In the multi-faceted socio-cultural fabric of the financial capital of India, restaurants form an integral part. The tales of vada pav munching textile mill workers to the slew of first Chinese restaurants in Bombay are told in the same breath. While the entrepreneurial journey is a shared history, it continues to be fascinating how one family has evolved with the generations and time to become one of the most successful restaurant businesses in Mumbai. The Tham family started off their restaurateur journey in the 1960s, today the third generation is successfully expanding the Chinese and Asian restaurant business with Koko Mumbai celebrating its eighth anniversary. Drawing from Chinese culture, the number ‘8’ as a symbol of good fortune and prosperity, Koko Mumbai's anniversary celebrations feature a special menu from August 9-September 8, 2023. The other brand Foo is also expanding leaps and bounds with seven outlets in Mumbai, a recently launched Foo in Bengaluru, and another one soon to open in Ahmedabad.
The journey of the Tham family is well documented, Grandpa Tham opened the famous Chinese restaurant, Mandarin, in Colaba in 1964. Then, father, Henry Tham opened pioneering and successful eponymous resto-bar in 2005. This was also the time he was working with AD Singh to launch Olive Bar and Kitchen. Eventually, after finishing hotel management at Griffith University in Australia, the young Tham brothers, Keenan and Ryan, joined the family business. “We grew up at the restaurants ever since we were in school. Initially, it was all fun and games, making origami paper boats but we got more and more curious as we grew,” says Keenan Tham. Henry Tham in Colaba was their first restaurant and they took to it like a fish in water. He adds, “Henry Tham was a stepping stone into the restaurant-bar-lounge format. My father had launched the restaurant side of things and as young enthusiastic 22-23-year-olds we wanted to launch the bar. So, overnight we constructed a bar, and we went for it. It was a great bar and we played house music that was gaining momentum at that point. It was cool to think we were one of the few to sort of lead the movement towards having a great bar and restaurant work together.”
The combination of a great bar, food and music led the brothers to launch yet another legendary establishment in Mumbai—Trilogy—in 2010. One of the last operating nightclubs in the city, Trilogy has become the place for revelers of all kinds, whether you liked a specific genre of music, loved a good cocktail, or just wanted to party hard. But it was in 2014 when the Tham finally ventured out on their own and formed Pebble Street Hospitality. Their first F&B project under the new banner was yet another successful venture in the fast-growing commercial spread of Bandra Kurla Complex—The Good Wife. Soon the Thams had a plan for a systematic growth plan by going back to their roots of Chinese Asian cuisine. It is with their two Asian restaurant brands Koko and Foo that they are growing from strength to strength.
On a wet monsoon day in Mumbai, we met with Keenan Tham, managing director, Pebble Street Hospitality, at Koko Mumbai. While the restaurant staff was very aware of his presence and he had a keen eye on everything around him, his cheerful demeanour didn’t leave his side as we deep dived into the legacy he was born into, the uncanny ability to be a trendsetter, the success of all the Tham brothers projects and of course the future.
1. From Henry Tham to Foo, how did you home in on the kind of restaurant projects you wanted to build?
Most of the places we've opened over the years have reflected our personality at that point of time and age. With Henry Tham we tapped into the young audience, and it became the most buzzing spot. Then we looked at the suburbs and opened a nightclub, Trilogy, which was a bit of a long shot in terms of getting the crowd there. But we were determined to get the whole of Bombay there and there weren't too many fancy nightclubs. We too were in our late 20s and there was no better time to run a nightclub. We put our heart and soul into it. Trilogy became very popular and not just in Bombay, but we had a lot of audiences coming from all over the world. We ran it for a good eight years and closed on a high.
We decided to sort of diversify. We were entering our early 30s and we said let's look at opening something in BKC because we felt that the corporate drinking culture was picking up and BKC was developing as a corporate hub. We launched The Good Wife, and immediately we found the space packed by 7-7.30 in the evening. The Good Wife too had a very good run.
2. When and why did you decide to go back to Asian cuisine?
Somewhere along that time, we decided to get back to our roots. Asian food is something that we know and is ingrained within us. But we realised that there was nothing premium in Mumbai. We dove into Koko. When we launched it at Kamala Mills, there was nothing except The Bombay Canteen. The area, to be honest, was a mess but we didn’t give up. And because we chose a South Mumbai location, we were able to draw in diners from this part of the city. It’s been eight years since then and we are so excited with the journey and the future. With Koko we were able to create dishes that we really wanted to give out to this audience because we felt that the audience had travelled enough. The Indian Chinese aspect has gone from our minds. The Koko diner appreciates a level of authenticity and international exposure and there weren't any spaces at that point. I think we were one of the first few to do Japanese and Cantonese at that point. As you know, sushi and dim sum took off in a big way after that, today it's available everywhere you go.
