By Neelima Agrawal
“When a soul has in it the life of the spirit, then does it bring forth good fruit and become a divine tree.” – ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, Paris Talks
What are the odds of survival for a small French restaurant in Delhi, operated by a French couple newly arrived in India, with no prior experience in the hotel business? Pretty slim. But the Samandari family has proved it otherwise, with their first ever venture, L’Opera, an authentic French bakery and tea-house. Not only did they face up to the tough competition from the many local and global enterprises opening with alacrity back in 2010, they also set the highest standards in qulity, sustainability, ethics and business practices. They have also stood the test of the treacherous last year and a half of the pandemic, by retaining all the staff in the organisation, quickly adapting with home deliveries, without diluting any of the quality and authenticity of their brand.This year L’Opera is celebrating its 10th Anniversary. Since inaugurating the first outlet in Khan Market in March 2011, the brand has gone from strength to strength, with more than a dozen outlets in every premium space in Delhi and one in Dehradun as well. The business success of L’Opera is already a case study at Oxford University’s MBA program.
In resonance with the quote by Abdu’l-Bahá, I firmly believe that for any enterprise to be a true success, it is important to bring in the goodness-of-heart element, avoid the short-cuts and devious routes, and pay attention to detail. I have tracked the growth of L’Opera from its early days, and closely interacted with the founder Christine and Kazem Samandari on various occassions. Their journey with L’Opera inspires and reignites faith in the finer human values. As L’Opera celebrates its 10th Anniversay, we asked Kazem Samandari many questions. We bring you his detailed answers.
L’Opéra is celebrating a decade of its opening in Delhi. This is no mean achievement, when even some of the better known chains and restaurants have shut down. What is the secret of your success?
L’Opéra is a values-based company which is governed by its core principles. Over the last decade, these values have guided every step and the development of the company and allowed it to build a very strong relationsship with its customers and the public in general. On the top of the list is the commitment to Excellence and Quality followed by Truthfulness, Honesty & Transparency; Gender Equality; Meritocracy & Equal Opportunity; Courtesy; Collaboration & Mutual Respect; Consultation; Ownership & Accountability; Spirit of Service and finally, Responsible and Sustainable Growth. Obviously, one also needs to add more well-known and customary indespensable elements such as continuous innovation, huge commitment to the tasks at hand, perseverence and plenty of hard work.
You moved to India from Paris to open L’Opéra, with no prior experience in restaurant business. What were the challenges that you encountered in the early phase?
Actually, we moved from Paris to India to reunite with our daughter Caroline, Laurent’s sister, and her family who had moved to India from France for professionnal reasons. L’Opéra was an afterthought of Laurent who had just completed his business studies and completed a six-months internship in india. Our family had no prior experience in restaurant business, however, I had already decades of professional experience in various fields of activity in over 60 countries and had been involved in several startups. It was the combination of this business background and the youthfull drive of Laurent, supported by the expertise of the other members of the family which gave us the courage to venture into a new industry. We needed to learn deep and fast and to adapt to the prevailing local conditions in India and Delhi NCR. Looking back, we must admit that things went rather smoothly given the challenges at hand.
With L’Opéra you set high standards for the authenticity of the cuisine, service and good practices. Ten years hence and with so much expansion, are you able to keep up the same standards?
This is a continuous and never-ending task, not to say challenge, which requires daily vigilance, personal presence and commitment of the founding family. What you describe here is the soul of L’Opéra which needs to be protected, cherished , nurtured and further developped constantly. I am happy to say that we have been able to maintain the same standards as on the first day we started our activity and even improved on the substance of our products, the quality of our service and the ambience of our outlets which are reminiscent of the most authentic French Salon de Thé (tea room) and Café Restaurant.
Besides the fabulous cuisine, L’Opéra has also maintained the aesthetics of interiors, packaging etc. Would you credit this to your in-house team? Or is it outsourced?
The simple answer to your question is: both. The inspiration, initial ideas, terms of reference and brand guidelines come from our in-house teams, particuarly, the founding family, however, the translation of these element into architecturals projects or packaging and decorative elements is done with the assistance of talented outside specialists. We have been for instance working for over a decade with the same gifted architect who has been able to create, under our guidance, the atmosphere and ambience of our outlets in a magnificient way. Obviously, Christine and Laurent follow every step of the conception, design and implementation and are involved in every detail of the project from the general look and feel of the outlets to the selection of the colour of walls, the design and production of lighting elements, the selection of curtains, production of decorative elements, etc. We are also very lucky to live in India, a country with great workmanship. To give an example, all our Louis XVI furniture, have been locally produced by very gifted carpenters and cabinetmakers using local materials. As to the development of our packaging materials, we gradually created in-house design capabilities to serve all our needs. This has proven to be a better method than trying to communicate to “outsiders” our vision and requirements. We are also lucky to have excellent manufacturers who do a great job once they receive our designs.
The pandemic has severely impacted the hotel industry, more so the smaller restaurant outlets. How has L’Opéra coped in these times? Did you have to scale down?
There is no doubt that the pandemic has impacted L’Opéra’s current operations and future plans. For one, we had to freeze, delay or cancel altogether expansion plans at the onset of the first lockdown in March 2020. In the early days of the pandemic, the company decided to concentrate all its resources and energy on a few objectives: securing business continuity through highest hygiene standards, innovation, open and intensive communication with customers and partners, strict cost controls, right-sizing of the company and maximum flexibility. Thanks to these measures and to the unfailing support, dedication and sacrifices of the L’Opéra team, we have been able to weather the storm rather well and have reached despite the second lockdown and the necessary adjustments, the same revenue levels of the pre-pandemic period. Moreover, we are expecting to open our first post-pandemic new outlet at the Galleria Market in Gurgaon by mid July.
Is the home-delivery option likely to be made a permanent feature?
Absolutely. And to this effect, we have created a sub-brand called “L’Opéra At Home” which delivers the entire range of our products, which comprises breads, Viennese, pastries and cakes as well as our hot and cold meals and beverages at customers’ doorsteps. This being said, we believe that once the current restrictions are lifted and some level of normalcy is achieved, our customers and patrons would want to enjoy again their favourite L’Opéra products not only in the comfort of their homes but also in the typically French ambience of L’Opéra outlets.
You are both deeply spiritual in your way of life. Has this conflicted with the hurly burly of business practice here in Delhi? Especially more so now?
The Baha’i spirituality which we practice is not a spirituality divorced and detached from the world. We believe that human beings have both a spiritual and material reality and that our progress in this life is driven by our interactions with our fellow human beings and the society. In the same line of thought, Baha’u’llah, the prophet-founder of the Baha’i Faith teaches that when performed in a spirit of service, work may be seen as an act of worship. Remembering this deeper meaning and purpose of our business activities becomes a source of strength and encouragement when facing the present challenges and difficulties.
In the past ten years, did you ever feel regret, or the need to close shop and return?
The answer is a simple no. On the contrary, over the years we have come to love and appreciate our new home, India and its inhabitants. We have met so many wonderful people and have made so many friends. We love the culture and deep rooted traditions and habits such as the reverence for family and elderly and have learned to patiently, and with determination face difficuties, tests and challenges and surmount them one after the other and climb to new heights.
What would be your advise to an entreprenur starting out in the food business?
Be passionate about what you do. Dare. Take a long-term approach. Invest in the substance of your activity. Be professional. Let your action speak for itself. Excel in whatever you do and persevere. Do not set financial rewards as your main objective. Do the right things and success in all areas shall follow.