As a paying customer, the diner of today is constantly looking for newer culinary experiences. While conventional dining out, with multi-course menus and varied cuisines continue to flourish, the demand for niche, intimate dining experiences is increasing. This has manifested in the rise of private dining rooms (PDRs) in restaurants and the several chef driven pop-ups at non-conventional venues – studio kitchens, farmhouses, cultural spots and others. All clearly indicating the desire to experience food in different ways. Over time we have seen the rise of micro-dining restaurants in India too.
Micro-dining restaurants, as the name suggests, are restaurants that accommodate a smaller number of people, ranging from approximately 8 to 20, on average. Some of these restaurants choose to have limited meal sittings in day or in a week too. “A micro-dining concept is usually cuisine-specific, maybe even dish-specific so it plays on making a great version of something from within a cuisine. PDR and chef-driven tables are most often cuisine agnostic or inspired,” explains Kavan Kuttappa, Chef-Founder, Naru Noodle Bar, Bengaluru, an 8-seater ramen bar with an online pre-reservation system.
Micro-dining restaurants are of varied cuisines and approaches. In Goa, Chef-Owner Pablo Miranda’s Antonio at 31 is focused on doing small plates influenced by Goan ingredients and flavours. This is a tapas bar with just 30 seats. With Makutsu, Miranda went even smaller - a 20-seater yakitori bar with half its space dedicated to a kitchen table with a live yakitori. In Hauz Khas, Delhi, Chef-Owner Hana Ho’s Little Saigon offers a slice of Vietnam in her cosy 25-seater. Her main aim, she says, is to bring her cuisine to India and make her restaurant a warm place for guests.
Wanting to interact more closely with the diner, and help make Japanese cuisine less intimidating, Founder of Saiko Sushi House, Siddharth Raj, has a 14-seater in JP Nagar in Bengaluru and an 8-seater outlet in Jubilee Hills in Hyderabad. With these, he hopes to achieve a more homely feel with his guests and allow for the cuisine to become a part of their lives.
At GroundUp in Pune, Chef-Owner Gayatri Desai offers cuisine agnostic menus that are based on a philosophy of sourcing locally, fermentation, preservation and smoking techniques. Recently, Desai has begun collaborating with chefs, and each menu created sees R&D work of around two weeks before it is presented. Served as a set menu in a space that can seat 25, her most recent was a 9-course meal that was a culinary ode to native folk rice, sourced from OOO Farms in Rajkot.
“When you have a small group of 20 people, it’s amazing to see the kind of conversations that come up. Even if people are on a date, conversations spring up across tables and people share stories and experiences,” says Desai.
Besides the easier conversations a micro-dining restaurant facilitates, there are several aspects that keep them on the constant radar of the food enthusiast. The curated and changing menus are always a draw, as is the exclusivity of the dining experience. “Our menus change every few months. Having a small plate menu and focusing on Goan ingredients we tend to play around with what’s available seasonally. Sometimes I even change the menus based on what I’m craving for that week. Having a small space gives us the flexibility to do so," says Miranda.
Kuttappa adds, “Micro-dining restaurants are exclusive by design if not by attitude and it becomes aspirational to have been there. Micro size means lesser people walk through the doors a week and a large population is wanting to be there and this can be disappointing for the customer. The novelty of this or FOMO works to an extent, but has to be backed by the product. I decided to go with a pre-reservation system so that I have an idea of the number of guests being fed plus the work involved. This kind of control helps us keep consistent."
Great quality is must, as is building market consistency, believes Raj and that’s why he decided to go the boutique way. “As a home grown brand, we want to resonate with people. Cities now have several cuisines to offer and the next step is to try and up the easy relatability factor for each of them,” he says. While Saiko Sushi House has a menu with options like classic sushi, donburi, poke bowls and Japanese street food, the brand is also working on launching a 9-course meal that will serve as an introduction to Japanese cuisine.
While the interesting dining experiences are a given with micro-dining restaurants, the question of profitability from places with such few covers is natural one. In general, the thought is that by providing a more exclusive and personalised experience, micro-dining restaurants are often able to charge a premium price for their services, resulting in higher profit margins per guest. However, there is a risk of exclusivity with such small restaurants where their appeal is limited to a smaller segment of the population and they end up turning away potential customers.
“From a business perspective, the pros of micro-dining restaurants are high profit margins (though lower compared to larger restaurants) with low investment and overheads. The flip side is that sometimes unique concepts may not always work and there can be the high license costs for the size of the space. Moreover, a smaller team means a higher dependability on key staff. With one person down, operations can suffer,” says Miranda.
“A micro-dining restaurant can earn profits if it looks at increasing the frequency of its sittings to twice day (for those that don’t), for three to four days a week and at a per head cost of around ₹2500 to ₹3500. When working on our menus, I found there were several by-products that were created and these too can be sold, adding to the revenue made” says Desai, speaking from the perspective of her space and who is sure that she never wants to scale up from her current diner capacity.
You also have passionate folks like Ho who says that profit is not as important to her as is bringing her cuisine to India. “If I was to run a restaurant for the profit alone, I would not have taken up such a small place. What makes me happy is to see my old customers come back, even if after a long time and recommend my restaurant to others,” she adds.
Ruth Dsouza Prabhu is a Bengaluru-based journalist.