It was also when we realised that we have so much more to offer, and we needed a format that we could take around Mumbai and so we launched Foo.
3. There are seven Foo outlets in Mumbai, one in Bengaluru and more in the pipeline, how did you decide that this is the perfect format to expand?
The first Foo was at Phoenix Mills-Palladium. People were confused and thought that two Asian restaurants being in such proximity would cannibalize the market. But it is a great product in terms of food accessibility, price point, and experience. Foo is a great mall product as it is on high streets. So, we stuck with our plan. Koko was at the premium side and as one wants to grow a company, you need to look at a certain scale and we felt that Foo was it. We created Foo to multiply quickly. Pre-COVID, we launched our fourth Foo and then all the momentum we had managed was destroyed. But we took that as an opportunity to double down and open outlets during the pandemic. We went around, we shopped around, and we got certain locations that were strategically beneficial.
4. Which cities are you targeting for the growth of your restaurants?
Koko is also launching in Bengaluru this September, it’s double the size of Koko Mumbai. It’s a 12000 sq ft space divided into three levels with a private dining room and a fantastic bar. Bengaluru is one of the cities we’re serious about, the city has a gap in premium dining experiences and there is an increase in the spending power of the city. I think the major metros can take Koko easily; we are contemplating Delhi, Bengaluru and Hyderabad. These cities can have multiple Foo outlets as well. In cities like Ahmedabad, Foo has the potential to be a Koko with the experience on offer. In some cities, we will only launch Foo. But we keep revisiting different cities to get a pulse of the city. Hyderabad is definitely on our list. I was pleasantly surprised to see how it's developed,with all these multinational brands that have come in and have headquartered themselves there. Delhi is always there on our list, but it is quite saturated. It's not on our priority list yet, but we will definitely enter the market at some point.
5. What is your take on Goa as a restaurant location and destination?
During the pandemic, everybody thought it was a great idea to open a restaurant in Goa specifically a Pan Asian restaurant because there weren't too many. We too looked at Goa but today it's very over-saturated. I love Goa for a vacation and spend time there, but I am not so sure it's exciting for business. But this might change over time. I see a lot of hotels still developing, so tourism will increase. A lot of people did relocate to Goa, so the local market is growing. We would probably visit Goa in a year because it is the question of sustenance and long-term vision. That's how a business and an analytical mind will think. From a product perspective, there's a lot of talent, and chef-owned and run restaurants in Goa are really nice.
6. What are your thoughts on this move towards creating Instagrammable restaurants?
(Chuckles) If I talk to a lot of people who are from my dad's generation they would be like, ‘What is Instagram?’ Then there is me, who is in between—I know what Instagram is, but am I really going to take out my phone and take a picture of what I'm eating? That versus a millennial or Gen-Z who will take a million pictures from different angles before tasting the dish served on the table. I think there is space for all, I can’t comment on any of it. Overall, saying Instagram places are bad is a sweeping generalization. At the end of the day, your product matters no matter how good-looking your space. For us, our restaurant spaces aren’t necessarily designed to be Instagram-friendly, but we hope the audience likes it and works aesthetically and if it's Instagram-friendly, there's no harm in it. As a company, we just want to have a good product for the people and if they want to post about us, why not?
7. How did the pandemic change or evolve the restaurant business?
At that point, there was a lot of talk about how fine dining is dead. But we were sure that at some point it would come back. So, we opened three more Foo outlets in Mumbai. But the pandemic did teach us a lot from a financial perspective because, suddenly your business was zero. From that to opening under restrictions such as only opening for lunch with limited covers and social distancing. It taught all of us in the industry to be adaptable, but we knew we’d be back.
In terms of the product offering, one change that I did see was the delivery segment. You know pre-pandemic post-pandemic places like Koko weren’t big on home delivery. But during the lockdown, we were 100% online business which is very strange for a brand like ours. Post-pandemic, we still have a big segment of people that order in, which is quite welcoming because people are willing to take our food home and experience it there. Of course, our endeavour is to add value to that experience in our packaging, presentation, etc. But we were quite surprised that it still continues.
8. You have had the knack of picking the right thing at the right moment. What's the secret to this trendspotting skill?
(Laughs) I don't know. It's not something that we look at every day, it's just that we see the opportunities available and we do it. I don't claim that we get it right all the time. But we’re fortunate that it's worked out so far. I think it's travel, international exposure and it's an understanding of the market.