TOP OF THE FOOD CHAIN:
There is no love sincerer than the love of food wrote George Bernard Shaw. Perhaps the Ohris know this secret — why else would Ravi Ohri and his son Amar take their strong passion for food to a level where it has impacted a city as big as Hyderabad? In an exclusive interview, father and son talk to Minal Khona about their business, which is one of the largest family owned restaurant chains in the country.
A household name for two generations in this city, the Ohri’s brand is synonymous with food and their Hotel Baseraa is a landmark in Secunderabad. With 24 restaurants and three hotels in Hyderabad, three restaurants in Bengaluru and still counting, Ohri’s is a brand that keeps getting bigger. Amar and Ravi Ohri keep a low profile and live well below the radar of socialites. Talking to them is a revelation.
Amar is soft spoken and shy, but has a ready smile on his face that bears a startling resemblance to the cricketer Suresh Raina. He says, “Being Punjabis, we have always enjoyed food and been adventurous with it. Every time we travelled, we would eat at lesser known eateries or sample street food to know what people liked. And our home was behind Baseraa, so I practically grew up in a hotel. I found the bustle of the kitchens and the whole experience of hospitality fascinating.”
Beginning with Baseraa
Born after three sisters, it was taken for granted that Amar would follow in his father’s footsteps. Ravi Ohri, though, did not start out in the hospitality business with the kind of intense exposure his son had. A civil engineer by profession, his work as a contractor often brought him to Hyderabad. When living in Behrampur, in Orissa, he would also travel to Kolkata and stay regularly at the Grand Hotel. He recalls, “The staff there knew me well. I used to go and visit all the departments of the hotel and see how they worked. I observed the way they ran the place and began to pick up knowledge about the hotel line.”
His business in Behrampur was doing very well, and Ohri senior decided to buy property in Secunderabad. “I bought the building that is now the Baseraa Hotel. Then I bought some more property right behind it and that property was like a villa. We lived there for 32 years from 1972 to 2004 before shifting to Banjara Hills. The building in the front, I leased to the Kamats. Later, I decided to set up Baseraa in 1979. We opened in March 1980. It had 37 rooms and a restaurant.”
But the decision to start a hotel was not based on his visits to Grand Hotel alone. His mother-in-law, Mrs Raj Kapoor’s family, owned another iconic Hyderabadi restaurant and ice cream brand — Havmor in Basheerbagh (rechristened Eatmor) where the Eatmor restaurant, the Silver Metro and Ming’s Court are based today along with Gufaa. Her brother and father ran the place which was known for its chhole bhature and the Havmor brand of ice creams as a partnership. Eventually, Ravi Ohri’s wife Kamal’s maternal uncle, who now owned Havmor, offered to sell it to him and he bought it immediately. The total cost of buying the business, renovating the restaurant and relaunching it was Rs 5 lakh. At that time, the restaurant earned Rs 2000 to Rs 3000 a day and a month’s gross income at Havmor was Rs 80,000 to a lakh. That, in a nutshell was the beginning of the Ohri success story.
Ohri senior decided to expand. Baseraa was launched with a restaurant called Daawat which served Udupi-style vegetarian food; Mehfill — a multi-cuisine restaurant with live ghazal performances that is still going strong, and Baithak — a banquet hall. The hotel, then perhaps the only 3-star one in Secunderabad, received a phenomenal response. He recalls, “We had more than 100 per cent occupancy at times — people slept in the corridor so they could occupy a room the moment it was vacated. The restaurant too did well and I made sure I hired competent people. I got a very good chef from Orissa, and hotel management graduates from Kolkata. Even though there was Prohibition in the state at the time, the hotel was a success.”
When Prohibition was lifted, Daawat was reinvented as Outswinger, the first pub in the twin cities. Even today it is a regular crowd puller. The hotel now also houses Pickles, a 24-hour coffee shop that includes an extensive buffet and an a la carte lunch and dinner service. The coffee shop is named after the mobile trolley that has a vast number of pickles one can choose from to go with their meal.
