Opening a Restaurant at the Worst Possible Time: Part 1

30 days, 70 Uber trips, 3 states, and 1 restaurant.

This is the first in a series of long-form write-ups on my experiences in helping out in the food & beverage industry in a developing country. This particular section includes the preface and the first week of this hectic project. More sections will be added later.

Not the restaurant I helped at. Photo by Jay Wennington

19th December 2019: I was wrapping up my contract work with PwC and was planning on my return to the States so that I could finish my degree. I had a few weeks of downtime and one of my close friends mentioned he needed a hand opening up a restaurant in New Delhi.

“You don’t know anything about opening a brick & mortar — everything you’ve ever done is either online or entirely intangible.”

HURTFUL and RUDE — but another year, another challenge, especially in an industry I had no practical and relevant experience in. Takes a villager et all. Onwards.

I also realized this would be my only opportunity to get my hands dirty and learn from some of the most experienced people in this field, with a crash course in the inner workings of the food and beverage industry in a developing country. Hop to the Bargaining section for clarity.

You couldn’t subscribe to this on Udemy even if you tried.

Preface

I was relatively well-versed in the overall progress of the restaurant. I had an affinity for focusing my general interest in projects I had no interest in knowing. I’d mentioned off-hand I could be the guy if he ever needed technological assistance - but some of the red flags prior to me joining was evidence of some larger issues at hand —

11th August 2019: kicked off conversations regarding interior design/ style including mise en place. There was no structure and overall aesthetic.

All through September: food trials and testing (read: poaching of chefs) from well-known establishments all around the NCR region.

13th October: the hideous previous logo (which would eventually be swapped out for the newer format) was revealed. I pushed back heavily, with good reason.

16th November: India Cocktail Week - establishing partnerships with up and coming brands and figuring out the initial draft of a cocktail menu.

3rd December: I found out the two Arowanas and Sting Ray which were delivered from Mumbai were dead on arrival. Huge blow on morale - less of an economical loss but a loss nevertheless. The desensitization would help in the near future.

Poor Fish

16th December: heavy competitive analysis for the food menu, looking at the top F&B places in the US/ APAC region, focusing on New York and Hong Kong.

I was slowly realizing my friend had a lot of work to do - this was no easy task. I was apprehensive but situations pushed me to focus my entire efforts on this project and I was happy with the outcome.

Organization is your friend

22nd December 2019: Since I had kept a tight feedback loop with my friend I tackled this project as any other — created a priority list subdivided into each focus category and generated a Gantt chart, adding a buffer of a few days for each task. The opening date was tentatively Feb 1st and my data was showing mid-April.

Raw Data is never wrong.

I knocked out the easy stuff first, focusing on my strengths — building an online presence and targeting the specific keywords capturing the top SERP. Domain was registered and mailing redirects were set up, saving G Suite costs.

It also definitely helped to leverage the Google Maps clout I’ve so carefully cultivated over the past four years, which grants me the ability to add locations effortlessly.

Mama, I made it

The Ceramics City & Cracked Dreams

The priority spreadsheet would define the next 30 days on what tasks to run in parallel and what to focus on. 23rd December I received a call at night after finishing a 12 hour day on tomorrow’s agenda. 24th would be a field trip of sorts - going to Khurja, in the state of Uttar Pradesh: known for its affinity and mass production of ceramics. This trip would mean I would be getting up at 5 in the morning and spend the whole day looking at bowls. I had already reached a turning point.

Note: This was also bang in the middle of the ongoing CAA protests, which meant more commotion and disruptions on all major interconnected roads and in-ways into Delhi. I’m not trying to be dramatic but life and death situation?

Two buses burning outside my house due to the protests - this looks way more war-torn than required. Source: My grandmother

Buses burning ft. the temple I used to go when I was a kid. Source: my co-founder (?)

I knew I didn’t want to half-ass this project and treating it like a full-time job was the only way I’d be able to do justice to myself — so we set off.

The moment we arrived we were subjected to wide-scale internet shutdown which meant we all instantly lost access to data and were scrambling to organize a rendezvous point. We eventually managed to get our bearings straight and visited the manufacturers, who treated us to fantastic chai and chole bhature to die for - which we even ended up packing and taking back with us.

From New York to Khurja. What a fairy tale.

One important aspect of the food and beverage industry people fail to realize is the concept of par, which is:

expected cover for the restaurant * 2 or 3 depending on size and seating

Which would be the number of utensils and cutlery you would expect to have at any given time. Flashback to Ocean’s 11 where Terry Benedict discreetly announces the amount hidden in the vault in the event of gambling losses and potential payouts.

Example: A headcount (or # of seats) of 100 people at a restaurant requires 250-300 utensils, cutlery, and plates respectively. You can see how they’re some scaling issues and the Law of Large Numbers doesn’t come into play here.

This isn’t AWS - we don’t have enough EC2 instances for this.

By my rough estimates, management saved approximately 40% by traveling south of New Delhi for a few hours and ordering directly from the manufacturer.

I handled the purchase order book, and eventual organization of each item ordered, keeping track of inventory and samples while handling contact information. We locked in three manufacturers and placed orders with a delivery date of the start of February. (Looping back, if you recall, the restaurant had to open mid-Feb).

Bargaining 101

If there is one thing you get out of this essay, it should be this section.
My friend’s father, the owner of this fine establishment, had a particular affinity towards psychological pricing/ end-pricing, from both a buyers and seller’s perspective. 52 years of combined industry experience - with the first hotel opening in 1968 - was channeled towards one goal: bringing down the overall cost through discounting and deals.

The keyword management used to negotiate was to never use the word to negotiate or bargain ever.

Instead, the methodology of bringing down the price was only for the mutual respect the seller had to my close friend’s father… even though they had no previous relationship, to begin with.

That was essentially the beauty of it - by commanding the room, leveraging the success of his previous ventures, and not leaving before the deal directly benefited management either economically or socially* - he managed to always tip the scales.

I’ve seen him do this not only with manufacturers and employees but also with me. He got me to work for a month for zero pay. I can’t.

* Socially in this context would be in regards to favors.


In the next part, I’ll go into how we successfully got the DPCC license, added steps to a bridge, reverse-engineered the biggest alcohol distributor’s pricing strategy, and attempted (and failed) to negotiate while purchasing plants for the pond.