every bill from our side, not from the customer to support a school for the hearing impaired in Dehradun. Over five years, we've raised almost Rs 12-15 lakhs. In Delhi, we've either partnered with or given our space to many charities. By and large, I like to work with children."

Among the glitterati that flit through his dazzling 100-cover Olive Beach, devouring exquisite canapés between sips of champagne at the launch brunch, A.D. Singh seems content. With reason. Because the southern metropolis poses a new challenge to his brand. A challenge he loves as an innovator.

"My excitement in this business is the creation, the dreaming, the vision. Ideally, I'm trying to build teams that take the detailing away from me and allow me to ideate. I'd rather grow beautifully, than quickly."

(This article was published in the Business Line print edition dated November 18, 2005)
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