Food, like fashion, sees trends come and go: Priyank Sukhija of First Fiddle F&B, on spearheading many firsts in India’s restaurant industry
Thirty restaurants in 20 years. That’s no small feat but restaurateur Priyank Sukhija of First Fiddle F&B has done it, starting from the young age of 19. He talks to YS Weekender about his love for food, obsession with quality, entrepreneurship, and his passion for travel and soccer.
Whether it is a platter of chilli aubergine and truffle fritters on a rainy day or a bowl of crab sticks, avocado and crispy tempura as hors d’oeuvres before dinner, or a tall glass of fresh mango, kaffir lime, peach puree and orange soda to beat the heat of summer – there is something innovative underway at the First Fiddle Restaurants round the clock. From their Asian eatery, Plum by Bent Chair or The Flying Saucer Café in New Delhi to their franchises, Lord of the Drinks, and Daddy, which are opening in Bengaluru soon, it’s a spectrum of choices when it comes to this chain of restaurants that is on a path of rapid extension and growth.
Priyank Sukhija, MD and CEO of First Fiddle F&B Pvt. Ltd, can never forget his days as a 19-year-old boy who dropped out of college to follow his passion for food. Today, he has successfully converted his passion into one of the most flourishing businesses in the hospitality industry.
“I realised that nothing made me happier than eating and serving a delicious meal. Food, music, and innovation were what always inspired me and hence I ventured into an area that could fulfill this passion,” says Priyank. At a time when it was either fine dining or clubbing, Priyank paved the path to a middle ground and called it, ‘casual dining’.
In an exclusive interaction with YS Weekender, Priyank talks about his career path, his love for soccer, his opinions on our evolving tastes in food, and much more.
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The first bite
Priyank comes from a family of lawyers, and had no business background when he decided to venture into the food and beverage space.
“I was only 19 when I was looking to open my first dining venture in 1999,” he remembers. “Given my age, lack of experience and basic understanding of the market, the biggest challenge I faced was to get professionals to take me seriously. My father had offered capital for my venture, and I surrounded myself with professionals who could handle the outlet better than I could, but it still took a long time for anyone in the industry to take me seriously.”
Besides that, there was the issue of location. Malcha Marg wasn’t a very famous locality when he opened his first restaurant, Lazeez Affaire, and he had to heavily market it for almost a year before it started drawing in a customer base of its own.
Soon after, he opened the RPM club at Priya Complex, and then there was no looking back. He launched restaurant after restaurant, opening more than 30 different outlets in the short span of 20 years.
Today, Priyank owns First Fiddle F&B Pvt. Ltd., an umbrella company that houses some of the most talked about brands in the industry, such as Tamasha, Dragonfly, Teddy Boy, Warehouse Café, Lord of the Drinks, Rocky Star Cocktail Bar, and more.
“I believe in the ‘vibe’ of the restaurant and that is what sets them apart,” he explains. “All my restaurants have an extensive menu and have dishes and drinks that can be enjoyed by a 15-year-old to a 70-year-old.”
A rollercoaster era
Priyank says that entrepreneurship has always been his goal. “As someone suffering from dyslexia, an academic career path was not really an option, but I was an ambitious child and always wanted to do something I could call my own. And, I’ve always wanted to get into entrepreneurship.”
His career path has been a rollercoaster ride, to say the least. “It had its own set of ups and downs, with new ventures and concepts either becoming a hit or failing,” he says. But over the years, Priyank learnt from all his failings to understand what the audience wanted and how to give it to them.
“For quite a while after the first launch, my growth curve showed an upward movement. And that was precisely what motivated me to keep going. It was exhilarating to see my ideas and concepts bear fruit and be loved by everyone and it only pushed me to come up with better ideas and concepts so that my next venture is an even bigger success than the last,” he says.
Revolutionising the way Indians eat out
“After Lazeez Affaire, we opened Cafe Out of The Box, which introduced casual dining to the Indian audience,” he says. “We started karaoke nights and sufi nights in our restaurants. Plum by Bent Chair merged retail and fine dining. I think, all my ventures are a first in themselves, as they all have something new to bring to the table.”
Experiential dining is Priyank’s forte and he tries to offer new experiences every time he opens a new outlet. “Each restaurant has its own especially curated food menu, signature drinks, decor, and music that not only compliments but also enhances the entire experience,” he explains.