Expanding the Ohri’s brand
It was inevitable, then, that expansion plans would follow. Incidentally, the family still owns the Eatmor ice cream factory and Amar’s mother, Kamal, personally oversees the blending of the masalas that are used to make the chhole-bhature. The recipe for their trademark dish remains a closely guarded family secret and has remained unchanged since the beginning.
Ohri senior then decided to launch theme-based restaurants. One must remember that in the 80s and early 90s, Hyderabad was not considered a city with a promising upward graph for growth — demographically or economically. But he went ahead and the Basheerbagh property was expanded to include Ming’s Court, Silver Metro and Gufaa. Silver Metro has the theme of a metro rail station and serves food in a seating area designed to resemble train coaches.
Over the years, the brand kept launching newer themed restaurants and, today, spread all across the city all the way to Hitech city are names familiar to most foodies. Serengeti, Tansen, 70 mm, 100 degrees, 1857, Nautanki Gali, Tadka, Rubaiyat and the most recent Jiva’s Imperia and De Thali all bear the Ohri stamp. As do the food courts one sees at a few malls and multiplexes.
So how does the planning for this brand happen? Who has the ideas and who is the executioner? Amar, who has studied in Switzerland and the US and has a degree in hospitality and management under his belt, explains: “Dad and I gauge the vibes from our customers because we are completely hands on. We read the signs and based on our travels and changing trends in food, we think of themes. We go with the idea of whoever makes a better presentation.”
Having said that, Amar has brought a professional and systematic touch to the business. “I have hired young qualified people. We have also implemented better processes to measure customer satisfaction. My core team reports to me on a daily basis and I get debriefs every evening. Every department is synergised with each other and is in sync. And I do have a great team that does a good job. The goal is to provide good food, consistent in quality, in an ambience that makes people want to come back repeatedly.”
Amar and his father credit a lot of their business’ success to their staff. Frequent references to their efficiency and capability are made in the course of the interview and Ravi proudly states, “About 30 to 40 of my staff have been with me from the beginning and we now have their children working with us.”
Ohri’s seems to have achieved that goal of repeated visits from customers.Ravi can provide enough examples of customers who first met or dated at his restaurant and now bring their kids there as well. One incredible customer anecdote he shares is about a gentleman who worked at the BHEL office near the Baseraa hotel. “He met me once when I walked into the restaurant and told me he had been eating at Mehfill every single day for the past 20 years. I was so delighted on hearing this that I told my staff that he could eat at Mehfill free for the rest of his life.” It is stories of such people, and that of practically every young Hyderabadi who has grown up in the city, who have visited an Ohri restaurant or had Havmor ice cream, that makes this success story so heartwarming.
Often one hears of restaurant chains that have multiple franchises — some even all over the globe. But one doesn’t hear of restaurant chains that do multiple cuisines. A burger chain will give you the same kind of burgers, no matter where in the world you have them. This is where the Ohri brand stands out as a unique proposition, thanks in no small measure to our very rich and diverse Indian cuisine of course. Most of the Ohri restaurants like Tadka, Mehfill, Gufaa, Serengeti, Imperia, De Thali and Rubaiyat serve Indian food. But no two menus are alike. How do the Ohris accomplish this? Amar reveals, “When we plan to launch a new restaurant, there is six to nine months of planning and research that goes into it. We have a full-fledged research department and they have certain parameters. From the history of a cuisine to popular dishes to customer favourites, everything is studied in-depth. You must remember that Hyderabad has changed a lot over the last decade and with the influx of people from other parts of India, food preferences have also changed.
