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Why are restaurateurs making a beeline for Chandigarh?

The city has a mix of home-grown cafés and fine-dining options in hotels. Now brands are opening outlets

The mezze platter at the Olive Café & Bar, Chandigarh

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The past month has seen some vibrant additions to Chandigarh’s food and beverage ecosystem. Speciality coffee brand Blue Tokai opened its second café in Sector 35; its first outlet opened in March in Sector 18C, in partnership with Bahrisons Booksellers and Suchalis Artisan Bakehouse. The most exciting new entrant is The Olive Group, with the Olive Café & Bar opening in Sector 26, complete with a gourmet menu by chef Jyotika Malik and freshly brewed coffee and hand-crafted cocktails by lead mixologist Harish Chhimwal.

While some in the food industry caution that there’s still no substitute for comfort food and robust flavours, given the number of customers from cities like Bathinda, Ludhiana and Patiala, they are excited nevertheless about the new brands fuelling a change in the city’s flavour landscape. Chandigarh, home to a growing student population and IT services, now has a mix of home-grown and out-of-city brands and fine-dining options in hotels like JW Marriott.

Sunveer Sondhi, CEO and founder, La Pyramid Hospitalities, and head of the Chandigarh chapter of the National Restaurant Association of India, has seen the change up close. “The city is situated between so many states—Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Haryana and Punjab. If you provide good services backed by good marketing, you can’t fail in this city. In the satellite town of Mohali, a lot of universities and colleges are coming up. The student population is growing by the day, which is adding to the demand,” he says.

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While the city started realising its potential in the food and beverage space from 2017-18, with companies like Impresario Entertainment & Hospitality opening SOCIAL, growth has picked up pace after the pandemic. JW Marriott Chandigarh, for instance, has opened a speciality Chinese restaurant—the first such in the fine-dining space in the city. “Rest are pan-Asian eateries,” says Ishan Bharadwaj, food and beverage manager at the hotel.

The changing profile of travellers to the city has had its own impact. Earlier, Chandigarh was seen as a transit point for hill stations in Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand. Now, says Bharadwaj, people living in neighbouring cities visit for a day or two to unwind or host gatherings.

“The pace of life in this city suits everyone. Industries are coming up nearby, leading to a lot of corporate travel. Mohali is developing as an ITES (IT-enabled services) hub after Gurugram. The food and beverage outposts keep that in mind,” he adds. The hotel’s 35 Brewhouse, which caters to this crowd, has its own brewery. The coffee shop comes up with new promotions—in August, mothers of chefs who come from Himachal and Uttarakhand showcased family recipes.

Abhay Jagat, owner of home-grown brands such as Backpackers Cafe—the city’s first travel café—and Whispering Willows, is noticing clear segmentation in the market. “People are now going out at different times of the day, including for breakfast, which was unheard of earlier. Coffee drinking has developed as a market, though speciality coffee is still in a nascent stage,” he notes. “Cafés are running in an all-day format, as opposed to traditional lunch and dinner timings. When we started all-day breakfasts and full-kitchen cafés—as opposed to reheating pre-made sandwiches—in 2008, it was a concept ahead of its time. If our international airport were to take off, you will find a further boost to the entire market,” he adds.

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SOCIAL in Elante Mall
SOCIAL in Elante Mall

Impresario entered the Chandigarh market way back in 2006, with Mocha opening in the Sector 26 market. It had to close down, however, and the next Mocha opened in Elante Mall—fast emerging as a food hub—only in 2016. The firm went full-throttle with its first SOCIAL in 2018, followed by another one in 2020. “Earlier, you would either have a nightclub or a café without alcohol. We offered an in-between option, with great food and a microbrewery,” says Satyajit Dhingra, business head, north, Impresario.

“We have now shortlisted a property in Mohali,” he adds. “Brands like Chili’s are coming. When such brands come in, they create traction for the entire market.”

Extending the Olive branch

The Olive Café & Bar, which launched in early August, is gleaming in its signature white and blue hues. The all-day menu has been crafted by chef Jyotika Malik, a graduate of Le Cordon Bleu, London, who has worked with celebrity chef Marco Pierre White. It includes small plates, salads, pizzas, signature Olive dishes like Prawn Pil Pil, and classic desserts.

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A.D. Singh, founder and managing director of The Olive Group of restaurants, has always been vocal about the potential of tier 2 and 3 cities. It was logical then for the group to expand to Chandigarh. “There is a lot more affluence, exposure and curiosity now.... Trips to Chandigarh have been a revelation,” he says. He has discovered a sophisticated audience with discerning taste that yearns for quality products.

Miso roasted eggplant is part of the menu at the Olive Café & Bar curated by chef Jyotika Malik.
Miso roasted eggplant is part of the menu at the Olive Café & Bar curated by chef Jyotika Malik.

They are already doing better than he expected. “Overall sales and volume are 40% more than I expected. Cocktail sales are very good. There is a misconception that Punjab is all about drinking whisky,” notes Singh.

“Olive defines a lifestyle with its mix of music, buzz, art and events,” he adds. “Because of our experience in the market, one can tweak the experience that fits in perfectly with the city’s ecosystem. In Chandigarh, we have paid close attention to what time people go out, which age groups, and what each segment is looking for.“

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