Today, after so many years of work in the F&B space, he has a bit of advice for entrepreneurs.’
“My primary advice to those who want to venture into entrepreneurship is to invest and cultivate what you love to do. Creating a business out of something you love will always reach greater heights. Also, believe in yourself and keep moving forward, even if you might stumble or fall on the way.”
In order to lead a balanced life, Priyank believes in the power of organisation. “I’ve had to learn this the hard way, but unorganised work creates more problems than solutions. If you have an organised schedule and your tasks are in place, most of your problems will be solved. A free mind automatically helps you live a balanced life.”
How this restaurateur unwinds
Despite his very busy schedule, Priyank loves to relax with his PlayStation and some music.
“I enjoy playing games on my PlayStation, going on long drives whenever I can, and listening to all kinds of music. It helps to take my mind off the business end of running First Fiddle. I completely indulge myself in a game or relax with some music, and take a true break from work,” he says.
Ask Priyank what his favourite vacation destination in the world is -- and he would say London in a heartbeat.
“I enjoy tasting new dishes and experiencing newer concepts at restaurants, pubs, and clubs in London,” he replies. “I feel this city has something new for me on both these counts every time I visit. I also love Barcelona, Rome, and Singapore.”
Eating off the world’s plate
Priyank likes to travel for leisure and so adventures are never a part of his itinerary. He loves visiting the local restaurants, clubs, and pubs. “I always create my travel schedule around food festivals, music festivals, and party spots,” he says.
Now that most of his travels are food-centric, he also learns a lot from his journeys. “I genuinely enjoy eating foods from different cultures and I love to experience a country through the spices they add to their dishes.”
For food and parties, Mumbai and Goa are on the top of his list. However, he also likes visiting Meghalaya and Sikkim. “The peace and tranquility that I’ve found there is unmatched,” he recalls.
Priyank now has two refrigerators at home, covered in magnets from his travels. “Besides magnets, I also tend to pick up other things that the place is known for. I got crystals from Prague, some soccer memorabilia from Barcelona, Madrid, and Liverpool,” he says.
His only tip for travellers is to learn not to be anxious about going to new places, experiencing new cultures, and meeting different people. “Move out of your comfort zone and experience all that the place has to offer fully,” he says. “Travelling broadens an individual’s horizons, making them more creative and respectful of other cultures.”
For the love of soccer
Priyank’s favourite gaming sport is football. “I’m a huge soccer fan, and am one of the first people to buy a new edition as soon as it hits the market,” he says. “I play the game online, making friends across the globe through the game. I get my information about the latest in the game through this online network of gamers. Fifa is a fast-paced game and it requires complete attention and dedication, which makes it ideal to help me unwind and destress after work.”
His love for sports has also led to his love for sneakers. “I collect sneakers from around the world, and now have over a hundred pairs,” he says. “It’s my way of adding a little bling to my day. High top sneakers are my favourite style. My go-to brands are Philipp Plein, Balenciaga, and Giuseppe Zanotti.”
Food, glorious food
Among his favourite cuisines, Priyank loves the pan-Asian palette. “I also enjoy Italian just as much. I don’t cook, though, as I fear of ruining the dish for myself,” he quips.
When asked which is most difficult cuisine to master, he is quick to reply that it would Japanese food. “Japanese dishes, especially sushi and the likes, present the challenge of perfecting the ingredients and produce. A bad batch of seafood can change the entire taste of the dish. Then there is the need to import certain ingredients, and make sure that their taste and quality is up to the mark. It’s also difficult to get fresh ingredients and produce all year round, especially fish.”
In his opinion, food is ever evolving. “What is ‘in’ today, may be regular a few years down the line,” he explains.
“Food, like fashion, also sees trends and styles that come and go from time to time, for example, the molecular trend. Today, the focus is more on the ingredients and produce with huge importance being given to organic and farm grown foods. As for TV shows like Masterchef, they certainly do generate an interest in food, not only on the taste, but also presentation. Food presentation has now become one of the biggest parameters of this sector.”
As for the future…
Growth is definitely in the charts for First Fiddle, but Priyank says his focus will always been, and will remain, on the quality of service provided.
“For me, it is not about the numbers, but about happy customers. I am constantly working on finding ways to better the service we provide,” he says.
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