Sunday, May 15, 2011

How to run a successful Indian restaurant (Part One: Look and feel)

This is the first part in a series on how to run a successful Indian restaurant. The three parts address:

  1. Look and feel: the ambience of a restaurant
  2. Seating and staff: providing great service
  3. Website: most of your customers will find you online

These are written from the perspective of the consumer: what works and what does not. Nothing here is Earth-shattering or difficult to implement, but having seen many restaurants that do it incorrectly, I thought a set of tips to restaurant owners might help. All the examples of failures are from real places in the US.

Rule#1. Avoid Random Decorations
 Many Indian restaurants confuse ambiance with looking "Indian". They throw together rough odds and ends that are associated with India. This is an acute problem in the West, where Indian restaurants distinguish themselves by draping red chunris (thin silk scarves) and assorted pictures of India on the wall. The hope is to look distinctive and ethnic, and with the help of a real designer, it can be impressive. But without professional help, it looks disorganized and cheap. If you have no money, leave the walls empty. If you are on a tight budget, get the walls painted in sedate light colors. Throwing random junk on the walls drives customers away.

Failure case: Place with garish wall colors and bad lighting, which was dubbed "Chandni Bar" by college students.

Rule #2. Avoid Religious Iconography
An extension of Rule#1 is overdoing religious iconography. You might be the sole moral beings in this desolate area.  But professing your faith with ten pictures, metal sculptures, and constantly lit incense is not a great idea. For one, it sets the wrong tone for people who might not care for your religion. Remember, your customers are at a restaurant, not a temple. Also, pictures of random half-naked babas kills the appetite. If you must profess your religion, keep it down to one or two good-looking pictures from mythology.

Failure case: Place with framed pictures and books of a baba recently caught in a sex scandal.
Failure case #2: Place with life-size bronze statue of Hanuman with incense nearby.

Rule #3. Clear, Simple, Menu
When designing a menu: keep it small and easy to hold. Nothing bigger than an A4 sheet of paper: preferably laminated. Use one font and one color. Don't go overboard with font types just because your word processor has a hundred fonts. The menu is a place for you to list your food, not to display artistic talent. Let the food speak for itself. Pictures are fine, but only if they will resemble your food, and only if the overall menu size will be tame. A small descriptive text is usually good for the non-Indians who won't know what they're ordering. If you cater to a largely non-Indian clientèle, a small set of suggestions at the bottom of the menu ("For the chicken lovers: ...") will be excellent.  If you have any dirty menu, throw it away. Customers look at dirty menus and imagine a rat-infested kitchen.

Failure case: Place with a 15" wide menu that opens on the short edge, making the fully opened menu wider than the table.

Rule #4.Quiet, or Soft, Neutral Music
Many restaurants play loud, current Bollywood music. A loud restaurant makes people talk louder, and at the end of the meal, they're hoarse and tired. Also, Bollywood doesn't produce great songs all year round. Current music is likely to be poor in quality. If you are on a budget, skip music altogether. Most customers will be glad to be spared the auditory assault. Investing in sound-absorbing ceiling is a great idea: it lets customers have conversation at a reasonable volume without making the place loud. If you must play music, stick to classical Indian music which is well appreciated by Indians and non-Indians alike. If you must play Bollywood, classic Bollywood tunes are often nicer than newer ones. And keep that volume down.

Failure case: Place with loud Govinda music. Drives away customers. Drives customers insane.

Rule #5. Value Customers' Time
Some restaurants in the Bay Area have television screens with advertisements running. This is a terrible idea: you're already selling food to these customers! Don't waste their time with pointless advertising. I've seen pamphlets of babas, yoga courses and other nonsense advertised. Spare the urge to turn your restaurant into a village square. If you must have pamphlets to support local events, keep them in a small corner near the cashier. Customers can grab one without the advertising drawing attention to itself.

Failure case: Place with leaflet for fake baba kept on every table, between the tablecloth and a glass sheet. I had to fight the urge to scribble "FRAUD" on the leaflet.

With these simple tips, you can turn your restaurant from a place of ill repute to a highly sought-after dinner destination.