What does it take to build a restaurant empire?


What does it take to build a restaurant empire?

AD Singh's success is built on some rookie luck, lots of street smarts and a great ghost story

By Mitali Parekh  April 18th, 2016

Strangely enough for a man who owns 28 restaurants (at last count), AD Singh is not a foodie. No memorable meals that move him to poetry, no comfort food he seeks out when he’s stressed. He has a sweet tooth, which motivates him to stay in shape. But apart from a tendency to sneak caramel popcorn in bed, the 55-year-old Singh is almost indifferent to the siren call of calories.  What makes him especially good at his job is not a love for food but a talent for assembling winning teams. 

This prodigious reserve of people skills is probably what drew him to social work as a young man. Singh studied to be an engineer in the US and worked with Cadbury’s before stepping off the corporate fast-track to work with NGOs. But he couldn’t make ends meet. “There was this sanctimonious approach at the NGOs I assessed. The prevalent attitude was that you were expected to make large sacrifices to be there.” So Singh decided to turn entrepreneur instead, and create a company that cared about its social responsibilities.

Around the time, AD, as Aditya has been known since school, threw a birthday party for his sister and found he had a knack for playing host. Then, after a decade or so spent running an event company and conceptualising and marketing restaurants like Mumbai’s Copa Cabana and Jazz By The Bay, Singh fully inhabited his destiny as compulsive restaurateur. It started with the Olive properties and, more recently, has included The Fatty Bao, Monkey Bar, Guppy by AiSodaBottleOpenerWala, The Local and Ek Bar. All of these have their own unique identity and function under the parent company Olive Kitchen and Bar, the name of the first in a popular series that started in Mumbai. 

The first Olive, in the Bandra suburb, opened in 2000 and circumstances conspired to make it a hit. The idea was to create a restaurant with a laid-back feel. “I had just come back from Phuket and was looking to recreate that same lazy vibe,” says Singh. “We found a property in Bandra and [interior designer] Nozer Wadia agreed to take on the project. Those days, the old joke about townies not going beyond Worli was quite true.”

Olive was set to turn Mumbai’s cultural map upside down. Once they got it open, that is. The launch of the restaurant kept getting delayed and the Singhs were at their wits’ end. Enter paranormal activity. “[My wife] Sabina met a medium, and it turns out our space housed malevolent souls from a family that occupied it before us. The medium asked her to walk through Olive at sunset with a lit candle and lead the souls out. Once Sabs did that, things fell in place. We opened in a month.”

Bad juju out of the way, Olive went on to become an institution. The simple name hinted at a refreshing Mediterranean menu. Singh picked the cuisine for its similarities with piquant Indian flavours and fresh ingredients. But Olive’s popularity wasn’t solely earned in the kitchen. 

It was one of the first places outside a five-star hotel to host cosy events like book launches. And rare sightings of the swish south Mumbai pack in the suburbs fuelled Olive’s success in the media. Its highly recognisable cobalt blue door and limestone walls became as much of a fixture on Page 3 as its guests did. When brunches caught on, ladies wore white and beige and headed to its doors at 11.30am. Then in 2008, at the birthday bash of his then new girlfriend Katrina Kaif, Salman Khan and Shah Rukh Khan came to blows. In the coming years, the brawl would divide Bollywood into two camps.

“It was the early days of Page 3 and the press was supportive,” says Singh, who perhaps owed some of that success to the savvy inherited from his father, marketing head at the Times Of India for many years. “A friend suggested the concept of special nights he had seen in Canada. He brought in Aaron James, a good-looking American DJ, and made a few calls to the model fraternity.” After the models came the people who wanted to meet models, and suddenly, Thursdays at Olive became a thing. 

Olive has grown since then to have a presence in every major city in the country, and attracted investors like Aditya Birla Private Equity and Manmohan Shetty, founder of Adlabs Films. Despite the scale of its operations, Olive retains the unique feel of a standalone restaurant. “We didn’t want to have a chain but rather a collection of boutique restaurants,” says Singh. Each outpost reflects the cosmopolitan cred of its location: Bangalore and Delhi are home to the mellow, sprawling Olive Beach and smaller cities such as Pune, Hyderabad and Gurgaon have Olive Bistro, compact versions of the original idea. Their singular moods are created by Sabina Singh, the design director for Olive. He describes her as fiercely independent and private. “Since she is such a strong personality, I felt it was better to separate our work and personal spaces.”

This brings us to one of Singh’s most formidable skills: managing people. It starts on the restaurant floor (“Sometimes the servers will not pay the same attention to someone who is lesser known — that really gets my goat”) but it goes well beyond. In its kitchens, Olive has groomed talent that went on to define Mumbai’s (and metropolitan India’s) food scene. The executive chef of Olive Beach and chef-partner of Monkey Bar, Manu Chandra, is often named one of the best in the business by trade publications. At the Tasting Lab in Olive Qutub, chef Sujan Sarkar (also partner at Ek Bar) susses out unique native-to-India ingredients and serves them in a curated nine-course meal.

In the hands of his chefs, Singh’s bill of fare has grown to fit Italian, Moroccan and French cuisines. As part of their ongoing 15th-anniversary celebrations, a fresh menu by chef Rishim Sachdeva was introduced at Bandra’s Olive Bar and Kitchen. Sachdeva, another star chef from Heston Blumenthal’s Fat Duck in London, is working on taste twisters, such as savoury crab donuts and strawberry and kale house salad with goat cheese and smoked almonds. There is talk of a speakeasy from Philadelphia — 1 Tippling Place — handling the bar at Bandra for a while. In other words, it’s business as usual as Olive prepares to break more fine dining rules and create something delicious from the chaos. 

