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A ‘Dhaba’ is for Everyone!

The need to take Dhaba by Claridges from a formal hotel to a retail casual dining model was simple; good food and the ‘Dhaba’ experience was always meant for the masses!

The Claridges, widely recognized for blending old world charm with modern elements, now boasts of going retail with Dhaba by Claridges. The kitchen is headed by veteran Chef Ravi Saxena. With over 20 years of experience, this IHM Goa graduate started as a trainee at The Leela back in the early 90s. After an international stint in the Gulf, he was instrumental in the conception of The Imperial’s San Gimignano, after which he landed at The Claridges in 2007 as Executive Chef. The Claridges has stepped out of their comfort zone by bringing the quintessential ‘dhaba’ experience into the retail foray with two Dhaba by Claridges outlets in Delhi/NCR. As head chef for the two outlets and the base kitchen, Chef Saxena has separated the Dhaba menu into three parts: tawa, tandoor and patila, and aims to deliver authentic north Indian highway cuisine, which he does rather effortlessly. A tete a tete over lunch helped us realize how different a hotel kitchen is from a retail style one and how much more challenging it is as well. You can read more about the food at Dhaba by Claridges here.

Parul Shirazi (PS): I suppose the most pertinent question would be, why take Dhaba outside the hotel (Claridges)?

Ravi Saxena (RS): Dhaba is a legendary story and a successful one at that! Yes it’s not common for a hotel to take a signature restaurant into the retail foray, yet the very few who did it, did it well, except for maybe The Great Kebab Factory. The basic idea was that if the food is successful why not take it to the masses? The perception of eating in a 5 star is that it will be very expensive, but this food is meant for everyone and we also wanted to test this product in other waters. Which is why our price points in the retail model are less by 30% plus. But the beauty is, it is the same quality. I also wanted to capture the youth market, who have not started frequenting hotels yet. And the cuisine was ideal for this venture – who doesn’t enjoy ‘dhaba’ fare? Going to a ‘dhaba’ is an experience; it is fun, it is easy and it is delicious also.

PS: Is that the reason behind the drinks menu?

RS: Yes, absolutely! That’s the vibe we have created, Dhaba is all about the food experience along with beverages that are styled as ‘desi’ drinks with good price points again. We call our bar, a ‘theka’ and people love it! Whether it’s the décor, the splash of colours, the quirky one liners or the names of the drinks, these things stick in a person’s mind. From the time you enter to the time you leave, we aim to create an overall experience which is not just good food. People come back remembering names like Basanti, Gulabo …from the bar!

PS: So has the model worked?

RS: It has, very much so. Today we have two outlets, the latest is in Gurgaon, in Cyberhub and it has waiting even on week days. We are in talks for a third as well. And no brand invests this much if it hasn’t worked as a model. We also needed to know if this model was scalable or not and we are happy with the results. We could consider franchising at some point though the intent right now is to open a few in Delhi/NCR and cement the model so to speak.

PS: Is the menu customized for this model?

RS: Somewhat, yes it is. Only about 30% is from the original menu and the rest is all new. We know how to maintain quality and how to standardize, so the guest gets the same quality of food and service despite the menu changes. We had two objectives, building on the brand itself and then taking it forward, so something new was essential.

PS: How have you managed to create a buzz about the retail model and yet kept the formality of the original?

RS: The challenge here is different because people already have a perception about the brand; we don’t have to start from scratch but we do have to build on what we have, especially because we have the tag of Claridges attached to us. The expectation levels are high, for food and service. We haven’t let anything get diluted, we have gone one notch up. It is a family restaurant to some extent but it is the youth that has really taken to the vibe. We have retained the formality in terms of service – guests expect that from Claridges.

PS: What about your journey, Chef? Moving from classic hotel kitchens to a standalone kitchen?

RS: For me, I have been a hotelier for over 20 years, it was only hotels and hotels. When we spoke about this concept internally, I realized I have never done retail in my life and it’s a different ball game altogether. In Delhi, Dhaba (original) is a 42 cover restaurant and we do a maximum of 100 covers but here on an average in Cyberhub we are doing over 300 covers per day, so suddenly my clientele became vast and varied. I found this more challenging because in my hotel kitchen I had so much back end support whether it was housekeeping or a main kitchen. But I like this challenge, it keeps me on my toes again, creating new dishes and literally starting afresh! Even now I can’t be in all my kitchens I make it a point to dedicate time in each one though I am based in our main kitchen. We have had ups and downs, lots of debates on expansion. For instance the Dhaba in the mall depended a lot on footfalls of the mall but today people drive down just to eat at Dhaba – that’s why we did this! For this gratification.

PS: Which venue has more potential, the mall or Cyberhub in Gurgaon?

RS: Cyberhub is roaring, it is a foodie destination, people come with one agenda in mind – to eat. And we have the right audience there, the youth. The food comes from a main kitchen, so it is quick to serve and crowds get satisfied faster. The challenge as I said has been in the mall, where earlier people would see Dhaba and decide to walk in. The mall one is very family oriented because it is in a multipurpose destination like the mall. It is only now I have guests telling us that they have come especially for a meal at Dhaba.

PS: What is the USP then, the décor, the vibe, the food?

RS: The USP is a combination and a combination that has worked very well for us. It is all the things you mentioned combined with price points and a sense of casual dining even though we are associated with a 5 star hotel. It is gratifying for guests also, to be able to enjoy Dhaba in a more casual, laid back avatar. Going back to the fact that the service is way above par; it is 5 star standards and so is the quality of produce, I have the same vendors and the same processes but we have been careful to build a menu and an experience that is easily available to more people. Ultimately, Dhaba is where you come to eat and drink and make merry and that’s exactly what we aimed for!

By Parul Pratap Shirazi

Parul is a trained Chef, professional food stylist, cook, food blogger and social media strategist. She loves grapes in her salad.