Opening a Restaurant at the Worst Possible Time: Part 3

He was too clever by half

6-min read

This is the third in a series of long-form write-ups on my experiences in helping out in the food & beverage industry in a developing country. This particular section dives into how we got blocked by Instagram, retained staff, ordered cutlery, and let go of a Juul-smoking representative of a PR company.

1. Introduction, The First Week & Bargaining 101
2. Licenses, The Bridge Conundrum & Picking Potted Plants
3. Locked Social Media Accounts, Staffing, Utensil Shopping & PR nightmares — you are here
4. The Menu, First Look (Video), COVID-19, Kitchen Setup & Bulk Computer Equipment
5. Some Statistics, A Failure, Stopping the Bleeding & Future Plans

The Curious Case of the Locked Account in the Night-time

In this day and age, social media is an integral aspect of running a successful restaurant. Unfortunately, the owner of the restaurant — my dear friend — hasn’t fully grasped the intricacies of traversing online platforms (yet). His personal profile has the most predatory name you could possibly think of, has photos of him planking, wearing a professional wrestling mask, and logos of previous failed projects. He only uses Instagram to follow animal accounts except for one account of a female chess streamer, and honestly, I can respect the hustle.

Already on his second warning on Facebook and final notice on LinkedIn, any infraction would result in complete closure of his account(s). It certainly didn’t help that he regularly reported my stories for abuse, which essentially negated his vote and pushed him to the bottom of the totem pole for assistance via the helpdesk.

I digress — he asked for login credentials for the business’ Instagram, and I had to push back. I make it a point to limit his access for good reason, but after multiple attempts at manipulation, coercion, and blackmail, I gave in. Not an hour later, the account was suspended, with the support team requesting additional information about our organization while simultaneously barring us from using most of the features on the app.

I've helped scale close to a hundred companies, building their online presence from the ground up, and never have I ever jumped through so many hoops.

The support team shot over an email suspecting us of unusual bot-like activities, and they wanted to confirm with us the nature of the business. We required to send a verification code, name, and the current date written on a piece of paper while we held it up — as if we were part of some sick TV kidnapping trope.

After a week, the support team reverted their decision, but to this day, I can still see him DMing the chess personality from the restaurant's Instagram, challenging her to a 3-minute blitz date on his favorite chess website. No, she never responded.

Slash & Burn

And he’s also the type of person I’d prefer to keep away from my spreadsheets full of important information. One day, after being asked to update the outdated spreadsheets that keep track of our employees’ salaries, I discovered that the total monthly spend wasn’t adding up. My friend came over to tell me that I had messed up, but when I asked him what had changed, he didn’t have an answer. Later that night, I went through the previous edits, and I discovered him overwriting a cell with random numbers at three in the morning. When I showed him the receipts, he didn’t talk to me for the remainder of the day, except to say, ‘See, this is why we don’t like change here at Maruchi.’

It took me sometime before I realized this wasn’t his way of deterring progress, but more so protecting what was sacred to him. His hotel, the one his family has been running for the past half-century, has the same workers that his grandfather hired on the first day of inauguration. This is the very staff that watched him grow up, cared for him when his parents were away, and nurtured him back to health when he was unwell, so I can understand his reluctance towards the current workforce trends which have overturned his worldview:

‘The attrition rate in the hospitality industry in India is set to double to nearly 50% by 2010, up from the earlier 25% growing at an alarming rate of 10 percent per annum.’ — Economic Times

The sharp growth of the food and beverage industry in India has come with its host of problems — staff looking over the white picket fence for greener pastures and better opportunities. Gone were the days where you could reliably depend on a person to stay for the long haul. Hiring for the restaurant was challenging, and we had a lot of positions to fill. A quick primer on the kitchen hierarchy in India:

At the very top, there are the experienced hands, the chefs who have put in the hours and worked their way to the top. As you move down the levels, roles become more niche and siloed, where a single person could be tasked to cut and clean vegetables or only fillet fish. You can manage with a single employee for the top three positions in a classic kitchen brigade, but expect to expand headcount for basic chefs and apprentices exponentially. For our restaurant, the bottom section clocked in at 15 workers each.

Also, front-line hires have a historically high turnover. Training new staff isn’t particularly easy, and loyalty wavers at the first signs of distress. There are three ways to mitigate employees leaving: 

  1. Better working hours

  2. Supplemental benefits (pickup/ drop-off + service charge incentives)

  3. Restaurant prestige and name combined with potential upwards career trajectory

Fortunately, management offered all of the above. We were running everything in parallel — managing a kitchen of over 40, onboarding a service staff of 25, taking interviews, and hiring on the spot if they fit the bill. These particulars also didn’t take into account security and contract workers. Interviews were interspersed with the other tasks on the daily mission list, and sometimes we came across some special characters.

I was drinking with friends at my local haunt, and one of the younger bartenders who was showcasing his bartending tenacity caught my eye. He wasn’t serving as much as flair bartending, and that probably should have been the first red flag, but he was good at throwing the empty bottles above his head, piquing my interest. I ended up scheduling an in-person interview the very next day.


The Golden Touch

Ordering cutlery sets for your home is a hassle in and of itself. Confirming a fulfillment for a 150-cover-restaurant is an entirely different ball game. It’s no longer enough to provide a knife and fork; patrons expect different utensils for desserts and amuse-bouche. The audacity. For this very reason choosing appropriate cutlery was as much as a creative decision as finding something in the right price range.

Scaling costs aside, our objective was to get rates from the two leading brands in India: Venus and FNS, respectively. For a good half hour, we tested the tensile strength (dropping it multiple times) of silverware and weighed it in our hands. Venus provided chai, while FNS was in one of the most dilapidated and depressing malls I’ve ever had the chance of visiting. We preferred copper — as the color would go well with the ceramics we picked up from Khurja — but settled with silver as copper was eight times as expensive.

Copper also has a shorter lifespan compared to silver-plated utensils, required hand-washing instead of directly throwing in a washing machine, and get buffed every six months.

A PR Nightmare

In my notes, I had split up the various tasks into the departments they fell under. Marketing had this notable distinction —

hire a firm that can handle the influx of patrons during pre/ post-launch

Public Relations firms in Delhi have a multi-pronged approach. They will work with the restaurant two weeks before launch:

  1. posting on social media

  2. preparing a promotional gift basket which will be sent out to media houses (essentially a bribe to get a ‘news piece’ on page 3)

  3. and bring in in private parties with influencers who would share on their respective platforms about the ‘new kid in the block.’

This cookie-cutter approach was essential to get noticed, and diverting from the script wouldn’t be advised. The Indian dining demographics were such that upcoming eateries were built on the success of previous enterprises, founders’ names, word-of-mouth, and the number and frequency of celebrities visiting the property.

Dining awards were a joke that could be purchased along with your chosen PR package, and your success as a business correlated with how much you spent pre-launch.

I walked into the restaurant after a grueling previous day — back-to-back Gelato tastings and figuring out what to cut out of the menu — and interrupted a meeting with our first PR firm. It was all going well: the entire team was young and excited, and the project manager had great ideas on how to expand reach further; when she pulled out her Juul and took a hit. Immediate silence. I heard her exhale and excused myself. Outside, I asked her where she picked up the Juul from (there was a dearth in India and prices were skyrocketing), and she mentioned if I sourced a dealer for her she would cut the rate in half. Suffice to say we did not hire her.

In the next part, we discuss how we delegated, set up the PoS system, possibly got scammed again while bulk-purchasing computer equipment, and broke into a laptop.