DSSC Secret Conversations: The Men Behind India’s First Gastropub – Monkey Bar

April 2012 is when the culinary landscape of India saw a pivotal and landmark turn. A laidback bar quietly announced it’s arrival in Bengaluru – they called themselves a ‘Gastro Pub’, a term coined in 1991 that suggests a bar that serves high-end food and beer. Monkey Bar swiftly bridged the gap between places focussing either on good food or on fine drinks, and married the two under one roof – India’s first gastropub that ‘inspired’ a hundred more gastropubs in the country. A little over four years after setting shop in Bengaluru, also the adopted home of Chef Manu Chandra, MoBar (as the country lovingly calls it) has opened doors in the City of Joy. We snuck in for a pre-launch sneak peek and doff our hats to the key (not so) monkey brains behind it – Manu Chandra, Chetan Rampal, and Nakul Chandra who have consistently maintained perfect balance between inventive and hit-the-spot bar food, innovative drinks and an ambience that compels you to have a great evening.

Rampal and Chandra’s team is rock solid in building a painfully cool collation of dining and tippling places. Whilst they all share the common fabric of accessible pricing, solid menu, innovative cocktails; they lend their own distinct gravitas to the impressive portfolio of Olive Cafes South Pvt. Ltd. Monkey Bar brings forth the essence of a pub backed with excellent food & service, it takes inspiration from all over the world and yet is distinctly Indian. The Fatty Bao offers innovative Asian food in a chic, bar-like ambience. Toast & Tonic, the newest kid on the block, is hands-down DSSC’s favorite place in the country currently. So pleased to see an authentic version of farm-to-fork and a local and seasonal menu at play. Most restaurants talk the talk, rarely do they walk the walk. House cured this, house cured that, shrub this, artisanal that – we had tears of joy at this Monkey Bar for grown ups.

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Aiming to build an organised food & beverage section in this wildly manic industry, the futurist-duo have built an empire where the tenets of clever pricing hold strong. The team has repeatedly and successfully built models that pierce through mid market where the average per person spend is between Rs. 500-Rs. 2000 and the target audience is educated, urban chic, aspirational with flexible purse strings.

Having graduated from The Culinary Institute of America (CIA) New York, in 2002 (Class valedictorian, cooly added in), charismatic Manu has donned the whites at New York City’s stellar kitchens like Gramercy Tavern, Jean-Georges and Mandarin Oriental – this chef walks the talk. Unlike his trademark quiet (and according to some, intimidating) figure, Manu Chandra opens up about the genesis of MoBar, “We wanted to break away from the established formula of restaurants, pubs & clubs, and put the ‘gastro’ back into the ‘pub’”. Chetan Rampal, the yin to the yang, adds, “Four years back we decided we want to open up a place which has a casual vibe and brings food & drinks together. The scene was packed with restaurants offering great food or bars serving drinks, but if people wanted to enjoy the two together, there was no place to go! Since New York and London had picked up on the gastropub phenomenon by then, we knew it was time for India to share the experience.” Chetan, the calming force that binds the team across locations, cuts a motivating story from being a restaurant manager at Olive to now co-founding some of the best restaurants in the country.

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From behind the bar experimenting new flavours for the MoBar Kolkata cocktail menu, Nakul Chandra offers one of his new creations (like we’d ever say no). After awarding 11.25/10 to his new tipple, we get chatting to this Cordon-Bleu graduate who has been instrumental in creating MoBar’s brand identity in this high-risk industry. “There is no set formula to running a successful restaurant or bar since the nature of this business is completely dynamic and unpredictable. What has worked for us is a happy mix of being a sustainable business model, leveraging our core strengths – which is F&B as well as trying to keep up with certain global trends that work well within our brand philosophy,” he explains.

In an industry where you witness restaurants opening at the same speeds as closing down, how has this company embedded it’s name on to the Indian consumer’s mind? Nakul states, “Sustainability, location, solid concept, people to drive the philosophy forward, price points, availability of produce, etc.” Chetan adds that they strive to retain the same pricing and menu for each Monkey Bar, but they do tweak the dishes & cocktails to suit each city’s demands. Echoing the mutual sentiments, Manu in his trademark checkered shirt & jeans (when not in chef’s whites), quips, “The core remains the same, we might make minor changes in the decor and evolve the menus a bit, but the ‘Monkey Bar experience’ is the same across all cities.”

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They may have brought the international gastropub concept home, but when it came to sourcing produce they chose indigenous over international. Speaking on why they chose to do so Manu says, “It was more of a personal decision than a move for the brand image. Everyone talks about the goodness and freshness of local produce, but most restaurants end up using chemically enhanced substances or imported ingredients, without realising that our own produce can give the same results! So, it was about walking the talk for us.” And walk the talk they do – The seasonal hit-cocktail, Narangi (whiskey + narangi), uses the eponymous ingredient sourced straight from Manu and Nakul’s personal gardens.

They take this principle forward to The Fatty Bao and Toast & Tonic, and go a step ahead from simply procuring local ingredients to smoking & curing their own meats, making shrubs & bitters, oils, etc. They’re looking at producing their own cheeses too in the future. “I’d love to own a supply chain,” Manu says with potentially the widest grin we’ve ever seen on the gent.

Having set shops in three metros already, and successful ones at that, Nakul shares the Kolkata experience, saying that it was no less challenge than any other city, “Not having a base in the city and being our first foray in this part of the country set us back a few months. Understanding and identifying vendors & suppliers took a while, but in the end the effort and time spent on the product shows.”

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Churning out successful models repeatedly in the food business is not an easy task, especially in a partnership. Chatting about their association, Manu and Chetan share their secret formula & mirror each other’s views, saying that the business is the center focus at the end of the day. “A lot of ideas are thrown around and discussed, but decisions are made based on the impact it will have on our product, and no one takes the final call alone” Chetan expounds. Since they function like a well-oiled machine, we wanted to know if the duo plans on taking this international gastropub concept mixed with an indie chic vibe beyond India as well, “Oh yes, totally” exclaims Manu, with Chetan adding, “We’re definitely looking at that option, but it depends on finding the right opportunity rather than just diving into it. There’s no agenda to have an international presence, but if the circumstances are right then we would go ahead with it.”

We might have to wait before we can monkey around across the capital’s borders, but MoBar’s eastern cousin has us wanting to visit again already. Telling us about what to expect from Monkey Bar Kolkata, Nakul says, “There is a whole new look & feel to this Monkey. You can’t miss the massive windows with views of the Kolkata skyline to die for. We have a new locally inspired menu and the bar game has been upped with locally inspired cocktails and signature syrups & shrubs that will hopefully excite our diners.”

Evolution is the name of the game and it’s encouraging to see the big daddies like the Mobar gang embrace change like second nature. These gents rarely cease to amaze and we look forward to their next set of surprises they lay out to up the culinary game in the country.

Picture Credits: Sanjay Ramchandran and Tanushree Bhasin

This conversation is a part of the DSSC Secret Conversation Series, where we get candid with the ace of base industry disrupters.