Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Review: Smoke House Deli

Smoke House Deli
Scores better on looks than food

Look:  Superior designing has gone into Bangalore’s two Smoke House Delis, in Indiranagar and on Lavelle Road, making them fetchingly good looking. An all-white look gives these restaurants a clean, bright air and fills them with light. The Smoke House Delis are also known for their signature style of paying tribute to their locales; quirky hand-drawn illustrations cover walls, white bottles, old gramophones and most other surfaces and become a talking point.
Food: The ambience may have you expecting an equal edge to the food. What Smoke House Deli does do though is a version of European or Conti, as we used to know it, without too many surprises. It’s not technically a deli either, though there is a small section retailing breakfast cereal, pasta sauce and olive oil.
On our several visits we’ve found the food to be a bit of a mixed bag. An Asparagus and Grape Salad with Smoked Fig which we tasted at Indiranagar was a perfect balance of textures and flavours. But the Oak Ash Chevre and California Orange Salad with Passionfruit Emulsion at the Lavelle Road restaurant was all wilted greens and over-dressed. No hint of oak ash either. 
The Paprika Puffs are a well done appetizer and moreish, for nibbling with your drinks. The Three Cheese and Jalapeno Toast was a disappointment, for as it cooled the not-so-tasty cheese topping just came away from the drying bread.
The Tomato Polenta, Grilled Vegetables and Pesto Cream was also rather too creamy for our liking. We’d expected a mound of caramelized veggies on the polenta, but these were minuscule bits mixed into the sauce. The Peri Peri Rubbed Grilled Chicken with its brined chicken was tender and packed with flavour.  SDH hot dogs and burgers are, apparently, a hot ticket but we can’t see the point of eating what’s essentially grab-and-go food in a fancy restaurant. Then it would have to be Kobe beef burger topped with truffle!
The dessert menu plays safe with Tiramisu, Flourless Chocolate Cake and Philly Cheesecake – all creamy, sweet and satisfying.
Drink: There are some well-made cocktails to be had here and healthy drinks like mocktails of carrot, apple and celery. The tea and coffee choices are exhaustive, too.
Occasion: Dates, family dinners, catch-up with friends – SDH is good for all that.  Don’t expect quiet and privacy, though. For this is a closely packed restaurant, crowded most days with Bangalore’s hip set which wants to be seen at the most happening spots.
Prices: A three-course meal will cost approximately Rs 1200, including taxes but without drinks.

Review by Priya Bala

Friday, May 3, 2013

Service Tax - What are restaurants doing?

It's been over 5 months since any AC restaurant in India was supposed to have started charging service tax of 12.36% on 40% of the total bill value - i.e. 4.944%. What are various restaurants doing?

1) To be on the really safe side, some restaurants are charging 4.944% on the entire bill value and the customer pays for the service tax. The restaurants can then claim input credit for any service tax they pay. So in some ways, the customers are now paying extra and some portion of the extra amount is a benefit to the business because of the offsetting with the input credit.

2) A few restaurants are charging service tax only for dine-in customers. They do not charge the service tax for take-aways and deliveries. This issue is still ambigious and hopefully the service tax department will issue a clarification for the same. Whatever material is available in the public domain - CA Club forums etc. seem to suggest that all sales originating out of a AC restaurant is applicable for service tax.

3) Restaurants which use a composite VAT model need to charge service tax on the bill value - minus VAT only. i.e. If the bill amount is 100 and the VAT is 4% (in Karnataka) - the real bill value is 96. So service charges needs to be charged on 96 and not on 100. Most restaurants don't do this - they charges service tax based on a sale value of 100.

Most customers seem to gotten used to paying this extra 4.944%. For restaurant owners, this is yet another issue to deal with now in the wake of spiraling input prices.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Roof Top Restaurants

While a Roof-top restaurant can be quite cool from a customer's perspective, if executed well, there are some challenges for the restaurant business owner.