“Based on that, we decide what we want to do next. Every project is treated with the same kind of zeal and enthusiasm. So, though we are serving Indian food at several of our restaurants, we change the theme and the cuisine. We are clear when we launch that no two restaurants can have the same menu. Rubaiyat serves Mughlai, Ming’s Court serves Chinese with a Thai twist, 100 Degrees serves sizzlers, Serengeti, themed to resemble an African forest, serves Awadhi and Peshawari cuisine and is known for its Galouti kababs. Nautanki Gali and Silver Metro serve fast food and De Thali serves Gujarati and Rajasthani cuisine. Whether it is from Kolkata or the heart of old Delhi, every menu has signature dishes not available everywhere.
“Every restaurant’s menu is revamped annually, and we retain the old favourites and include new dishes. If we get any kind of negative feedback, we act on it immediately. We also ensure that we are not too high priced as we want our customers to have a complete experience — good food and value for money.” This of course means a lot of food trials, something that Amar has a love-hate relationship with. It is a ritual and a great adventure in creativity. But it plays havoc with his fitness levels though.
Another USP of the Ohri group is a bunch of restaurants under one roof. The idea of a multiplex of restaurants was Ohri senior’s and one that was ahead of its time. Other restaurant chains today follow the same principle.
On the personal front, the Ohris live in a spacious property on Road No. 12 in Banjara Hills. Amar by nature is shy so is rarely seen on Page 3. His wife, Sonal, is a warm and pretty lady from Delhi. She keeps busy with their three-year-old twins, Aadar and Suhana. They live with Amar’s parents and his naani, Mrs Raj Kapoor — the person who is perhaps the pioneer behind the start of this amazing success story, the recipe for chhole bhature is hers, remember? Amar is unlike most 30 somethings his age. He loves playing with his kids who, at this age are like “brilliant toys.” There is also his dog, a big, black and very friendly Newfoundland pup called Don, whose presence has Amar’s face lighting up with joy.
A bit of a techie, Amar is into creating websites and writing html codes. He is also on a spiritual quest for life’s deeper meanings and “is fortunate to have found my guru whose ashram is on the outskirts of Kolkata.”
The group has expanded into Bengaluru with three restaurants — Silver Metro, Serengeti and Zanzibar which is a pub. Three hotels in Hyderabad — the flagship Baseraa with 77 rooms, Ohri’s Baseraa Inn with 21 rooms (housed in the same building as the cluster of restaurants in Basheerbagh) and Ohri’s Banjara, a boutique hotel with 24 rooms on Road No. 12 in Banjara Hills are equally successful ventures. Ohri senior reveals that this hotel is usually booked out to corporates. What has made this possible is his keen eye for the right kind of property. Not all Ohri restaurants are on premises owned by the family. Some of them are leased spaces. But the location and the demographics of the crowd in the area, along with a network in the real estate business ensures that the moment a good location is available, the Ohris get a chance at acquiring it.
Reluctant to reveal what the group’s turnover is, the plans to go national are in the offing, but still a long way off. Investors have shown interest but Amar wants to consolidate the brand in South India before looking at Delhi and Mumbai. Amar does add however, that he would like to “upscale the De Thali brand and make it bigger. Pune would be an entry point for Maharashtra eventually.”
Future plans also include another five to six Ohri’s restaurants in the city — branches of De Thali or Jiva’s Imperia. Though the naturally reticent Amar is still a bit cautious about what’s next, his father, the bolder and perhaps the bigger risk taker between the two, has several ideas. Ohri senior says, “This city has very little to offer its tourists. I would like to have a shikara — a houseboat-style restaurant on the lake. We have the best medical service providers in the city and to capitalise on that, I would like to set up a resort within the parameters of medical tourism. One which would offer a resort and spa facility, with a lot of greenery, based on eco-friendly principles. A place where people can come to destress and relax with healthy food.”
To cook and serve good food is an art. To do this consistently, catering for diverse palates for the last two decades in a city known for its rich cuisine, takes much more. It takes talent, dedication, a head for business, warmth of service and above all, a love of food.
The Ohris it would seem, have all the ingredients they need for the recipe of their brand of success.
Photographs by Sucharitha Rao