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How the Thams keep the family legacy alive, one restaurant at a time

Third-generation restaurateurs Ryan and Keenan Tham are carrying their Chinese heritage across new demographics and geographies

Kathakali Chanda
Published: Sep 29, 2018 08:00:53 AM IST
Updated: Oct 1, 2018 04:04:48 PM IST

Keenan, Henry and Ryan Tham’s latest offering, Foo, in Mumbai, is an Asian tapas restaurant

During their days at GD Somani Memorial School in Cuffe Parade, Ryan and Keenan Tham were the cool guys, favourites with both students and teachers alike. Perhaps that’s a given when your grandfather owns two of the hottest restaurants in Mumbai since the 1960s. So, school outings would often be at Kamling on Churchgate Street or the now-shut Mandarin in Colaba, both tony addresses in South Mumbai. The two were among a cohort of five or six restaurants—Nanking, Flora, Frederick’s, Shangrila were some of the others—that would serve authentic Cantonese cuisine in the neighbourhood at that time.

Even outside school hours, hitting Mandarin would be a good excuse for Ryan and Keenan to meet the grandparents. The Thams were one of the oldest Chinese families in the city, and bought an older restaurant called Kokwah in Colaba to set up Mandarin. Says Kunal Vijayakar, food writer and actor, “I can’t remember another place that served so much crab in their sweet corn crab meat soup. During my childhood I would visit Mandarin almost thrice a week, and even later, Cyrus [Broacha, the comedian-TV anchor] and I would nip in for lunch from work for that soup.”

The restaurant also had a contract with the Yacht Club bar, and every now and then one of the waiters from Mandarin could be seen running across the Apollo Bunder Road with a tray full of food to be served at the club. And grandpa Tham Mon Yiu would usually be found at the Colaba restaurant all day (he co-owned Kamling), till the last customer left and the daily accounts were completed manually with pen and paper.

“I still remember those days. Grandpa would close the till, lock the money in the safe, and only then would he go home,” says Ryan, 36, the older of the two brothers. It’s no surprise that, growing up in a family of top-flight restaurateurs, the bug bit the siblings early. “When we were young, and the teacher would ask us what would we do when we grew up, there was absolutely no doubt: We wanted to run restaurants,” adds Keenan, 34.

Once they finished school, the brothers took off for Australia to study business at Griffith’s University; Ryan returned in late 2004, and Keenan a year and a half later. Around that time the 45-year-old Mandarin was shut (in 2003), and their father Henry was setting up, in its place, an eponymous fine-dining resto-bar. Henry Tham was launched in 2005 and, when most Indian eateries would either be labelled a restaurant or a bar, it became one of the rare ones to have the audacity to fuse the two concepts into one.

“Adding the bar to Henry Tham was an idea we had imported from Australia. And dad seemed okay with it,” says Ryan. “Not just okay,” interjects Henry, “secretly, I was happy with it. Because something similar worked with Olive Bar and Kitchen,” the premier resto-bar that was launched in Mumbai in 2000 and of which he was one of the founding members. Henry Tham kicked off an entrepreneurial journey for the youngest Thams; one that would snowball into the setting up of Pebble Street Hospitality in 2014.       

Where Henry had to tighten the leash, at times, was the outpouring of vibrant energy. “When we got into Henry Tham in our early 20s, it took off into a high-energy clubbing zone, with live DJs, and live bands. At times, dad had to come and tell us ‘Hey, tone down the music a bit’. It was a bit like our personalities at the time,” laughs Ryan, sipping his post-lunch black coffee at their latest offering Foo, an Asian tapas restaurant at High Street Phoenix, in Mumbai’s Lower Parel. The music is still loud, but it lets you have a conversation. “You could say the journey from Henry Tham to Foo, via The Good Wife at BKC and Koko in Kamala Mills, the other restaurants in Pebble Street’s portfolio, reflects the growing up of Keenan and me, from our 20s to the sobered-down 30s.”

The Thams plan to expand the Foo footprint in Mumbai before taking it to other metros

The Wonder Years
Like most good things, the days of Henry Tham were also numbered. Ryan claims it was the 2008 terror attacks in Mumbai that did it in for them. Security in the Colaba stretch, where the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel is located, was beefed up, and the number of patrons began to dwindle. It also coincided with the changing demographics of South Mumbai: The younger people were either migrating abroad or moving to the city’s suburbs. The Tham family themselves moved from their home in Cuffe Parade to Bandra in the earlier part of this decade. And the gentrified community that was left in the part of the city commonly referred to as ‘town’ was old money, who didn’t fritter it away on an evening at a nightclub. “A lot of resto-bars and nightclubs were moving northwards. We decided to try our luck too,” says Keenan.

In 2010, they shut Henry Tham, and moved to Juhu to open Trilogy, a nightclub, at Hotel Sea Princess. The two-level venue interconnected by a giant staircase soon became a hotspot for artistes and DJs. “Most of the music festivals would host their pre- and after-parties there. Nightclubs usually last two to three years. Our target was to survive three New Years; we got seven,” says Ryan of the nightclub that swooped many hospitality awards during its lifetime.  

Trilogy shut in 2017, but its success got them thinking about launching an organised F&B portfolio that would cater to a wide range of diners. In 2014, Pebble Street Hospitality was set up in partnership with four of their “chaddi buddies” from GD Somani Memorial School, who invested about ₹2 crore, and a bank loan of about ₹1 crore. Their first offering was The Good Wife, a modern European gastropub, in the business district of BKC. It came up at a time when most corporate offices were moving from Nariman Point in South Mumbai to BKC, but the area was still underserved by watering holes. “Like the good wife was the dream of every man, it became your comfort zone in a glass-and-concrete jungle,” says Ryan. 

