Veteran restaurateur AD Singh reveals the secret behind running a successful restaurant and staying relevant

Bazaar India chatted with him ahead of the brand’s 22nd birthday

Harper's Bazaar India

This Sunday, Olive Mumbai will complete 22 years. In an industry and in a city where most eateries don’t stand the test of time, a restaurant that not only survived all these years but continues to thrive, is a testament to its contribution to Mumbai’s culinary scene. In an interview with Bazaar India, Olive’s founder AD Singh lets us in on the one thing that makes restaurants tick, tips he has for entrepreneurs in-the-making, and what the future looks like for the Olive Group.

Harper’s Bazaar (HB): First of all, congratulations on Olive turning 22! How does it feel?

AD Singh (ADS): In the restaurant industry, the big deadline that most restaurants don’t get past is three years, so when you realise that you’re older than three not by one or two years but by another 20, it feels really good and is a huge achievement. For me, what’s essentially encouraging are two things—one is that our numbers are better than ever before, and secondly, the children of those who used to eat here  are coming to us now and loving it. I wasn’t really sure if we would be able to connect with a newer generation—we focused on doing what we do well and it seems to be attracting people of all ages with good taste in food. 

HB: What have been some of the lessons in running a brand for over two decades?

ADS: Number one, we started out with the belief that our people are our most important assets, and over the years I’ve learned that the reason the company has been able to find its feet and be profitable is that we have been able to get good people and retain them. This culture is indeed the best way [to run a successful brand], not only in our industry, but in all industries. If you care for your people and look after them and all their aspirations and troubles, then you have a long-term future.

Secondly, we, as a company, have started many initiatives over the years—Olive was the first restaurant to start an employee stock option scheme about seven years ago, and that was very encouraging for people—for them to grow and build their careers and be able to create wealth while staying with us. We made some of our best people our equity partners and that not only encouraged our existing employees but also prompted new people to join us.

HB: According to you, what makes a successful restaurant?

ADS: I think because the industry looks so glamorous, people who can cook or who want to make quick money just rush into it, but unfortunately the hospitality industry also has one of the highest number of failures. In our case, Olive takes between one to two years searching and planning for every brand that we open—we put a lot of effort for every aspect of it. But the core vision, what we really try to get right, is time—and that’s why all our brands have lasted for long. 

HB: What advice would you give to budding entrepreneurs?

ADS: This industry is very exciting and glamorous and it does have a strong future. But one thing I always tell entrepreneurs is that when you are just starting off, don’t spend all your hard-earned savings on your first restaurant. Instead in the beginning, take a franchise of a well-established brand, or partner with a well-established restaurateur and help them expand their business. Only after you’ve done that should you spend your own money, build your own concepts, and your own brand.

HB: The hospitality industry had a tough time in the past two years—how do you think it has changed post pandemic

ADS: We’ve lost about 20% of restaurants in the country—they shut down during the period. It was a very tough learning for all of us. We were all wondering, what if we are wiped out tomorrow? So, most of us have been more careful going forward, many of us have built cash reserves, diversified into deliveries or other industries, created some insurance schemes where we can, and relooked at our contracts so we have some sort of protection for the future. So, there has been a lot of analysis and new steps taken to save ourselves if something like this happens again. 

HB: Olive recently entered the Metaverse and is one of the few restaurants offering NFTs—what prompted you to venture into that space? Do you think it’s important for restaurants to evolve with the times?

ADS: When we opened 22 years ago, we had a lot of regulars coming to us so we looked at what their emerging interests were—at that time it was art and wine. So, we carefully put together a spree of activities and events and that really brought us closer to our regulars. And that’s very important in our industry. We feel that the younger audience is very involved with alternate universes such as the Metaverse. For any business to connect with newer audiences and to grow and remain relevant in the future, it’s important to have a presence online, including in the Metaverse. 

HB: Olive recently opened in Chandigarh, and it already has outposts in Mumbai and Goa. What does the future hold for Olive? Any new openings or exciting things on the horizon?

ADS: We worked very hard, spent a lot of money, and put in enormous effort and vision in creating the brands that we have today. Now that the markets are opening up after the pandemic, our priority and focus is to breathe a new life in the brands that we have and grow them across India. We want to tweak them as required for the new market. In addition to that, there are a lot of opportunities for growth that we are exploring alongside. 

All images: Courtesy Olive Group