1) In most states in India, you can't get a trade license for a pure roof-top restaurant. The rules state that you cannot have a kitchen in a roof-top/terrace. So to comply, your kitchen will need to be in one of the lower/properly built-up spaces in the building. In practice though, most roof-top restaurants seem to have some part of their kitchen in the terrace floor - e.g. Tandoor for making Rotis, or even the entire kitchen on the terrace floor housed in an unapproved constructed space on the terrace.
2) If the kitchen is in a different floor, transporting the food through stair-cases becomes an issue. So you will need to install a service lift (may be tough if the building structure does not allow it)or have a wide dedicated passage for the food to be carried through. While the issue will be a little lesser in the case of a buffet restaurant or a fine-dining restaurant (where the service levels can be a little bit more relaxed)
3) Creating a temporary roof for the terrace area is not easy, especially if aesthetics need to be taken into account. Barbeque Nation is a great example of a great temporary roof set-up - Their tent-like roof structure looks nice, withstands weather conditions. Rough cost estimates for these structures is around 2-3 lakhs per tent.
4) In most buildings, the floor area of the terrace is not something you can straight-away use for a restaurant. So you may have to spend reasonable effort and money in civil works like flooring etc. Civil works in general are expensive and time consuming.

On the positive side, the biggest benefit you would get is the lower rental in square foot terms. In places which have reasonably good weather (like Bangalore), customers also enjoy a nice terrace restaurant ambience and this may help improve customer foot-falls if executed well. 

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

A Food Business without the real estate

Over the last 12 months, almost a dozen investors/well heeled folks have approached me to talk about a food business without the real estate. Essentially they want to explore the possibility of setting up a delivery only food business with a kitchen in a non-prime low cost location. This would make the capital expenditure significantly lower, make the operations easier (due to no customer footfalls in the real estate space).

While on a excel sheet this model looks reasonably attractive, I have been a little skeptical about this business model for the following reasons:

1) Buying food from a restaurant is a impulse decision. It is also typically not a "Necessity" but a "Nice" purchase - though it sometimes feels like a necessity given our hunger pangs. Because of this, reinforcing your existence becomes very critical - i.e. a customer sees your place everyday when he comes home and simply by seeing you everyday, he decides to try it out one day. Without a retail location, you don't get this visibility. So you will have to invest in extensive branding - bill-boards, flyers, etc. repeatedly. The cost of doing this is also quite high and may offset the rental savings to a large extent, atleast in the initial few months/years while your brand is being established.
2) Several customers like to visit a restaurant, try out the food and then start ordering food from there. With the above business model this option is not available. So they will have to be coerced to place a delivery order and try it out once - again this will require some marketing spend. This can be done by placing attractive offers during the initial few months to get customers to try it out.
3) The Real Cost of delivery is higher than it seems. My estimate is that the variable cost of delivery ranges between 15-20% of the order value - this includes the following costs: Staff, Vehicle fuel and maintenance, order taking and tracking system. While a lot of these can be optimized on paper, in reality streamlining delivery is not easy. In a discussion with a Domino's executive, he told me that they undertook a study to optimize the delivery process and the conclusion to the study was to have more delivery vehicles per unit.
The rentals for a restaurant in a high visibility location is typically 15-20% of the sales. So the delivery costs are not lower than the rental costs, but the initial capex and capital at risk is significantly lower.

Despite the above skepticisms, I think it will be worthwhile for folks to experiment with this format - and like I have mentioned several times, if your initial plan on paper requires "X" amount of funding, keep 2-3X handy to give you enough cushion and enough of a runway to try and take-off.

Sunday, March 31, 2013

The Service Tax Confusion

In the 2013 budget, the finance minister announced that all AC restaurants will be liable to pay service tax. 40% of the bill value will be assumed to be for service and service tax of 12.36% would be applicable on 40% of the bill value. So technically, a service tax component of 4.944% will need to be added to the bill value. If 40% of the bill value was for service, then shouldn't the VAT be applicable only on 60% of the bill value? But No - customers will have to pay VAT on 100% of the bill value and then service tax on 40% of the bill value.

