Fine Dine to the Fore

There is a global rise in the fine dining scene. It is no longer the domain of the elites and the royal class. The situation is similar in India. With the increasing disposable incomes and with the increasing number of nuclear families where both husband and wife are employed, there is a tendency among the people in urban India to splurge and partake meals which are sumptuous and delectable, in an enchanting atmosphere.

Significant numbers of millennials in India, as all over the world, are becoming ‘foodies.’ Not only many of them are enjoying fine food but are also talking about it online. Ashok Malkani examines the fine dine scenario in the Indian context and also the reasons for its popularity. He also touches upon its future in the Indian food services industry. 

Fine dining, both as a concept and reality, is gaining momentum in India. The fine and casual dining sector in the country is estimated to be about Rs 3,000 crore. Fine dine is no longer the prerogative of the aristocrats and the rich, like it was in the past.

The global influence of fine dine has also filtered down to India. According to a recent NRAI report on food services in India, the fine dining is growing at a rate of 15 percent per annum.

The increasing exposure to international lifestyles and cuisines, coupled with the changing standards of living, a growth in the number of nuclear families and rapid urbanisation, have all resulted in increasing number of people in India partaking meals in fine dine restaurants.

No Longer Elitist

“A few years ago, dining in a fine dine restaurant or a Michelin-star restaurant, was a preserve of high society, but today it is no longer so,” affirmed Krishna Rao, F&B Manager, Corinthians Resort & Club Pune.

“Today fine dine is no longer the prerogative of star hotels. You can have it in many stand-alone restaurants too. And, what is more, at these stand-alone restaurants fine dining is much more pocket-friendly as compared to star hotels,” added Rao.

“Brilliant and personalised service, anticipation of guests’ needs, delicious food plated with perfection & pleasant and comfortable ambience are the ‘keys’ to fine dine,” Rao opined.

“The trend is changing now. Michelin restaurant guests are not only those from the high strata of the society but include food enthusiasts and connoisseurs from middle and upper middle class who love to explore new places and try out new cuisines,” said Varun Kumar, F&B Manager, Holiday Inn Chennai OMR IT Expressway.

“Nowadays even corporates prefer entertaining their guests in the most luxurious manner and they choose fine dining restaurants for the premium service and quality of food provided,” Kumar asserted.

Shahrom Oshtori, Director of Food & Beverage at Sofitel Mumbai BKC is of the view that “Dining at a high-end restaurant or a luxury hotel is a revered experience, much like a weekend escape or something that an individual would like to pamper himself/herself and/or his or her family with. Rising influence of the Internet has led to a greater exposure for available dining options and significant awareness of global luxury brands.”

“Designing a memorable experience is a critical entity for fine dining restaurants and luxury hotels. For instance, we at Sofitel Mumbai BKC hosted a unique concept of ‘Dine in the Dark’ recently, where guests partook of a sumptuous six course meal relying completely on their other four senses,” Oshtori pointed out.

 “As the name suggests, fine dining is an indulgent, gourmet experience where diners are treated to high quality of food and service in an impeccable ambience. Unlike casual dining, the hallmarks of fine dining include comfort, great food, an elaborate range of alcoholic beverages, attentive and knowledgeable stewards and fine cutlery with an exorbitant price point,” elaborated Chef Anurudh Khanna, Executive Chef, Shangri-La Hotel, Bengaluru.

“Fine dining is a very inviting concept which is perceived to be a preserve of the high society but it is not limited to them. With the growing economy and increase in the purchasing power, people in the middle income groups in India are also becoming the aspirants of such experience and reserve going to fine dining outlets for a celebratory occasion,” Khanna expressed.

Reasons for Popularity

The fine dining restaurants, due to their extra expenditure on maintaining the ambience, are normally more expensive than the casual dining ones. Why do people want to visit the Michelin star eating places instead of casual dine restaurants? Is the meal at these fine dining restaurants directly proportional to their cost? These are questions that plague a casual onlooker.

The reasons for people opting for fine dine restaurants are varied. “Research has shown that while there are several factors which contribute to the demand for a fine dining experience, ambience and food are the key elements. The perception of guests is usually influenced by everything that allows them to feel comfortable and relish a cherishable meal,” averred Oshtori.

“This demand for avant-garde cuisine has fuelled the growth of the fine dining industry. Nowadays there are a significant number of guests who are always in search of superior culinary craftsmanship, including both global and authentic Indian regional cuisine; cooked with finesse,” Oshtori elaborated. 

“At Sofitel Mumbai BKC, we invite Chefs and host food festivals like the South African, Turkish, Sri Lankan and others, to introduce global cuisines to our guests,” he articulated.

“I feel the popularity of high-end fine dining restaurants in the country is growing but it is growing slowly,” proffered Rao. 

Khanna believes that people are attracted to fine dining for several reasons. “Exciting food concepts and an elegant setting along with a comforting experience that goes beyond just satiating guests, are some of them. A perfect fine dining is all about the overall experience,” he stated.

“Growing disposable incomes in the country is fuelling willingness amongst people to spend; even in India where people are by and large price-sensitive and seeking value for money. This is one of the key reasons behind the growth of fine dining restaurants in the country, apart from the fact that many Indians are now extensively travelling world over and developing a taste not just for newer cuisines but also for the superior quality of restaurant experience,” elaborated Khanna.

Kumar is of the opinion that the most important element of any outing is the experience. “People get attracted to the experience that a fine dine place offers them,” said Kumar.

“More and more Indians are now travelling around the globe. People gain knowledge of the different types of cuisines and dishes by travelling. This allows restaurants in India to come up with different ideas to share with guests and attract them,” averred Kumar.