The Good Wife soon got going, not just because of its food, but the way in which it was oriented towards the burgeoning corporate clientele, with offers like an express three-course lunch and discounts. AD Singh, managing director of Olive Bar and Kitchen, who had earlier worked with Henry, says, “At The Good Wife, the food was decent but nothing great. Yet it was always full in the evening. Ryan and Keenan knew how to bring in the right DJs, play the right music, structure packages in a way that the corporate crowd could come in post-work for drinks. They understood the audience and created a product that would work for them.”

A key takeaway from Henry Tham that came into play while conceptualising The Good Wife was to strike a balance between restaurant and bar. “Henry Tham was becoming really bar-centric. Such a tilt overshadows the food, and once the perception is set it is very hard to undo that,” says Keenan. They set to rectify it at The Good Wife.

But, while running a bar was their USP, Chinese food was part of their heritage. And the market at that point didn’t have a premium Chinese resto-bar. So Koko (meaning big brother in Chinese, something that Keenan calls Ryan) came in to fill the void. The Asian-themed gastropub that opened in Kamala Mills in 2016 wasn’t meant for yuppie pub-hoppers, but for mature customers who would rather skip the dance floor, and instead sit down with a drink.

Aneesa Dhody Mehta, founder and managing director, Creative Co, is a frequenter at Koko who keeps harping on its on-point ambience. “What keeps patrons coming back are the unique experiences that the restaurant curates, be it the Gin Symposium, Koko Madame or Koko Beats. These create the perfect setting to unwind on weekends.” 

With both The Good Wife and Koko, the Thams wrested the first-mover advantage in areas that would eventually have a glut of eateries. “We opened The Good Wife in BKC at a time when only Yauatcha existed there, or in Kamala Mills when there was only The Bombay Canteen around,” says Ryan. The location of Koko also gave them an opportunity to tap into the sparse South Mumbai market as well as stay close to Bandra and the western suburbs.  

But given its premium positioning (about ₹4,000 for a meal for two, with alcohol), Koko wasn’t a product ripe for scaling up. The Thams were looking for a format that would retain the pan-Asian flavour, but at a more casual price point. When a location opened up at High Street Phoenix, they brought in Foo, an Asian tapas bistro where you can catch a break and some nibbles in between shopping. The restaurant was set up in partnership with Kishore DF, the director of hospitality group Bo Consulting and a dear friend of Henry for nearly 20 years.

Kishore was roped in to hit the mid-segment market for a larger audience to complement the upmarket orientation of the Thams. “With its slightly exclusive format, Koko’s audience is limited and, even within Mumbai, it may not work in a different neighbourhood,” says Keenan. With Foo, a non-QSR, casual, all-day outlet, they are looking at opening four more in Mumbai before moving to other metros, with Delhi as the first outstation destination. “This is the restaurant that will fuel our growth story.”

At Foo, the brothers have introduced Nikkei (a fusion of Japanese and Peruvian) cuisine

The Game of Thrones

Growth is an easy word to throw around, and the early days have held promise with Pebble Street’s topline quadrupling in four years. But given the tough terrain the Indian hospitality sector has to navigate, it might be easier said than done. Ryan estimates that about 65 percent of restaurants fold up within their first two years. One of the reasons is the changing demographics. Unlike the 1980s and ’90s, when Kamling’s lunch hour would see near-100 percent occupancy by executives from Korean and Japanese companies that had set up shop in the erstwhile business district as well as the local Parsi crowd—“We had our biggest sale on Parsi new year,” says Henry—who would come for an authentic Chinese meal for a princely ₹100, the taste of diners may now vary even within the short stretch of Bandra, Dadar and Lower Parel.

Besides, with the number of restaurants mushrooming, consumers aren’t loyal to a particular brand. “Restaurants have become like TV channels. New things happen on a daily basis. Industry standards of a gestation period of three years and a longevity of seven to 15 years don’t hold true anymore,” says Kishore. Add to it the spiraling rents and overheads. “Gone are the days when you could open a restaurant for about ₹30 lakh. Now that wouldn’t even be half the deposit,” says Henry. “Plus publicity, branding, social media all come into play. Food isn’t the last word these days.”

For such tough times, Henry has a pithy word of advice: You should know when to be experimental and when to stick to the comfort zone. At Foo, for instance, Ryan and Keenan have introduced Nikkei (a fusion of Japanese and Peruvian) cuisine, but adding to it a lot more flavour to tailor it to the Indian palate. “Authentic Japanese is not something the Indian market is ready to accept on a large scale,” says Keenan, who himself swears by sushi. The restaurant has also launched a pan-Asian menu for a wider audience, instead of restricting it to just one specific cuisine, and has a lot of steamed dishes, with health being a common currency for diners nowadays.   

It helps that the brothers are deeply involved in running the restaurant, and have not left it to the mercy of professional managers. They’ve picked up hands-on skills right from their Australia days, where they even waited tables—“At Trilogy, for instance, if anybody spilled a drink, they would be there to clean up almost before it hit the floor,” says AD Singh—and have inherited from their father people skills that Kishore swears by. “Henry has had people working with him for over 30 years. That takes some doing in the competitive F&B market.”

When Henry launched his resto-bar with his two sons he had said he would handhold them for two years and then move away. “It’s a like-it-or-leave-it profession. They had to decide for themselves,” he says. A decade later, the answer seems to rest firmly with the younger Thams.

(This story appears in the 12 October, 2018 issue of Forbes India. To visit our Archives, click here.)