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AD Singh On Transforming The Way India Eats

Restaurateur and entrepreneur, AD Singh speaks to us about his three-decade-long experience in the industry and how he transformed the way India eats out. By Arushi Sakhuja




AD Singh, a man who needs no introduction, has immensely transformed the restaurant space in India. The man behind some of the finest restaurants in the country is indeed a humble, grounded and welcoming personality. AD Singh, the unassuming force behind some of the country's most exceptional dining establishments, stands as a testament to visionary leadership in his field. As the Founder and Managing Director of the Olive Group of Restaurants, Singh's enduring success spans over 30 years, with his flagship restaurant, Olive, maintaining its vibrancy and popularity.




In an era when standalone restaurants were not yet a prevalent concept in India, AD Singh boldly challenged the status quo. As a trailblazer, he redefined the dining experience in the country, notably with the launch of Olive in Mumbai in 2000, introducing India to upscale dining beyond the confines of five-star establishments. Reflecting on those early days, he recollects the scarcity of options, stating, "Back in the late '80s, we had nothing in Bombay. The first pub opened around 1990. For my generation, going out on a Saturday night meant a visit to five-star hotel coffee shops. We were fortunate; any accomplishment would be a success. Therefore, individuals like us played an instrumental role in the growth of the independent restaurant industry."


Today, AD Singh is steering the foodscape in the metros towards great food, good company, and laughter rolled into a cosy dining experience. Tracking trends like no one else in the industry, he builds brands mirroring the mood of the diner, “The audience was moving towards more comfortable, casual, unpretentious, approachable spaces which are very affordable. So we took the deliberate decision to move away from casual fine dining like Olive into more casual and relaxed dining. We created brands at different price points, all the while maintaining good quality – which I feel defines us”.


L-R: Guppy, Olive New Delhi and Monkey Bar Delhi



Under the Olive umbrella, AD Singh opened up several brands, including Monkey Bar, Guppy, Olive Bistro & Bar, SodaBottleOpenerWala, The Local, Ek Bar, The Fatty Bao, Toast n Tonic, Olly and The Grammar Room over the years. These brands cater to millennials' needs by offering them fun, quirky and fast-paced spaces. Each chain under AD Singh's umbrella is distinct, but they all have one common thread- providing authentic flavours and a unique casual dining experience to their customers. Over the course of his illustrious career, AD Singh has transformed the Indian restaurant scene from merely serving food to creating and curating unforgettable dining experiences for Indian foodies.


The Journey To Entrepreneurship


AD Singh's journey into entrepreneurship was an unexpected detour from his initial career as a trained electrical engineer from Lafayette College, Pennsylvania. Reflecting on his transition, he shares, "I'm an electrical engineer who used to work for Cadbury's, but I realized in my late twenties that it wasn't what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. Despite being happy and content with my job, I decided to leave and explore the NGO sector. However, I found that the sector was not paying enough, so I left and tried to figure out what to do next. Nobody in my family is an entrepreneur, and in 1987 the service industry was barely there; I stumbled upon the idea of starting a service that offered vendors and teams for events, and it took off. And that's how my entrepreneurial journey started."


In 1990, AD Singh, driven by his newfound love for food, ventured into the restaurant business with the opening of Just Desserts, a coffee and desserts jazz café in South Mumbai. "I opened a cafe, Just Desserts, that sold desserts by the slice, which became a huge hit due to the lack of affordable dessert options in Bombay at the time. I added jazz music to the atmosphere, and it became a sensation. Through this journey, I discovered my love for the restaurant business and began exploring it further with jazz music concerts and overnight events. This journey has continued to this day and I'm grateful for all the experiences I've had."


Amla and green mango salad copy at Olive Delhi

Three decades later, AD Singh has become synonymous with excellence in the Indian restaurant scene. From the resounding success of Olive across the country to ventures like Guppy in Delhi, Monkey Bar, Ek Bar, and The Fatty Bao, he champions the concept of casual dining, focusing on authentic flavours and unique experiences. With significant time invested in creating mood boards for each restaurant, Singh and his team spend about a year on conceptualization before the launch, with authenticity being a primary pillar across all ventures. Giving credit to his dedicated team, he remarks, "I believe that for our company to grow, we must recruit good people and care for them. Equally important is recognizing and celebrating their accomplishments."


The Evolution of India's Culinary Scene


It was only in 2000 when AD Singh brought to India Olive an upmarket dining experience in Mumbai, did the country understand the culture of eating out. As Olive won hearts in Mumbai, AD took the first step outside the city and gifted Delhi its own Olive Bar and Kitchen and Bangalore the Olive Beach over the next five years. AD Singh believes that they and others like them have played a significant role in the growth of the salon restaurant industry. They have helped entrepreneurs, parents, and consumers see the potential of the industry, encouraging more young people to explore opening restaurants. "People like us helped the salon restaurant industry grow to where it is today. We showed entrepreneurs, parents, and consumers what is possible, and as a result, more young people got into the FNB learning and started exploring opening restaurants. Landlords also realized that good people were making nice restaurants, and it was worth giving spaces to them."