Photograph: Rohan Hande. Styling: Veronna Parikh. On AD Singh: Linen suit, Lecoanet Hemant

Strangely enough for a man who owns 28 restaurants (at last count), AD Singh is not a foodie. No memorable meals that move him to poetry, no comfort food he seeks out when he’s stressed. He has a sweet tooth, which motivates him to stay in shape. But apart from a tendency to sneak caramel popcorn in bed, the 55-year-old Singh is almost indifferent to the siren call of calories.  What makes him especially good at his job is not a love for food but a talent for assembling winning teams. 

This prodigious reserve of people skills is probably what drew him to social work as a young man. Singh studied to be an engineer in the US and worked with Cadbury’s before stepping off the corporate fast-track to work with NGOs. But he couldn’t make ends meet. “There was this sanctimonious approach at the NGOs I assessed. The prevalent attitude was that you were expected to make large sacrifices to be there.” So Singh decided to turn entrepreneur instead, and create a company that cared about its social responsibilities.

Around the time, AD, as Aditya has been known since school, threw a birthday party for his sister and found he had a knack for playing host. Then, after a decade or so spent running an event company and conceptualising and marketing restaurants like Mumbai’s Copa Cabana and Jazz By The Bay, Singh fully inhabited his destiny as compulsive restaurateur. It started with the Olive properties and, more recently, has included The Fatty Bao, Monkey Bar, Guppy by AiSodaBottleOpenerWala, The Local and Ek Bar. All of these have their own unique identity and function under the parent company Olive Kitchen and Bar, the name of the first in a popular series that started in Mumbai. 

The first Olive, in the Bandra suburb, opened in 2000 and circumstances conspired to make it a hit. The idea was to create a restaurant with a laid-back feel. “I had just come back from Phuket and was looking to recreate that same lazy vibe,” says Singh. “We found a property in Bandra and [interior designer] Nozer Wadia agreed to take on the project. Those days, the old joke about townies not going beyond Worli was quite true.”

Olive was set to turn Mumbai’s cultural map upside down. Once they got it open, that is. The launch of the restaurant kept getting delayed and the Singhs were at their wits’ end. Enter paranormal activity. “[My wife] Sabina met a medium, and it turns out our space housed malevolent souls from a family that occupied it before us. The medium asked her to walk through Olive at sunset with a lit candle and lead the souls out. Once Sabs did that, things fell in place. We opened in a month.”

Bad juju out of the way, Olive went on to become an institution. The simple name hinted at a refreshing Mediterranean menu. Singh picked the cuisine for its similarities with piquant Indian flavours and fresh ingredients. But Olive’s popularity wasn’t solely earned in the kitchen. 

It was one of the first places outside a five-star hotel to host cosy events like book launches. And rare sightings of the swish south Mumbai pack in the suburbs fuelled Olive’s success in the media. Its highly recognisable cobalt blue door and limestone walls became as much of a fixture on Page 3 as its guests did. When brunches caught on, ladies wore white and beige and headed to its doors at 11.30am. Then in 2008, at the birthday bash of his then new girlfriend Katrina Kaif, Salman Khan and Shah Rukh Khan came to blows. In the coming years, the brawl would divide Bollywood into two camps.

“It was the early days of Page 3 and the press was supportive,” says Singh, who perhaps owed some of that success to the savvy inherited from his father, marketing head at the Times Of India for many years. “A friend suggested the concept of special nights he had seen in Canada. He brought in Aaron James, a good-looking American DJ, and made a few calls to the model fraternity.” After the models came the people who wanted to meet models, and suddenly, Thursdays at Olive became a thing. 

Olive has grown since then to have a presence in every major city in the country, and attracted investors like Aditya Birla Private Equity and Manmohan Shetty, founder of Adlabs Films. Despite the scale of its operations, Olive retains the unique feel of a standalone restaurant. “We didn’t want to have a chain but rather a collection of boutique restaurants,” says Singh. Each outpost reflects the cosmopolitan cred of its location: Bangalore and Delhi are home to the mellow, sprawling Olive Beach and smaller cities such as Pune, Hyderabad and Gurgaon have Olive Bistro, compact versions of the original idea. Their singular moods are created by Sabina Singh, the design director for Olive. He describes her as fiercely independent and private. “Since she is such a strong personality, I felt it was better to separate our work and personal spaces.”

This brings us to one of Singh’s most formidable skills: managing people. It starts on the restaurant floor (“Sometimes the servers will not pay the same attention to someone who is lesser known — that really gets my goat”) but it goes well beyond. In its kitchens, Olive has groomed talent that went on to define Mumbai’s (and metropolitan India’s) food scene. The executive chef of Olive Beach and chef-partner of Monkey Bar, Manu Chandra, is often named one of the best in the business by trade publications. At the Tasting Lab in Olive Qutub, chef Sujan Sarkar (also partner at Ek Bar) susses out unique native-to-India ingredients and serves them in a curated nine-course meal.

In the hands of his chefs, Singh’s bill of fare has grown to fit Italian, Moroccan and French cuisines. As part of their ongoing 15th-anniversary celebrations, a fresh menu by chef Rishim Sachdeva was introduced at Bandra’s Olive Bar and Kitchen. Sachdeva, another star chef from Heston Blumenthal’s Fat Duck in London, is working on taste twisters, such as savoury crab donuts and strawberry and kale house salad with goat cheese and smoked almonds. There is talk of a speakeasy from Philadelphia — 1 Tippling Place — handling the bar at Bandra for a while. In other words, it’s business as usual as Olive prepares to break more fine dining rules and create something delicious from the chaos. 

Photograph: Rohan Hande. Styling: Veronna Parikh. On AD Singh: Linen suit, Lecoanet Hemant