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CHOCOLATERIC CHAT

With an MS degree to his credit and a successful business in Australia, who ever imagined that Chaitanya Kumar would decide to move to India and venture into the F&B industry which is highly competitive and risky. However, armed with a unique concept, a vision and a commitment to make a mark, Chaitanya established The Chocolate Room. Here is how a small concept picked up in Australia has became a mega brand with nearly 250 outlets across India.

How it all began
I was born & brought up in Vijayawada & did my higher schooling in Chennai. Later, I went to Australia to pursue MS. Post that I started my career as a direct selling executive of sim cards. I knew that I could never fit into a 9 to 5 job. While I was in this job, I hired some students who would run errands for me and do marketing along with me. This helped me cross the sales target. But very soon, I started an IT solutions company which provided hardware solutions. I used to visit the market, purchase scrap in bulk and assemble computers. I used to sell these computers to the students who could not afford high end ones. This business, which I started with zero investment, ran for two and a half years and I made good money. By and by, more players came into the field. My trade was getting stagnant and I shut it down.

The turning point
Even my Australian citizenship could not stop me from returning to India. Reaching Vijayawada, I started looking for a zero investment venture. I realized overseas consultancy for students was quite happening in early 2000 as there was a great demand. Everything looked perfect, but I was not satisfied. After living in Australia and witnessing the work culture there, I felt I was not optimizing my potential. I took a three-month break and went back to Australia. That was when one of my friends suggested that I should look at F&B which was booming in India.

Spotting The Chocolate Room
We, three friends got together and decided to start a café, which involves less investment and no hiccups. One of the friends suggested that it would be better and safer to take an Australian brand to India. We started googling and looking out for various cafes around. Amidst all of them, one cafe by the name The Chocolate Room looked interesting. We went all the way to have a look at the place and to our surprise, it was a small basic boutique cafe that served a few shakes and coffee. Neither the place nor the menu looked very interesting. We came back and started looking for other options. However, The Chocolate Room got stuck in our minds. So, we zeroed in on it. In the meantime, one of our friends dropped out, leaving Vikas and me to fend for ourselves. We went ahead with The Chocolate Room’ plan. We met the owner who initially could not believe that we wished to take his brand to India. We cracked the deal and then began the real task.



Initial reactions
Both Vikas and I are the first-generation entrepreneurs. I still remember how clueless my parents were till I took them to the first outlet. They had never heard anything called a cappuccino or mocha. Only coffee they knew was filter coffee. However, they never stopped me from pursuing my inclinations & aspirations and they have given me the most cherished gift- their blessings. Same was the case with Vikas's family. We were clear that we would give in our best shot and if things don't work out, we would go back to Australia. At the same time, we also believed that failure is out of the purview of people who are determined and work hard.

Setting up
We were clear that we would start with just one outlet and then based on its performance and after testing waters, we would go for further expansion, that too at our own pace. The next step was to identify a city to set up our business. As we scouted around, we realized that the real estate prices were exorbitant. Though I had a good network and many contacts in Vijayawada, I was sure that it was not the right place to start a cafe. The next option was Ahmedabad from where Vikas hails. Through his contacts, we managed to find a place and that was how our first outlet came into existence. For nearly three years I was shuttling between these two cities and supervised the functioning of the outlet. I used to do everything -right from taking orders, to cleaning the floor. I am quite used to put up a one-man show and I believe dignity of labour.

The journey of building a brand
Once our Ahmedabad outlet proved successful, I had become confident and knew we were ready for expansion. In 2008, we went for the franchise model and we spread pan India. As we kept expanding, we kept evolving too. For example, the Ahmedabad outlet has no non-vegetarian dishes but when I started in Hyderabad, we incorporated some amazing non-veg dishes. I never faced many hurdles in the operations but the major hiccup was finding the suitable locations. Unlike the majority of the start-ups, who go straight for funds, we decided to be self-funded at least for the first decade. I have always believed that raising funds in the initial phase disturbs your focus and comes in the way of building your brand. Also, I wanted to acquire the business and market knowledge that would help me spell out my terms when we raise funds. Therefore, all these years, the focus has been on building a name and sustaining the market presence. Now we spread across India and the numbers are increasing. It is a humbling experience.

USP
Our menu is our USP. F&B business is a very delicate one. It looks very rosy from outside but we know how difficult it is. Our USP is the fact that though we have grown, we are rooted. Despite having management hierarchy in place, the core team monitors things at the micro level too. Despite my hectic schedule, I visit our outlets and check things personally. This inculcates a sense of responsibility and duty in our staff.

Dealing with competition
When we started in 2008 ours was the only one facility to offer pancakes, chocolate pizza, waffles and shakes. But within no time, many brands came in copying our concept and menu. Of course, right from the very beginning, we knew that the competition would be inevitable. Having said that, I also must admit that we enjoy the first-timer’s edge and advantage. I feel that our consistency in quality and services is what made us stand up against the competition.

Family time
My wife Lavanya is the anchor of my life. She understands my passion for my business. On the home front, she takes complete care and is totally independent in taking decisions in all issues- be it the education of my children Hari Charan and Darahas or running of the household. The popular quote -Behind every successful man, there is a woman- fits me perfectly. To be an entrepreneur, you need to be extremely focused and this can be achieved only when your life partner shares your vision. Lavanya never calls me with home concerns and keeps me stress free.

Mantra for a successful business
People may have ideas, but business calls for action. An idea needs to be nurtured with patience and hard work. All ideas look great on paper but when it comes to implementation, the loopholes surface. Therefore, one must be slow and steady and should take time to react and plug them. Giving your best everyday and being better than the previous day are two mantras for success. However, one thing that I cherish is that we recently bought stakes in the original The Chocolate Room, Australia. Thus, I am the co-founder of the brand across the globe.

Future
Our next move is to raise funds and expand. By 2021 we wish to increase our outlets to 500. Also, we are all set to launch a Chocolate Bar which would bring in liquor with chocolate for the first time in India. We would be bringing a wide range of choctails and tequila shots with chocolate. We have already got the liquor license in Mumbai. So the first experiment will start there. Post that within 3-4 months, the concept would come to Hyderabad. The brand presence will be new and we would have a different cuisine for it.

 
 
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