Bengal and Bengalis can go on for years debating over Mohun Bagan and East Bengal, CPIM and Trinamool, and Ilish and chingri. But one thing that all bengalis seem to agree on is Chinese food and music. And Kolkata-based Debaditya Chaudhury seems to have made it to the heart of Bengalis through both.
The musician-turned-entrepreneur is the founder and Managing Director of Kolkata’s leading chain of Chinese restaurants, Chowman. Starting as a small restaurant in Kolkata in 2010, today Chowman has 15 outlets spread across the city. It has also extended its wings and recently launched a cloud kitchen in Bengaluru.
“My aim was to create a human character, similar to KFC and McDonald’s. I wanted to go with Mr Chow in Town, but we were not able to get registration for that name. I then decided on Chowman, which sounds similar to Chowmein — the first thing Indians think of when they think Chinese,” Debaditya tells SMBStory.
Chowman claims to have recorded a ten-fold increase in its delivery and takeaway services during the pandemic, and has also managed to retain its set of loyal customers.
Love for food and music
After completing his graduation from St Xavier’s College, Kolkata, Debaditya went on to pursue MBA from IISWBM. However, his mind and heart was always towards music and food.
“Growing up in a house next to Kim Wah (a popular Chinese restaurant in Kolkata), my passion for Chinese food started at a tender age. I dreamed of opening a restaurant in my hometown since my college days,” says Debaditya, who is also the founding member and keyboardist of Bengali rock band Lakkhicchara.
His love for the cuisine was almost innate and it took physical form in 2010. Debaditya invested Rs 15 lakh and started Chowman as a 20-seater restaurant in South Kolkata’s Golf Gardens.
Along with his brother, Shiladitya Chaudhury, Debaditya has also founded Oudh 1590, a period dining Awadhi restaurant.
Swimming through hurdles
“My goal with Chowman was to democratise fine dining and make the five-star quality experience available at affordable prices,” Debaditya says.
When he first started the restaurant chain, he sourced all the raw materials — spices, sauces, and even chopsticks from various parts of Hong Kong and Thailand. “Even the decor at our outlets were designed by craftsmen from China,” he says.
However, with expansion, Debaditya made a shift and now sources all the raw materials from various parts of India in order to “support farmers in our country,” he adds.
The Chinese restaurant chain initially faced challenges in terms of finding the right neighbourhood to set up the restaurants. Since most of Chowman’s restaurants are located at key locations across Kolkata, neighbouring residents had issues regarding the restaurants’ chimney emissions and parking spaces.
In fact, Debaditya also faced challenges with respect to hiring the right manpower. “With time and experience, we were able to overcome those hurdles,” he says.
Ten years down the lane, Chowman has 15 outlets across Kolkata and its surrounding areas. And during the pandemic, it opened two new outlets in the city – one in Barasat and another in Newton. In March this year, Chowman also launched its first cloud kitchen in Bengaluru’s Whitefield.
The restaurant chain has over 500 employees, which includes a dedicated backend team, restaurant staff, chefs, and delivery boys.
“We recruit less-experienced but driven individuals and train them to become experts who can navigate the kitchen with ease,” Debaditya says.
The business and COVID-19 pandemic
Chowman’s revenue model is based on low-profit margins. The restaurant chain has standardised pricing across all its outlets.
“While some locations of our outlets have higher food costs and generate lower revenue, some others have lower food costs but generate much higher revenue. At the end of the day, we make our profits,” Debaditya says.
It sells at a reasonable price point to reach and serve more people. This ensures that Chowman sells at high amounts, owing to the number of outlets it currently has.
“Thus, on an average, our revenue is much higher than other similar restaurants, even though our profit margins are not as high,” he explains. Chowman has been recording up to 25 percent revenue growth year-on-year.
The COVID-19 pandemic has affected Chowman in a fashion similar to the rest of the food and beverage (F&B) industry. During the nationwide lockdown, it shifted its business majorly from dine-in to focus on home-delivery and take-away.
“Even now, after two months since we opened after the lockdown was lifted, most of our business is centred on home delivery,” Debaditya says.
Debaditya feels that cloud kitchens are the way to survive the pandemic. Bengaluru’s outlet is Chowman’s first cloud-kitchen and “especially now, when people are sceptical about going out to dine, the cloud-kitchen model will become more popular,” he adds.
However, the restaurant chain did not resort to lay-offs during the pandemic, while it temporarily reduced the salary of its team members. After being shut down for about 80 days, it resumed its dine-in operations in Kolkata from June.
Bootstrapped since inception, Chowman is hopeful to survive the pandemic. “In the next couple of years, as we plan to expand to other cities, we will explore funding opportunities,” Debaditya says.
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