“The other important factor that I would say is influence of social media on us. If you notice, there are a good ratio of people who like to click their food images and share on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter or on other social media platforms. These people create an urge to explore in others,” opined Kumar.

Fine Dining vs Casual Dining

“If one compares casual dine with fine dine, I would say that casual dining offers moderately priced food, casual atmosphere, and a quick table service. Additionally, it offers takeaway and home delivery. On the other hand, the fine dining market offers a gourmet experience, fine quality food, impeccable service and great ambience with services being carried out by highly trained professionals,”  explained Oshtori.

“In most fine dine restaurants the level of service and cuisine is top notch. Fine dine is an exclusive experience that warrants the highest quality of everything, be it food, beverages, upholstery or the cutlery. Many managements of fine dining restaurants also appoint reputed Master Chefs with rich gastronomy fame to ensure that guests truly enjoy the unique experience with them, making it worth every penny spent,” aired Khanna.

 “People’s preferences are actually as per their priority and mood. For example, a CEO of a company would prefer to go to a fine dine with her/his official guests and at the same time at a casual dining restaurant in shorts with her/his family. It is all about the different moods and experiences these different types of eating outlets provide. Both of which can suit the same clientele,” Oshtori analysed further. 

“Guests evaluate monetary value in exchange for a memorable experience. When investing in fine or casual dining, they evaluate in terms of location, hospitality, unique flavours in the meal and other factors. If they are satisfied with the attributes in their dining experience, they assess the monetary investment proportional to the level of excellence. However, this is a very subjective topic as food and value for money spent is dependent on an individual spender’s perception,” Oshtori offered.

“People have different expectations for different occasions. They prefer casual atmosphere for regular catch up with friends or family, for get-togethers with colleagues and so on. However, when it comes to special occasions or celebrations they prefer fine dining restaurants to add the special touch to the event and make it a memory,” added Kumar.

 “Both dining concepts – casual and fine dine – can cater to the requirements and moods of the same guest at different occasions. While fine dining has an elegant, formal and calm atmosphere and is apt for special events, casual dining on the other hand is a eating out concept that caters to the day-to-day eating out habits of the guests,” pointed out Khanna.

“As far as relative preferences towards fine dining and casual dining go, it is imperative for us to understand that for a guest, the choice is not one over the other. It is about the experience that they want to take away on a certain day,” Khanna asserted. 

“If the market of fine dine is to be compared with that of casual dining, one can say that the market of fine dine is very limited in India,” pointed out Rao.

“Nowadays, the market in the hospitality industry is moving towards casual fine dining. Hence hospitality tycoons are converting fine dine outlets into casual fine dine outlets or starting a chain of casual fine dine restaurants,” Rao observed.

The Target Clientele

Generally speaking, what is the target guest profile of fine dining restaurants in India?  What is the average age of guests visiting fine dining outlets in India?

“A large percentage of the guests who are attracted to fine dining belong to corporate business class. They often use fine dining outlets for meetings, entertaining high level delegates or important personalities, etc. Popularity of fine dining restaurants in India is majorly rising among this class or groups,” declared Rao.

 “The average age of fine diners in the country ranges between 25-35 where millennials have taken over with their urge to learn and want for quality,” declared Oshtori.

“A section of today’s Indian youth is well-travelled and exposed to diverse cultures and they like to indulge in fine global cuisine and drink quality wines,” he added further.

“The growing Indian economy has resulted in rising income levels for many Indians thus leading to an increase in disposable incomes and rise in discretionary spending in the economy. For the urban young Indians, eating out often forms the largest proportion of this spend,” Oshtori inferred.

Khanna is more cautious. “There are two segments of guests in India who are primarily attracted towards fine dining. On the one hand are those who are in the age group of 40+, well-travelled; corporates or gourmet. These are well-travelled guests who also have the spending power and can appreciate such experiences.  On the other hand are aspiring, upper middle class Indians in the age group of 25 -35 who are open to new culinary experiences. The only difference between the two groups would be their frequency in visiting fine dining outlets,” analysed Khanna.

 “We have different age groups visiting fine dining restaurants in the country. It ranges from youngsters dining with their loved ones to senior citizens dining with their families; businessmen having a meeting in fine dining outlets or having corporate team outings. Age is never a barrier to fine dining concept. It is the need, interest and pocket size that matters,” Kumar observed.

Future of Fine Dine in India

With increasing urbanisation in India, the rise in disposable incomes among select but sizeable pockets of urban Indian society during the last decade-and-a-half, growing overseas travel among upwardly mobile Indians, what is the future of fine dine in India is a question that has been at the back of many a restaurateurs’ minds.

 “India is a budding market for fine dining and has a long way to go in terms of launching its own restaurant star classification. In India people prefer stand-alone casual dining restaurants as compared to fine dining restaurants, on a regular basis. Fine dining is approached only when there is a special occasion,” averred Kumar.

“However, this will gradually change as the spending power of individuals is increasing and people’s interests in exploring culinary options is also on the rise in India,” Kumar maintained.

 “Extensive use of international gourmet ingredients in Indian cuisine for preparing delectable flavours is on a rise,” stated Oshtori. This trend would give a momentum to fine dining in India. 

“The discerning urban customers in India are more open to fine dine which has seen a huge thrust in the last few years. Having said that, the future of fine dining in the country is bright, and has more room for international brands to set shop,” pointed out Oshtori.

 “Fine dining in India still has a long way to go and is in a place that needs to be further explored by consumers and providers. Based on consumer trends and preferences that would develop over the next couple of years, providers of fine dining in the country would also have to explore innovative ways of taking such experiences to customers,” summed up Khanna.

So we can summarise that the fine dining scenario in India shows lots of promise, but at the same time the scenario is in a developing stage, with potential of lots of new colours and creativity to emerge in the years to come.

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