While introducing standalone dining in India and making eating out a popular trend, AD Singh acknowledges the challenges in the F&B industry, especially for first-timers, citing the highest rate of failure globally. However, at the Olive Group of Restaurants, he emphasizes the meticulous approach to developing the vision and idea behind each new brand, ensuring a deep understanding of the industry and a commitment to quality. When asked about managing multiple restaurants with different vibes seamlessly, he shares, "I'm very involved in the creation of the restaurant, including the culture, cuisine, direction, positioning, and pricing. They are all close to my heart, and I work on them on a day-to-day basis. We are able to run them in the way we envision through the great people we have, including chefs and management teams, which makes my work easier. My focus is on continuing the vision, direction changes, quality, and customer experience, which is what I create. These restaurants are like my babies and even though they aren't all perfect, I am presently in the process of improving some of the brands post-pandemic for the future. We are slow to grow and create new things because we want to work with what we love and have created."


Cuttlefish in Beer Broth at Olive Delhi


AD Singh has a bag full of happy memories that are worth cherishing. One memorable testament to AD Singh's impact is the story of a dear friend's son approaching him at her birthday party. Surprised that her son and his friends had made the restaurant a popular spot, she conveyed, "My son wants to meet you." AD felt a sense of joy and pride, realizing that younger generations independently appreciated what he had built. He notes that younger generations, exposed and well-travelled, bring sophistication and appreciation to his restaurants. This realization has brought him immense happiness, and even today, he is delighted to see people of all ages come to Olive Restaurant and enjoy its consistency and long-term success. "Our success is due to these talented individuals who we were lucky enough to have on board and who we were able to keep with us for long periods. People like Manu Chandra, Anahita N. Dhondy, Chef Saby, Chef Vikram Khatri, and many others have been with us for a long time, and despite the high demand for their skills, they remained loyal to us." This further proves AD Singh's leadership skills.


The Inspiration Behind Guppy



Scotish Salmon Poke Bowl at Guppy by Ai


Celebrating milestones such as Olive's 20th anniversary in Delhi and 23rd in Mumbai, Guppy, one of India's first Japanese restaurants, marked its tenth anniversary. AD Singh, the founder of Guppy, reveals that the inspiration for the concept originated from a visit to a Japanese restaurant called Shochu in Dubai. The experience ignited a passion for Japanese cuisine, prompting Singh to explore it further. Despite an initial setback with the closure of a restaurant called Ai in 2000. He then opened Guppy in a smaller, more accessible format, which has been successful for the past ten years. Over the years, Japanese food has become more accepted in India, but it still has a long way to go. AD thinks that there is still potential to grow Japanese food through noodle bars, ramen bars, and sushi places. However, it still needs to be introduced carefully and step by step. "Over that time I've seen that Japanese food has had much more acceptability. And ramen, for example, which I've been seeing around the world for a long time, is now becoming much more popular. So I feel that there's a lot of potential to grow."


The new menu at Guppy


AD Singh's commitment to adapting to changing palates is evident in Guppy's innovations, such as India's first poke bar and a French-Japanese fusion menu. The restaurant continues to evolve, incorporating local produce and ingredients while staying true to the authentic flavours, concepts, and recipes of its cuisines. "We've also created a French-Japanese fusion menu, which has never been done in India before. We believe this has the potential to become a cool, semi-fine dining restaurant in the future. Another thing we've done is popularize ramen and launched a burger with ramen years ago. We hope to open more casual ramen restaurants in the future."



Hokkaido Miso Ramen


Additionally, he shares, "Since Ai by Guppy opened in 2011, we started using black rice from Assam and black chicken from MP in some of our dishes. We also work with local farmers for our Mediterranean restaurant and have created an amla salad, which has become one of our best salads. We strive to showcase and promote authentic cuisines while incorporating Indian ingredients."


Innovations in the kitchen


As citizens of the country become more aspirational, travel works as a great way to food discovery. In the recent past, travelling for culinary experiences has become a major attraction, thus leading to customers becoming more aware and expecting higher quality of food in India. At the helm of this is the pressure on restaurants to constantly innovate in the kitchen. "At our restaurant, we prioritize authentic flavours that come naturally. However, we do push the boundaries when it comes to ingredients to reduce our carbon footprint and promote sustainability." He continues to say, "We believe in working with local ingredients whenever possible, like black rice sushi, which we don't see as fusion but as a delicious and healthier option. Bringing authenticity back to India can be challenging due to the lack of availability of certain ingredients. Nevertheless, it is a critical aspect of our cuisine, and we strive to maintain the essence of each dish with the ingredients we have. Even if we can't source fish from Tokyo, we can still work with excellent seafood from nearby regions like Sri Lanka and Thailand without compromising on authenticity."



Beetroot and plump Avocado


AD Singh's journey from an electrical engineer to a transformative force in the Indian restaurant industry reflects a narrative of resilience, innovation, and a deep commitment to authenticity. His influence extends beyond the success of individual restaurants to shaping the culinary culture of India, inspiring a new generation of restaurateurs and continually pushing the boundaries of gastronomic experiences. As AD Singh continues to evolve with the changing tastes and preferences of the Indian audience, his legacy as a trailblazer in the culinary domain remains firmly established.




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