Over the years, a lot of lounges have come up in Nagpur, but only few have really stood the test of time. One of the lounges, which surely did is Fionaa Lounge and Restaurant in Dharampeth, which has enjoyed a wide and loyal customer base since its inception. The owner of Fionaa, Ranjan Kale is also the proud owner of Czaar Lounge and Restaurant at Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar International Airport and Café Zinea at Chitnavis Centre in Civil Lines. Over a cup of coffee at Café Zinea, Ranjan Kale speaks to Nation Next about his love for food, his wife Meeka, whom he considers as his pillar of strength and his team that is headed by Sanjay Shrotriya.
People know you as a restaurateur. Not many know that you’re actually an engineering graduate. Tell us something about your educational background and how exactly did you get into the hospitality business?
I completed my schooling from Somalwar High School and pursued my mechanical engineering from YCCE. Post engineering, I told my father about my wish to pursue my dreams in the hotel industry as I was extremely passionate about food. Although I was never pressurised, my father always wanted me to be an engineer. He wanted me to complete my higher education and become an MBA, but I refused. I pursued engineering just because my father wanted me to become an engineer. After entering into the food business, I contacted my present team and Sanjay Shrotriya, who was the owner of a very popular erstwhile restaurant – Temptations – in Ramdaspeth. These people have been in the industry for almost 18 years and their experience has helped me a lot.
All your three ventures, Fionaa, Czaar and Café Zinea have different themes. Is there any parallel between the three – a common thread?
Ranjan Kale is the common thread! (Smiles) I had once seen a location outside Nagpur, which I totally loved. So, while setting up Fionaa, we tried to develop a similar theme with my interior designer. My favorite colour is white so I used white wherever possible despite being warned by everybody to not to go for white because of its maintenance issue. I spent around a whopping 3.8 crores on Fionaa. It’s the first stand-alone restaurant to have invested so heavily on interiors. We were the first one to come up with an authentic lounge. Gradually, people started coming up with so called lounges in Nagpur.
How do you do the branding for your ventures?
We try to push our signature dishes to our customers so that more and more people come to know about it. People usually prefer pasta, lasagna or sizzlers but our motto is to make them aware of our specialty like saoji, kebabs and mughlai food like mutton seekh kebabs. Once they develop a taste, they visit us for an a la-carte.
You’re into a catering contract with Chitnavis Centre. How is catering business different from restaurant business? Does it yield more profits?
Restaurant business is different from catering business. No matter how good quality food you serve, once your customers are dissatisfied, they will never forget the experience. They keep warning people against the restaurant through word of mouth. Unfortunately your past efforts get negated. On the other hand, catering business is like a one-day show. It definitely yields more profit.
As a restaurateur who serves alcohol, you are a teetotaler…
I’m not really a teetotaler; I drink occasionally. My father says that to prosper in liquor business, one needs to stop consuming liquor.
Your wife Meeka is a Sikh and you are a Maharastrian. How has this blend of the ‘two cuisines’ helped you in your business?
I met my wife in college. She’s an IT graduate. She along with her female friends once came to rag me in the canteen while I was having a samosa. That’s how we met and eventually started dating. We dated for almost five years before we got married. Getting married to a Punjabi was like a blessing in disguise for me. Despite hailing from a business family, little did I know that she would be such a big support in my life and that I would be able to expand my business so conveniently and confidently just because of her. It is because she could take care of Fionaa, that I could think of coming up with Czaar and then Café Zinea. I can’t imagine functioning without my wife and my team.
Fionaa has a very upmarket interior. How much importance do you give to ambience? Also, yours was the first restaurant in the city to introduce the tablet system for ordering meals, which is directly synced with the kitchen staff…
With Fionaa I had one thing in mind, that is, the place I’m making is not in a very plush building, so I have to make sure that people forget the surrounding when they enter my restaurant. It was challenging. The tablet menu cards have helped me a lot as we can change the rates immediately when we need to and ‘Chef’s special’ items can be updated immediately. Training the chefs was never tough because people are accustomed to their smartphones now. Technology has helped me a lot and I’m constantly connected with all my three restaurants via CCTV. Good quality food is something, which sets my restaurant apart from my competitors.
Do you enjoy cooking? What made you enter in this profession?
I can cook butter chicken! I learnt it from my chef. My love and passion for food made me enter this profession. Setting up of Fionaa and running it has taught me a lot. It taught me how to make a place costly or affordable and how to cut costs. Running Fionaa rendered me experience, which I used when I came up with Czaar and Café Zinea.
You are just 32 and a successful restaurateur. What’s your mantra?
Since the day I started working with Sanjay sir, I assured him that there would never be any ego clashes between us. I believe in giving due credit to everybody who’s working with me and my team is free to ask me any questions.
How does your restaurant staff decide on how much food to buy for cooking their meals so that not too much gets thrown away? If there’s excess food, do you think of disposing it by giving it away to beggars?
We estimate the food required on a daily basis and this is how we plan it for a week (if there are no parties). The estimation for a weekend is different. We have food kept in vertical storage compartments in our restaurants. I always want to give the left over food to the needy but the problem is with the edibility of certain kinds of foods. For e.g. Butter chicken is edible for a maximum 2 hours after it’s prepared and kept un-refrigerated. If I employ people to distribute the food to the needy and the distributor is casual in his approach and gives it after the stipulated time (when the food is no more edible), my restaurant would come under the scanner and people’s health would also suffer. I want a vehicle that’s well refrigerated and the concerned person dutifully does his task. I would want NGOs to float this service where they use good logistics.
During the 2014 Lok Sabha polls, you had politicised your menu by adding exotic meals to your culinary agenda dedicated to Narendra Modi, by creating fusion cuisines like Modi-Fried Ice cream, Modi khakhras with salsa dips and Gujju delight mocktails. How well did Nagpurians respond to this?
People had great time relishing it. It is still available. We had initiated this during the IPL (Indian Premier League) because Modi fever was still ongoing. When our Modi menu was taken off, we even had an IPL menu. We called it as the Fionaa Premier League (FPL). We divided the lounge in two sections, according to the teams playing against each other.
Usually there’s a problem with late night parties and permissions regarding alcohol and music in the city. With Czaar located in the outskirts of the city, what kind of benefits do you enjoy? What are the location benefits do you enjoy with Fionaa and Café Zinea?
Music permission is standard and is not location specific. Czaar, because of the proximity towards the airport, is permitted to serve alcohol and food throughout the night. People enjoy late might music in pubs and lounges but the city cops usually get confused between a bar and a dance bar. When we request the cops to extend the music time limit, they think we entertain people with Russian dancers! Location plays a very important role. There’s a starting time for every business. If the location is good, your start up time is less and vice versa. Fionaa and Café Zinea have a lesser start up time as compared to Czaar. You go to Czaar, only when you want to unlike Fionaa and Café Zinea, which are in the heart of t