Saurabh Khanijo – Surviving & Thriving in the F&B Industry

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Saurabh Khanijo began his career by entering into his ancestral poultry farming business. From there he shifted to starting his own travel management solutions provider — Welgrow Travels Pvt Ltd. However, given the whole travel trade business was shifting to an online portal, he decided to jump ships and entered the world of hospitality. He felt the need to create a product of his own rather than trade into somebody else’s services, and so he got into the restaurant business.

In a tête-à-tête with FNL, he tells us how travelling abroad and eating at fancy restaurants in different parts of the world he realised that there was a need to open a place in India which not only served amazing food, but was experiential at the same time. This is when he decided to start ‘Kylin Experience’ – the word ‘experience’ has been used because he wanted to give his customers a completely new experience rather than your run-of-the-mill ‘eat your meal and go back’ kind of affair.


How has your journey been so far?

The journey so far has been beautiful – after 12 years of hard work, we are now a 17 restaurant company. I have done so many things and naturally you can’t have it all going, but nonetheless, it has been a great ride till now. Kylin is a well respected brand in the market and is continuing to expand.


One element which separates one restaurant from others is the impeccable service and the service staff. Who handpicks them for you?

Hundred percent myself.


Back in 2007, you diversified into nightlife and started Ivy Bar dining. What was running a nightclub like?

A nightclub doesn’t require that much attention to food as does a regular restaurant. For instance, at Ivy Bar, despite the fact that I am a food person, I never really worked hard on the concept of food there. The customers there wanted comfort food. And even if you do serve the best food, unfortunately the shelf life of a nightclub is always limited. It is only in a few exceptional cases that you’ll hear about an old nightclub. They only have a shelf life of two to five years.


The new DIY bowl menu at ShopHouse by Kylin is in line with one of the hottest food trends this year—bowl meals. How did you come up with this concept?

Given millennials are very particular about what they eat, putting everything on the menu becomes really difficult as it makes the menu lengthy and boring. Let’s not forget that some people say that they’re allergic to mushrooms, they don’t like broccoli, or that they don’t want beans – and all this makes the chef go crazy. Thus, the idea of creating a ‘subway sandwich’ kind of a thing for our bowls started stirring up in my brain, where you can pick and choose what you want. We created the menu at ShopHouse with emphasis on it being healthy and keeping the nutrient value of meats and vegetables intact. We don’t fry or deep fry anything. Only blanch the food and pair it with beautiful sauces – and believe it or not, it’s doing really well!


How did you come up with the idea of launching your own ‘food truck’, Wanchai by Kylin? What have been the challenges so far?

The food truck is just to make the Wanchai by Kylin – QSR version of our Asian cuisine which is ‘van style’ Chinese – more popular. It is in every food court, and a meal costs hardly INR 200, which is easily affordable by the masses.


What role did you play in bringing international brands like Wendy’s, Jamie’s Italian, Jamie’s Pizzeria, and Barista to India?

Basically, all this was a part of scaling up myself. The thought behind bringing these international brands in was to introduce different cuisines and running them with established brands. So, we brought Jamie’s Italian (poster boy for Italian food) to India, and as we’ve grown up with the Wendy’s chain in the US, we thought of bringing that in as well.


A little birdie told us that your goal is to open 36 more outlets under the Kylin umbrella by 2018. How far has this vision progressed till date?

We’re already 17 restaurants operational and nine are in pipeline. Even though our roll out number was much more, but because of the economy and multiple other reasons such as the mood of the market etc, we haven’t been able to roll out in that kind of speed. Unfortunately, I don’t know how much we’ll be able to complete by March 2018, though we’ll try our best. And I’m sure that once the economy as well as the temperament of the market becomes positive again, we’ll be back on track.


What is the one thing that you’d want your bouquet of restaurants to be known for?

Best Asian food experience!


In what ratio does quality of food and décor of a great restaurant contribute towards a great dining experience?

There are four pre-requisites for a great dining experience – product, service, supply and marketing. It is a four wheel-run vehicle and all the four wheels need to be coordinated for the vehicle to move ahead. If you aren’t in tandem with this, you can’t do anything because only best food or amazing service or beautiful decor alone cannot get you clients. They are all helping each other, they’re all inter-dependent and they all have to move together.


What kind of role does the choice of location play for fine dining places to do well?

Good location is extremely important for a run-of-the-mill restaurant, but if it is a concept that is very unique, you can do without a good location. However, having said that, there’s no doubt that good location definitely does contribute towards the success of a restaurant.


Is there a set recipe for being a successful restaurateur. If yes, what?

It is not an easy job. You learn something new everyday and it’s a never ending thing. You do need luck or destiny to be there for you. However, the first rule of the game is to have an eye for detail. Anyone who’s got an eye for detail has got 80 per cent of the ingredients to be able to make it successful in the F&B world.


In your opinion, how has Delhi’s hospitality scene changed in the past 5-10 years?

It has completely changed and it will constantly keep changing. As I have mentioned before, people are getting very particular about what they eat and millennials are running behind new flavours, new techniques and healthier ways of cooking, and are always putting across one question, ‘I hope this isn’t fried or deep fried’. See, earlier fried food ruled the roost which is totally in contrast with customers nowadays who prefer non-fried food. People never asked such questions earlier, and the thing with Asian food is that everything has to be fried. Another thing is that people want to know where the product is from. It’s no more as simple as that we get the product, cook it and serve it to the customers. So in these areas, things have changed a lot, rather they have taken a obtuse turn. Another noticeable change is that the International palate is coming up in a very big way – people are now more open in terms of their palate and they want to try new or different types of cuisines or food. They don’t want to stick with regular stuff; in a way, people want to broaden their horizon as far as food is concerned. Given people are becoming more adventurous, new flavours have also taken over. As a result of these changes, different concepts and different cuisines are popping up. The market is no more limited to Italian, Chinese or Indian cuisine.


What is going to be the next big thing in the food world?

In my opinion, packaging or pre-packed food is going to be the next big thing in the food world. You simply pick up your sandwiches, sushi, salads – basically anything and everything from shelves – just like it’s available in London, Singapore and everywhere else around the world.


Which place in your opinion serves the best coffee in the world?

Barista – I can’t say anything else


What is your strongest memory associated with food?

There are so many…


Facing the gallows, what would you ask for your last meal?

To have the best meal of my life


What are you passionate about in life apart from the restaurants you own?

Everything – friends, family, fun!


Last weekend on earth – which city are you eating in?

It could be anywhere – end of the day, it should be a meal which suffices me, satisfies me – so that I could die peacefully.


There is an old saying, ‘if you hate someone, ask them to open a restaurant’. Do you agree with it?

Not really!


Any tips for aspiring and newbie restaurateurs?

One simple tip is that don’t get into restaurant business for the sake of flamboyancy or to be well-known. It is a business which looks extremely glossy from the outside but will require a lot of hard work from your end. So do your homework before you get into it.


What’s next for you?

Well, for me it’s a never ending saga as I keep creating new concepts so that I keep moving forward in the same journey. Creativity is the key – just simply keep creating!

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