The fortuitous success of his sister’s pre-wedding party, laid the foundation for AD Singh’s entrepreneurial journey with Party Lines, a boat party planning service, in 1988. Two years later AD Singh embarked on being a restaurateur and he is still going strong after two decades. Yet the first thing he says to me is, “thank you,” when I meet him at Olive Bar and Kitchen in Bandra, Mumbai. Singh, managing director of Olive Group, won the LF Epicurean Guild Awards (LFEGA) 2020’s Lifetime Achievement Award, yet his first impulse is humble gratitude.
AD Singh is credited for the change in the way Indians dine out but he doesn’t see it that way. He has had a pivotal role to play in the success of many a rising-stars of Indian culinary scene, including co-curator of LFEGA Manu Chandra. He best known for placing bets on out-of-the-box concepts for restaurants. Longevity and profitability aside, almost all of these foodie hotspots pushed the envelope for both the consumer and food service business. Some of Singh’s successful ventures include, SodaBottleOpenerWala, MonkeyBar, Ek Bar, The Hoppery and Toast and Tonic.
“I was at the right place at the right time,” is how he describes his success. A rhetoric he keeps reiterating through the course of this interview.
Edited excerpts from the interview:
1. From an electrical engineer to a restaurant czar, the journey continues. How did it begin and what has it been like?
If I were to choose a single word that defines my journey and life, it would be serendipity. I happily stumbled into the restaurant industry in 1990 with Just Desserts in Mumbai; since then this has been my life and I love it. I am glad I’ve been able to make a difference.
2. What was the moment when you realised that a 9 to 5 life wasn’t meant for you?
It’s funny because when my career started at Cadbury’s, I was happy. But then I asked myself: Is this where I want to be for the rest of my life? And just like that, without knowing the answer, I quit the corporate life. It was sometime before I stumbled upon on the entrepreneur life.
Just Desserts was me chasing my own sweet tooth [laughs]. Its success was completely unexpected and came at a time that was defining for Mumbai’s social scene. It motivated me to continue in the food service space—I kept opening restaurants and people kept enjoying them. As I said, I was blessed to be at the right place at the right time.
3. You spearheaded the standalone restaurant phenomenon in India, changing the staid restaurant space into a vibrant one. What and who do you attribute this foresight to?
When I started out, along with my contemporaries Ritu Dalmia and Rahul Akerkar, there were very few cool standalone restaurants in the market. In fact, my generation grew up hanging out at coffee shops of five star hotels, which we loved but looking back looks a bit sad. When the three of us, along with a couple of others, started out with our restaurants it showed people that there is more to restaurants, what is possible and helped it grow to what it is today.
It was less of foresight and more of achieving and completing tasks one at a time. I have always worked on projects that I liked and saw an opportunity for. But I’ve had my share of failures.
4. Restaurants are a treacherous business to pursue. What are some of the lessons you’ve learnt to succeed in the industry?
They say that the odds of failure of an entrepreneur’s first restaurant is higher than anything else. I often tell aspiring entrepreneurs that it’s a hard business. It is exciting and it has potential but be careful when you start.
• I would suggest starting off with a franchise of a well-established business or partner with someone who is experienced in the business. So the chances of success is higher.
Budding restaurateurs are so excited about their idea that they hardly listen to anyone. However, I do hope that over the years I have managed to help at least a few of them from losing their hard-earned money.
• Second, and perhaps most important, there is no substitute for hard work.
• Third, no matter how excited you are, keep a very close watch on the bottom line. That will define how far you’ll go.
• Lastly, stay abreast of the ever-changing trends so that your product is what consumers want.
5. If you could turn back time and change one decisions, what would that be?
When Sachin Tendulkar came to see me along with his manager, looking to open a sports bars; I loved the idea but I regret my investors and I couldn’t move fast enough to follow through. So, someone else took upon the project and the rest is, of course, history. I would really like to change that decision.
6. From Ai to Lap, you’ve been part of numerous ambitious and innovative projects, many survived and many didn’t. What role does trial and error play in becoming a successful restaurateur?
I think trying to save a failing restaurant is like getting an MBA in this business. There is so much to learn from a failure despite being a painful experience. Even though I am considered a veteran with the Midas touch, we’ve had our fair share of losses. And with each loss there has been tremendous learnings, I am learning even today. I think it’s very important for an entrepreneur to never stop learning.
7. What is the one thing you’d like to change in the restaurant scene in India?
At the moment, there are too many people are rushing into the restaurant business, operating for a year or two and then closing down. They are disrupting the growth of the industry by paying high rent, poaching manpower. After so many years, we, as an industry, have started to come together and support each other, I credit NRAI (National Restaurants Association of India) for that, but we need to start to look at the industry holistically—several newer setups, standalones and startups, don’t respect each other enough leaving a negative impact on the food service business.
8. What is your big tip for Indian restaurants in 2020?
Today, our Indian consumer market is being shaped by a much younger demographic than it has previously, so it’s important to understand what motivates them and how to drive them. Big tip right there!
9. Year 2020, what is in store for Olive Group and AD Singh? What lies ahead?
It is a year of great celebration. Olive Bar & Kitchen in Mumbai completes 20 years, which is a landmark. To mark this occasion, we’re releasing a book [on the brand]. With the Olive Group we’ve built strong and much-loved brands over the years. So, for us the future is all about steadfast focus on maintaining our standards and growing our existing brands across the country. We are also exploring a few opportunities overseas.
On the personal front, I’ve been married for 20 years, which too is rare these days. So 2020 looks like a fun and exciting year. Of course, the industry is going through a downturn, and there is a lot of pressure on me and my teams. But, we’ve tightened our belts to do our best.
• People to watch out for:
Chef Vanshika and Chef Tanisha of Together at 12, Gurgaon
• A restaurateur you admire the most:
Rohit Khattar, founder, Old World Hospitality Pvt. Ltd. The gambles he took with Indian Accent have put modern Indian food on the map.
• Favourite restaurants:
Kala Ghoda Café and Qualia in Mumbai, and Gunpowder in Goa.
• Most overrated restaurant trend:
• Most underrated restaurant trend:
Good food, good food, and good food!
• Your best kept secret:
I have twin brother which many don’t know about.
• Your favourite cuisine:
Ghar ka khana, Japanese