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How Zorawar Kalra became the food ambassador

The founder and managing director of Massive Restaurants, who runs chains such as Farzi Café and Masala Library, on diversifying into the cloud kitchen segment, resets in the offline space, and promoting Indian culture through food

Zorawar Kalra wants to follow the same ethos that made his eateries popular in the offline space—high-quality food and ingredients—and replicate that for your house. Illustration by Priya Kuriyan
Zorawar Kalra wants to follow the same ethos that made his eateries popular in the offline space—high-quality food and ingredients—and replicate that for your house. Illustration by Priya Kuriyan

One may have thought restaurateur Zorawar Kalra would have taken some time out over the past year, given that the F&B industry almost came to a halt during the pandemic. For, ever since he launched Massive Restaurants in 2012, Kalra, founder and managing director of the company, had been opening restaurants at breakneck speed—launching brands such as Masala Library, Pa Pa Ya, Bo-Tai, Kode, YOUnion, Swan, Legacy Bespoke Catering and the much-loved Farzi Café (now in nine countries). Instead, Kalra, 44, chose to pivot to the cloud kitchen model.

He has launched an Indian-food delivery service, Butter Delivery, and a burger brand, Louis Burger. Four more brands are in the pipeline. Meanwhile, the offline brands have pressed the reset button, adhering to safety precautions and determinedly setting off on the road to recovery. Kalra anticipates quick growth in both the online and offline spaces. “Turnover is expected to touch pre-covid levels on a company basis from November onwards, and in some cities it is already above pre-covid levels,” he says, unwilling to give the figures. “However, in certain markets, due to timing and occupancy limitations, things are still a challenge. We hope that the occupancy restrictions are lifted if the cases remain low .”

He launched Butter Delivery in January with a small, focused menu of 10 items—including butter chicken, butter paneer, butter dal, tandoori chicken and breads. “It is surprising that in a country like India, with the greatest cuisines in the world, even our staple products like butter chicken are not standardised. Butter Delivery will change that. What you will get in Delhi, exactly that will be available in Mysore (Mysuru), Trivandrum (Thiruvananthapuram), Guwahati, Nagpur and Goa,” says Kalra over the phone.

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This is very much in line with Kalra’s mission. “(Indian food) should be considered one of the primary cuisines on earth. But if the youth of India itself doesn’t take to it, then how will it go global?” he told me in an interview in 2016. When Kalra started, his restaurants were a departure from Indian eateries with their ornate decor, heavy cutlery and ghazal recitals. Farzi Café, launched in 2014, focused on experimental cuisine—dishes like Phirni Oxide, which would be uncovered in a cloud of smoke—and came to be considered hip. Some described these theatrics of molecular gastronomy as “all smoke and mirrors” but the youth took to it.

Farzi Café was very different from Masala Library, set up a year earlier. Masala Library was all about sophisticated cuisine that used avant-garde cooking techniques and equipment, an ethos he extended to brands such as the Oriental eatery Pa Pa Ya (launched in 2015), the Thai restaurant Bo-Tai (2018) and the Japanese-Italian Swan (launched this year). Now, at a time when the world is grappling with uncertainty, he is perhaps seeking to project the softer, more comforting side of food, with hearty Butter Delivery dishes to liven up the spirit.

Three months ago, he also realised his dream of starting a gourmet burger brand—Louis Burger. This delivery brand launched in Mumbai and is now available in the National Capital Region (NCR) too. “Having studied and lived in the US, I always craved burgers. And when I came back to India, I couldn’t find a single good burger which would evoke the nostalgia of the ones I had in the US or Europe. This idea has been in my head for many years but we worked on it extensively last year onwards,” he says. After the second covid-19 wave this year, Kalra decided to move on it. “We were going to the kitchen wearing masks to do trials. A lot of effort has gone in to build this brand.”

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On offer are The Louis fried chicken burger with fermented hot sauce, the monster cheeseburger with a lamb or buff patty, the vegan gratitude and the truffle shroom burger. The highlight is the limited-edition truffletake burger with shiitake, truffle mayo, shimeji, English cheddar, and a layer of golden varq on top. The buns are made in-house and Japanese mayo goes into the animal sauce. The menu is designed to travel well.

“During covid-19, we had to look at other avenues as restaurants were shut down. Before the first nationwide lockdown, we didn’t have a very robust delivery system. In fact, we were so focused on offline operations and taking care of patrons that walked into the restaurant, that we never thought of delivery,” says Kalra.

