By: Kamala Kelkar
Mitali Kalra spent two years building up a clientele for her small eatery in South Delhi.
At Crostini, first in Greater Kailash One then in Hauz Khas village, she offered dishes rarely served in the capital, including grilled tofu salad and whole-wheat pastas, which she hoped would set her apart from heavy north Indian cuisine and cater to a growing appetite for fresh produce.
But now Ms. Kalra is moving her establishment out of Delhi and heading to Gurgaon, a satellite city about 30 minutes from the capital by car, where she says diners are more adventurous, independent and well-traveled. Gurgaon, home to Tata Consultancy Services532540.BY -0.14%’ offices and a number of branches of foreign companies, is also more commercially viable for a restaurant like hers, and less vulnerable to bureaucratic and political red tape.
“I had envisioned I’d have hundreds of little spots in Delhi where people could get a nice smoothie,” Ms. Kalra said.
She shut her doors four weeks ago when the trendy neighborhood Hauz Khas Village started getting attention for restaurants including her own that didn’t have the necessary permits.
New restaurants pop up all the time in Delhi, just to shutter months later. Restaurateurs told India Real Time that the market is sometimes harder on independent owners, especially ones with innovative ideas, despite the city’s reputation for diversity.
Even popular places can’t stay open. Gunpowder, an independent restaurant offering a range of south Indian dishes that opened in Hauz Khas Village in 2009 and was credited with helping spur a dining boom there, shut its doors last month. Its owner has moved the venture to Goa, but still offers a catering service out of Gurgaon.
Ms. Kalra said Hauz Khas Village was one of the many neighborhoods where commercial properties operated in residential areas, but enforcement officials looked the other way. Virtually all restaurants in the village were shut one weekend this fall because they lacked one of around 12 permits necessary to operate.
According to the Delhi Pollution Control Committee, the enforcement agency for one particular emissions permit, the majority of restaurants in Delhi lack this license. Sandeep Mishra, member secretary of DPCC told India Real Time only about 250 of 20,000 restaurants in Delhi have the environmental permit.
For sure, some restaurants thrive in Delhi. Berco’s, for instance, which is known for its speedy delivery of momos (dumplings), chili chicken and vegetable Manchurian (a Chinese dish) has successfully opened and sustained 14 restaurants in Delhi during the past 25 years.
“We have a safe menu,” said Kabir Advani, Berco’s managing partner who is also on a committee for the National Restaurant Association of India. “People grow up on this stuff,” he added.
Around 60% of the restaurant’s food options have remained unchanged since it opened, he said. And his staff have learned how to obtain all the permits necessary to open new eateries within about two months.
Ms. Kalra said she was still trying to figure out permit issues when she closed Crostini.
The NRAI released a report in April that predicted India’s food service industry market will grow from about $40 billion to about $66 billion by 2018.
It does not have information specific to Delhi, but NRAI president Samir Kuckreja said the capital’s food service industry is growing and presents a lot of opportunity.
“People need to do a lot of research in advance,” said Mr. Kuckreja who is also the founder and chief executive of consulting company Tasanaya Hospitality Pvt. based in Delhi.
Restaurateurs have to execute the perfect combination of concept, product and location, in order to thrive in India’s capital, he added.
Permits have become more streamlined over the years but there is no single government department or point person an owner can turn to for licensing advice.
“It’s easier for larger organizations that have a team that is used to doing this,” said Mr. Kuckreja, who was previously the chief executive and managing director of Nirula’s, one of India’s oldest fast-food chains.
He also agreed that the people in the market for eating out are more sheltered in Delhi than in its cutting-edge cuisine counterparts Mumbai and Bangalore.
“Delhi is catching up in that sense,” he said.
However, even being part of a chain is not a direct pass to success. A branch of the Italian bistro LavAzza for example, which was a neighbor of Berco’s in Delhi’s central hub Connaught Place, recently shut its doors. Officials from LavAzza, which has more than 15 outlets throughout the capital, were unavailable to comment.
Mr. Advani speculated the central branch had been squeezed out by Café Coffee Day, which is cheaper cup for cup for coffee and has more than 150 branches in Delhi.
Ms. Kalra, whose Crostini Facebook page has nearly 5,000 ‘likes’, said she still gets calls for delivery from Hauz Khas to residents in South Delhim, indicating perhaps that the appetite for her cuisine is there.
“It feels awkward,” she said. “Maybe at the end of the year we’ll take another look at the South Delhi market.” But if she does decide to come back to the capital, Ms. Kalra says she would only open in a mall or another established market where permit issues are clear cut.
photo fred: Crostini Facebook page