AD Singh went to the US to become an electrical engineer but returned to start Mumbai’s first standalone dessert outlet in 1990. Many other firsts followed — a floating pub, a Latin bar and a chain of award-winning Mediterranean restaurants. Today, the managing director of Olive Bar & Kitchen is considered a pioneer in his field. He speaks to Dhiman Chattopadhyay about being lucky in life, the joys of fatherhood, playing volleyball at 50 and picking a profession where work and passion go hand in hand
AD Singh, Managing Director, Olive Bar and Kitchen, Bandra
“Don’t ask me to change a light bulb please,” AD Singh warns us in jest, as we dig into a thin-crust pizza. We are seated inside Singh’s landmark restaurant, Olive Bar & Kitchen in Bandra — the place he set up 14 years ago, way before Olive became an iconic national brand. In his 23-year journey as a restaurateur, Singh has won more food awards than most of his peers — not a mean achievement for a man who has no background in business and who was packed off to the US in the ’80s to become an electrical engineer.
AD Singh at Olive Bar and Kitchen, Bandra. Pic/Pradeep Dhivar
“I was good at maths and English but a disaster as an engineer,” he laughs, recalling his days at Lafayette College. But while his US degree didn’t help him professionally (though he did spend a few years working with TCS and then Cadbury), being exposed to the culture of entrepreneurship and freethinking in Uncle Sam’s land taught him his greatest lesson in life. “I realised that my career had to be in something I was passionate about. I had to love my work. And quite simply I loved food. I had a perennial sweet tooth,” he says. Thus was born Just Desserts in 1990 — the city’s first standalone dessert and coffee shop where people could just go to chill out.
Many other firsts followed: the city’s first floating bar Suzie Wong and the iconic Bowling Company among them. “I guess luck played a part but I was also driven by my passion,” Singh tells us as coffee arrives. Olive’s chief says he didn’t make much money from these ventures, but what he learnt was immeasurable. “I now had credibility,” he sums up.
The big leap came in 2000 when Olive opened in Bandra and then in the next 13 years, all over India, winning several ‘best restaurant’ awards on the way. Of course like any other entrepreneur, Singh’s life too has had its ups and downs. Does he have any regrets? And were there times when he was tempted to risk a little too much? “I am not a gambler,” he retorts, adding: “Even though two of my restaurants are located inside race courses, I don’t own prized horses.” But hold on, he did almost gamble away his wealth once.
“When the dotcom boom happened in 1999-2000, I was tempted. We thought of setting up a firm to help incubate tech startups. Sort of give them the necessary push. Fortunately we didn’t hop on to the dotcom bubble. So when it burst, we were not singed,” he says.
Regrets? “Just one. Many years ago, Sachin Tendulkar came to meet me. He was looking to start a restaurant and wanted a partner. Sadly, my partners at the time felt a restaurant with a cricket star would not work. It is well known that he opened Tendulkar’s later, a restaurant that has since shut down. I will always wonder whether I could have done better. Maybe there’s still time,” he sighs.
Such momentary sighs apart Singh is a happy man. “I am basically a softie, my mamma’s boy. I live by the principles of being good to people. I want to be happy every day,” he says.
But things change. And mamma’s boy is now a dad — a fact he is very proud of. “Earlier I would have told you I can die today without any unfinished dreams. But now that I have a two-and-a-half-year old daughter, I want to live longer. I want to see her grow up,” he says, transformed for a moment from a hard-nosed CEO to a doting dad.
So has life changed post the success of his business? “Let’s just say I am now able to do what I want to do with the pieces in place first, instead of trying to scrap together money every time I want to open a new restaurant. But otherwise, I am the same person,” says the man who now owns 17 state-of-the-art restaurants in six Indian cities.
But we still don’t have an answer to what this 18-at-heart boss does with his free time. “No yachts or steeds for me. I just like my coffee. That’s my luxury,” he laughs, before finally giving us a peek into how he lives it up. “Of course I like to party. I love hosting them as well. But I take care to see I keep fit. So I play volleyball with my pals, hit the gym and take time out to play tennis every now and then. I love golf too,” he says.
As we leave, we ask the restaurateur what he likes to whip up in the kitchen. “Scrambled eggs,” he replies, leaving us speechless. Eggs? That’s it? “I can’t cook for nuts. But I really do make great scrambled eggs,” he admits a little sheepishly. As long his restaurants keep feeding us wonderful meals, we are not complaining. Nor is the man at the helm of affairs as long as India dines at Olive.
Book: Zoe’s Baby Book
Sport: Golf, but I barely get time for it
Destination: Anywhere with family and close friends
Hero: Winnie the Pooh
Quote: Be the change you want to see
Born: An Indian and (mostly) proud of it
Education: Lafayette College, USA. Barely scraped through an engineering degree.
First job: In college
A less-known fact: I have a twin brother
Best advice I ever got: You’re just another brick in the wall.