If you were born in the Delhi of 80s/early 90s, names like Nirula’s would invoke nostalgia of a childhood when fast food had a different definition. One would make special trips just to have those Indian style pizzas and burgers, finishing the meal with hot chocolate fudge. While in Bombay (and not Mumbai), iconic Irani joints and standalone stars like Mahesh Lunch Home were flocked by visitors in numbers galore. Eating out was mostly a family pursuit with numbered options.
Fast forward to 2013 and you’re likely to frequent a KFC as much as you would go to the neighbouring Spaghetti Kitchen; or Hakkasan when seeking a fine experience outside the confines of a 5 star hotel. The big names in Quick Service Restaurant (QSR) formats like McDonald’s, KFC and Domino’s have made offerings such as pizzas & burgers not only affordable but also acceptable to many.
On the contrary, fine dining chains are trying to attract an audience that besides being well versed with different cuisines is also unafraid of spending. These brands aim at filling the gap between average standalone restaurants charging more than they’re worth and hotels known for being consistent in high quality & premium pricing. As these chains set up shop with conformance to international standards, it is likely that the wine scene will also gain momentum in India.
The last big entrant in this game was La Tagliatella that opened earlier this year in an upmarket Delhi mall followed by another restaurant in Bangalore. Although the wine list is largely Indian, the restaurant is already seeing high demand for wines from its guests. As Gaurav Malik, the head of Training at AmRest, the company that owns and operates the brand, pointed out, “8 guests out of 10 that walk into the restaurant prefer to have wines over spirits.” The demand is more expat driven but Indians are equally willing to have a glass or two with their meals, Malik added.
The above is an encouraging phenomenon against the pretext that average Indian drinking habits incline towards hard liquor only.
A strong balance sheet allows international chains to invest in good infrastructure for wines and putting together a wine list at par with their outlets in other markets. Like food, a standardised, familiar wine menu instills confidence in the consumers, particularly well travelled patrons. This familiarity and comfort translates to larger numbers of wines sold since guests have fewer apprehensions about what they are being offered.
As catalysts of the wine scene, one must also acknowledge the efforts of indigenous chains like deGustibus Hospitality and Impressario. Besides making fine, gourmet food more accessible, these names have also treated Indians to some delectable wines at their establishments. Award winning wine lists and consistently high accolades exhibit the commitment of these chains towards bettering the wine scene in India; a journey that started about a decade or so ago.
But it’s a little too soon to be overly optimistic for a radical change, cautions Prasanjit Singh, Managing Director with HVS, a food and beverage services consultancy firm. According to Singh, the average Indian drinker likes to tank up before he concludes the day with a late night meal. “This is reflective of their habits and will be a deterrent to the spreading of wine culture that’s already marred by central and state government policies and the complex issue that is alcohol”, Singh continues.
Some of the concerns voiced above present a reality that disheartens many industry professionals and wine lovers. High custom duties and forever changing state policies pose logistical limitations that hinder a consistent supply of wines. However, where drinking habits are concerned, these are bound to evolve as people grow weary of rinsing their stomachs with high potency alcohol and opt for wines instead.
So the question remains, can organized restaurant chains become catalysts for the much needed stir in the wine scene? Both Malik & Singh are positive that these chains with their sophisticated wine programmes will be a success. They also predict a lacklustre performance by hotels in the area of wines in the coming days.
As these chains raise the quality benchmark, the others will have no choice but to entice the consumer with an even better offering in wines. This would mean not just competitive pricing but also a large choice for the consumer in the long run, a phenomenon that’ll only strengthen the case for a widespread wine culture in the country.
The edited version of this post originally appeared as an article for the print magazine Spiritz.