For most restaurants, which add tax (VAT of 14.5%) as a separate component this is not too difficult to administer. Their bill will now look like this:

For restaurants which charge a service charge (now a common practice atleast in casual dining/fine dining restaurants), they will charge the service tax of 12.36% on this service charge amount, plus charge service tax on 40% of the bill value.

So for a customer, the bill value will go up by about 5%. For the restaurants, this may work out well as they can charge the customer this additional service tax, plus claim inputs credits. Most restaurants now pay service tax on the rental. They can now claim some input credit for this. So this may not necessarily be a bad things for restaurants and my assessment is that customers will get used to paying this 5% additional tax.The only impact could be a macro-level reduction in consumption - i.e. consumers reduce their eating out frequency owing to the higher costs. I believe that this will only be a short term behaviour.

For restaurants on the composite tax model, this will get a little more complicated and the government has not clarified how the service tax levy will work. The easiest way to do this would be for the government to say that the composite tax would now be increased by 40% - i.e. if it is 4% now, the new composite tax will be 5.6% out of which, 4% will be the VAT payable and the remaining 1.6% will be the service tax payable. It will be good to get a clarification on this.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

I'm back

My blog train got derailed a little bit over the last 2 months. While I can think of several reasons for my temporary pause in writing posts on my blog, the honest reason is simply laziness. It took emails from about a dozen readers enquiring if all was well and why I had stopped blogging, to wake me up from my slumber. With my post on the impact of inflation and increase in various input costs, I am hoping to restart posting regularly. Hope I don't doze off again.

PS: The pic above is from the telugu movie "Eega" (dubbed in hindi as "Makkhi" and also in several other languages). This is one of those movies I really enjoyed watching. 

Impact of increasing food costs on the restaurant business

Over the last 3-4 years, food costs have consistently been spiralling upwards. Most food items are now atleast 15-20% more expensive than they were 3-4 years ago, with a number of products almost at double the prices (e.g. Paneer - I remember having bought Milky Mist Paneer at Rs.95/kg at Metro in early 2009. Today the price of the same is Rs.185). Same story with good quality branded ghee and several other products.

The impact of such high increases is severe on the restaurant business, especially the value for money affordable food joints. Let's assume a local north indian joint. If the cost of the raw materials for a curry was 38 bucks earlier, the joint could price the item at around 100 bucks. The net sale price would be 96 bucks (after taking out 4% VAT). So the food cost would be 40%. Now if the cost of the raw materials go up by about 20% = 45 bucks. To maintain the food cost @ 40%, the new selling price would need to be 117 bucks. Now it would not be easy for the affordable food joint owner to suddenly increase prices by 17-20 bucks. This is just for a 20% increase in the cost of the raw materials. Given the prices have gone up by over 40% on an average, the local affordable & VFM food joints are no doubt in trouble.

What do I foresee for the industry in the next year? 
I can see a lot of the VFM affordable businesses struggling to stay alive. The market will slowly start accepting increased prices, but a lot of the businesses may not be able to hold on till that happens. This is because of the high increase in the food costs, plus an equally high increase in labour costs. Rentals, utilities etc. have also been very high, but even there the increases over the last 3-4 years have been significant (e.g. LPG cylinders now sell at 1700 bucks. 4 years ago the prices were at the 800 bucks level). Most businesses can absorb high cost increases in one or two of the key factors. Today, all the cost factors are coming into play, and the prices can only be increased by so much and may offset one or two of the factors.

The ones who manage to stay afloat?
The businesses which manage to survive and sustain longer should be able to grab a larger share of the customer's wallet. While the increased sales will not lead to increased profits, it should help offset the increased cost of all the input factors.

So all the affordable VFM food joints need to get their seat belts on and survive the turbulence. As the famous dialogue in "The Dark Knight", the night is darkest just before the dawn. I sure hope that this is true for the restaurant business in India.

Saturday, January 26, 2013

A 100,000 Thanks

A big heartfelt thanks to all of you for getting this blog to cross a significant blogging milestone - 100,000 pageviews. This gives me the energy and motivation needed to continue posting content that will hopefully  be useful.