Last year’s lockdown offered an opportunity to change this. The man who used to consider cloud kitchens a fad now believes they are here to stay. “We will be devoting 50% of the managerial bandwidth into pushing the cloud kitchen model. We have only been in the segment for a few months but have already noticed 2,000% growth,” says Kalra. “We want to follow the same ethos that made us popular in the offline space—high-quality food and ingredients—and replicate that for your house.”

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He doesn’t want to fight it out in the 100-200 delivery range; instead, the aim is to keep the pricing competitive in the premium segment. Just three months into the launch of Louis Burger, Kalra claims they are doing as much business from a 300 sq. ft kitchen as they would in a 2,400 sq. ft restaurant. “The pricing is not low but is competitive, with scope for high repeatability. We don’t want you to think before you order,” he says.

Among the four brands in the pipeline is one focused on pizza delivery. The company is working on proprietary crust and box technology to ensure the pizza travels well.

The restaurateur attributes his love for food to his late father, Jiggs Kalra. “He took his knowledge of food to a level that even chefs at that time couldn’t match. He is an encyclopaedia,” Kalra mentioned in the 2016 interview. “Added to the legacy was exposure to world cuisine. As a child, holidays meant tasting new flavours at the best restaurants across the world.”

He plans to pay tribute to his father’s legacy by launching a gourmet biryani brand, Biryani by Jiggs Kalra, and an immersive dining experience in Bengaluru that will look back at his father’s dedication to, and research in, Indian cuisine. The launch dates have not been decided.

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Meanwhile, he wants to take his cloud kitchen brands national. Louis Burger, currently in Gurugram, Noida and Delhi in the NCR and in Mumbai, hopes to reach four more cities by December. “We are committed to the cloud business. But we also love our offline business, and that is never going to stop. Thankfully, there has been a 90% return to demand across the country. It is good to see this recovery across the country,” he adds.

While Kalra didn’t slow down during the pandemic, he did take some time out to introspect. He maintains, in fact, that the entire industry has had to reboot and retool itself, given the questions it has had to face: Will people go out to restaurants in large numbers, will eateries remain at 50% capacity, or shut post-10pm? Things are now beginning to ease but the reset button has driven home the need to remain agile. You could be a company with wide geographical spread, or with thousands of employees, but a slow decision-making process will bog you down in a crisis.

The company realised the importance of moving into uncharted territories. “We also realised the importance of running a lean operation, with a controlled cost structure. When you grow quickly, you tend to overspend on resources that you might not need. Instead of cutting down on the team of employees, we looked at every line item to cut costs,” Kalra explains. This has resulted in smaller menus, with the team weeding out items that were not selling. As a result, the preparation time is less, the chef is not as stressed about the mise en place, and there is less spoilage and wastage.

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At Massive, they have also realised the need to innovate constantly to keep interest alive. “We had always done that, but during the pandemic we have started doing that even more,” says Kalra. A monthly innovation day allows their chefs to showcase new dishes for a launch.

Technology has also started playing a larger role at Massive Restaurants, especially in the virtual kitchen space. “You have to work extensively internally to analyse data. Just listing yourself on a food delivery platform is not enough. Your internal point-of-sale system has to work very closely with the platform,” says Kalra.

At Louis Burger, for instance, the order is approved automatically the moment it is reflected in the system. There is no human intervention required. The company, which currently relies on food aggregators, is working on its own cloud management software system. For the time being, it is using proprietary technology designed by a third party.

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It is not just company operations that have undergone an overhaul: Kalra has noticed a change in the customer as well. Customers seem to have become more tolerant and sensitive to the trials and tribulations of the industry. “They are no longer shouting or being impatient. They know the industry has suffered and they must help. Hence the tip percentages have gone up. You couldn’t do a small menu earlier as people wanted an encyclopaedia,” says Kalra. Now, people spend less time deliberating over dishes and have embraced the small menus. The trust factor has helped in getting customers back to restaurants. “Also, outdoor dining has become very popular and it will continue to be so. It is no longer just a trend, it is a phenomenon,” he adds.

His outlets abroad have bounced back faster, given the restaurant-friendly guidelines in other countries. On 22 October, he launched Farzi Café in Canada, and the restaurant is booked till 4 December. Last year, Farzi Café London entered the Michelin 2020 guide, and he will be launching Masala Library in Qatar by April. “I was so blown away by the response. We are in nine countries now, which is very good for a company that was launched nine years ago,” he says. “It is a matter of pride that Massive is a fully home-grown brand. I feel the best way to export culture is through food and we are doing that.”

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