The Creation Of A Culinary Empire: Keenan Tham On The Key To Sustaining & Expanding His Restaurants FOO & KOKO


While new restaurant openings leave you spoilt for choice, it makes it that much harder for the ones who are running the show. Launching a culinary venture today is challenging enough; sustaining it is even harder. With everyone getting bored of places after a mere one or two visits, in search of something new, restaurateurs have no option but to keep up with customer demands and think of innovative ways to make them come back for more. Some entrepreneurs, however, have cracked the code to a long-lasting restaurant, one of them being the Tham brothers.

With FOO and KOKO, the third-generation restaurateurs Ryan and Keenan Tham have made premium Pan-Asian food inclusive and fun. While the norm is to include onion and garlic in Asian cuisine, they broke this notion and added an extensive Jain Menu to their existing food menu at KOKO and FOO. It’s food for all as its core philosophy paired with the idea of allowing people to simply enjoy a good meal over memorable conversations.

Ryan and Keenan Tham

The skills needed for running a restaurant come naturally to The Tham brothers. After all, they come from a legacy of top-notch restaurateurs having given the city some of its finest Asian cuisine establishments. They have grown up watching their father and grandfather successfully run a series of hospitality venues including Olive, Kamling and the iconic Henry Tham (named after their father). 

KOKO interiors

To make a name for themselves while also keeping the family legacy alive, the Thams ventured into the nightclub scene with Trilogy in 2010 – it was an instant success! Its popularity got Ryan and Keenan to expand their portfolio which led to them joining hands with their childhood friends to launch Pebble Street Hospitality in 2014. Since its inception, the group has launched a series of prominent restobars across Mumbai – The Good Wife (2014), KOKO (2016), Foo (2018) and Foo Town (2019).

Asian food spread (FOO)

While The Good Wife didn’t work out, both their Asian restaurants did. Today, FOO has 10 outposts spread across Mumbai, Bengaluru and Ahmedabad and KOKO with two locations (Mumbai and Bengaluru) with the third opening in Hyderabad. Deviating from Asian cuisine, the duo also launched a Mexican restaurant Pompa in December 2023. 

In a freewheeling chat, Keenan Tham talks about how his family inspired him to get into hospitality, the beginning of their culinary empire, how they’ve expanded their business in Asian cuisine in India and future plans.

ELLE: What was it like growing up in a family of top restauranteurs? Did it scare you, add pressure or motivate and inspire you?

Keenan Tham (KT): All of the above. I am a third-generation restaurateur; it’s in my blood. So at all times, I was inquisitive about the business. I grew up spending time at my grandfather’s and father’s restaurants. I used to go there after school and hang out there, hang by the kitchen. At some point, they made me sit behind the cash counter and look at bills and tally money. I was very involved in the trial of new dishes too.

I was always looking at the innovation angle, from both my grandfather and father. And I learned a lot in terms of entertaining guests as both of them were huge on entertaining guests, clients, making sure everyone who comes in, feels right at home. There was a natural skill set that one developed spending so much time with your family and spending so much time with your customers. 

Sesame Prawn Toast (KOKO)

ELLE: How do Ryan and you navigate the personal and professional dynamics when working together? 

KT: That’s a tough one. As siblings and brothers, there’s always a few ups and downs. But thankfully Ryan and I have segregated the work that we do. We both have clear distinct roles within the organisation. There are a lot of points where we both have to meet and agree upon, but we always hear each other’s point of view and try to go with the result that’s best for the company putting our personal biases aside.

ELLE: What made you choose to start your journey with the nightclub Trilogy? 

KT: I think our journey didn’t begin with Trilogy but with Henry Tham as we converted it from a restaurant to a bar. We were the first to get house music in the city then, create live jazz nights and serve Asian food in a fun environment. However, we realised that there was a big gap in the market at that point. There weren’t any premium nightclubs in Mumbai, open till late, hence we decided to open a nightclub. We were the first to open a nightclub in Juhu and tried to get South Mumbai to come to Juhu. I think we did that successfully and filled the void where people could come and enjoy a premium nightclub experience. 

ELLE: KOKO and FOO are two restaurants under your hospitality group that have stood the test of time, especially the latter which sees multiple outposts across the country. What is the secret recipe for making both these brands last in the F&B space that is only growing and so competitive?

KT: We launched KOKO, where we found a huge gap in the market for premium Asian dining. There was no product which had a fun bar and premium Asian food as a combination. Sushi and dim sum were very new at the time and we were one of the first places to do Cantonese and cold dishes in Japanese together. That sparked off KOKO, and with our networking in South Mumbai, we were able to target the right audience. The brand is nine years old and it still stands out. We’ve taken it successfully to Bangalore and we’re opening in Hyderabad very shortly.


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A post shared by KOKO (@kokorestaurants)

With FOO, we realised that as a company we wanted to have a scalable model. FOO has always been an aspirational product at a value price point. We’ve realised that the space was wide open hence we created FOO Phoenix Palladium back in 2018. Its success gave us confidence that this can be replicated all along the city and even through COVID we decided that this brand could scale up drastically. The consumer response has been great. There was no other product doing Asian tapas in this format, and we had a bank of 100 dishes plus dishes that we wanted to offer. So we made sure to create this menu, we dished it out and the consumers loved it. Post that we grew considerably and now we’re opening up our 11th Foo in Hyderabad.


ELLE: You ventured into Mexican cuisine with POMPA; what made you take that route now? 

KT: As entrepreneurs, we have to constantly be ahead of the curve and look towards what’s trending globally. While Asian is the most dominating flavour palette, Mexican and Latin American are a huge growing segment. Mumbai has its fair share of Mexican restaurants that come and go, it hasn’t been successful and there are various amount of reasons for that, but I think now is the right time for Mexican food to boom in India, especially in Mumbai. The flavour profiles that we’ve introduced through POMPA, are very palate-pleasing for the Indian audience. We saw a big gap in the premium Mexican dining segment, pretty much all that was available was takeaway and delivery models. Our menu focuses on ceviches, small plates and tacos and we also wanted to create a space which has an amazing bar. I think this brand is a great blend of alcohol and food, introducing a space where one could enjoy a great Mexican meal accompanied by tequila/agave-forward drinks.


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A post shared by POMPA (@pomparestaurants)

ELLE: Where do you think the culinary landscape in India is heading towards?

KT: I think the culinary landscape in India is very vast. There is a huge influx of global brands coming in. At the mass angle, the QSR segments will grow rapidly with foreign brands coming in. But at the casual dining and the premium dining range, great chefs and restaurant entrepreneurs are coming in with amazing talent. If I had to predict a trend that would go forward, I think regional cuisine done at a premium level will grow in a big way in India.

ELLE: What are your future plans? 

KT: We are very excited that we are going to be launching FOO Hyderabad and KOKO Hyderabad in the next few months. We as a company plan to go Pan-India and dominate the food in the Asian space. We are looking to open 7-8 outlets a year. POMPA of course has been extremely successful in the Mexican and Latin American space. We will be replicating this across India as well. We have an amazing terrace bar concept that will be launching soon in Mumbai, which is again playing in the premium drinking experience and experiential nightlife space.

- Lifestyle Editor


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