The new rules of launching a food brand in 2023

In conversation with chef-restaurateur Manu Chandra who recently launched his newest, Lupa, in Bengaluru.

Harper's Bazaar India

It’s like Dua Lipa’s first and second names had a baby, and chef-restaurateur Manu Chandra’s new restaurant was born. Named after the mythological creature La Lupa—Italian for ‘the she-wolf’—his space is called Lupa and aims to imbibe the untamed animal spirit. Therefore, the menu is fearless, with dishes such as a sassy hamachi crudo and a healthy citrus-dressed heart of palm salad sharing the same space. 
In the wake of buzz around the three-Michelin star restaurant Noma, shutting down soon, despite being the most thought-provoking restaurant in the last decade, and the declining state of fine-dining restaurants worldwide, this is Chandra’s second stint after leaving Olive Group as partner in 2021. 
In 2022, he launched Single Thread, a catering company that has cooked at Cannes 2022 and Davos 2023-World Economic Forum, a space not many Indian chefs have paved the way towards. Then there is Lupa, a 220-seater at MG Road in Bengaluru, which opened its door to the public earlier this month. A few weeks into its opening, Chandra chats with Harper’s Bazaar on the new rules of opening a restaurant in 2023. 
Smart kitchens 

“For me, a restaurant is about how I manage a more effective flow of dining guests and services,” says Chandra. “That’s something you don’t usually programme into restaurants.” But in Lupa’s case, Chandra built up the space with a focus on the back area to ensure the kitchen, the services, and all the pain points that a cook often suffers are avoided. For example, 40 per cent of his restaurant space is dedicated to the kitchen and service area, and the rest is the dining area. 

This also includes investing in fine machinery often pushed aside as “too expensive”. Take, for example, a glycol chiller or an electric oven that cuts cooking time by more than half, takes up less space, and lends the same taste, reinforcing that there is no need to adopt age-old methods of doing modern cooking. He says, “Machinery maximises efficiency. I don’t need them to go through lengthy processes for what can be done faster.” 

Experimental versus comfort

“If I wanted to do “experimental”, I would stick to a 20-cover restaurant, not a 220-cover restaurant. Lupa’s menu needs comfort,” he says. The idea behind building a successful restaurant in the current times, therefore, is to respond to the diner’s needs rather than creating a storyline that leads the restaurant nowhere. “I want an emotional response to food rather than an intellectual one. I want something that makes me want to go back for a great pizza.” 

Strong producer/farmer relationships

In the last decade, chefs and restaurateurs have increasingly focused on building relationships with their producers, getting bespoke vegetables from farms and working closely with their meat suppliers. “For Lupa, we started having conversations with our suppliers a long time ago. I buy into my supplier’s/farmer’s passions as much as they buy into mine.” The idea is to incorporate good farmer’s produce into meaningful dishes and, sometimes, find great produce first and then think of a way to meaningfully add it to the menu. 

Understand that “ingredient forward” is passé   

If restaurants in India received a Michelin star for calling themselves “ingredient forward”, everyone would have more than five stars. That’s how overused the term is. Cut to 2023, when using these words is like looking back and not forward. “If you think you’re going to be the Joan of Arc of biodiversity, then that’s stupid; it’s done and dusted. Anyone harping on that seems to not be in touch with reality. No one is coming into my restaurant because I’m serving millets.” For Chandra, being ethical with his ingredients and using fair-trade and artisanal produce is a by the way; it should be natural to a restaurant, not a standout feature. “No one needs to be millet-splained anymore,” he says.

Being your best influencer 

”With my work, sending the right message was important because it’s being viewed as my comeback in so many ways,” says Chandra. No surprises here that with Lupa, he chose to first share the news via his own social media instead of other channels. Unlike pre-pandemic times where there was heavy reliance on external PR, restaurants are taking strategic ownership of their launches on their own platform—which helps increase their outreach, followers, social media engagement, and so on. 

Being diner-forward, business-forward

Think of what the diner will like, what would fit into the business ethos and vision, and make it happen without falling into the trap of pre-decided rules. “When we opened Toast and Tonic, it was a fairly agnostic product.” It was with the same expectation with which Chandra set up Lupa. For example, he used stone instead of using tiles, which he thinks “could be suicidal for a restaurant, but if I run it with the ethos I have, then it’s not. So, I think the food and the offerings are a reflection of what I truly stand for.” And this is one thing he thinks is non-negotiable for restaurants today. 

Keep a balance between Instagram-worthy and aesthetic 

Lastly, “I’ve heard of places that tweak their lighting for good photos, but I’m more into mood lighting. If that works for people, then great. But are there feathers on the wall against which people can take pictures? No.” Chandra is trying to filter out the Instagram crowd, and at the same time create a place that’s still good-looking and well-serving. “I’m feeding people who want an experience, but don’t want to put it out there too hard.” For some, it may involve gimmicks but not for him. “Will I make a nice dessert and finish it at the side table? People like a little showmanship, and that’s okay, too.”

All images: Courtesy Lupa