The many avtars of Billu Singh

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Franchising is on the cards for this Indian restaurant brand.

Sydney may have a few hundred Indian restaurants and takeaways,yet only some stand out. People think it’s the food that makes or breaks a restaurant—and of course this is the truth.The simple, obvious truth that lures many fortune hunters into the restaurant business only to discover that simple truths can be hard too.In the olden days, in nearly every culture,human beings looked up to the stars for the right time and the right place before they sat down for an auspicious meal. Food was not a simple matter of keeping body and soul together. In those days, not everyone was a gifted stargazer who could divine the secrets behind great food, food that created communities and memories… No wonder food was a sacred matter, whether it was in India, Palestine, Africa, China or Europe.

In the modern restaurant business too a select few seem to be gifted with this strange talent. Don’t expect these wizards to tell you the secrets they’ve mastered through perseverance, and luck.These are discoveries made on the road of life and work that destiny puts them on, and words are not of much use in explaining their wisdom.

Running a car filter business in Teheran for a decade(1975-1984), Avtar Billu Singh had no idea what his real destiny was going to be, when the Iranian revolution made him realise that his destiny was elsewhere. Coming from a family of businessmen Billu was marked for business. When he left Iran Billu joined his brother’s construction business in England but felt the urge to move on and so landed in Sydney to do a course in Italian cooking, with a plan to become a restaurateur.

In less than a decade Billu was running one of the most famous Indian restaurants in Sydney’s Surry Hills. If Billu had stayed content with this initial success he would’ve been just another Indian restaurant owner who’d done well for himself. But his restless ambition was creating waves in the world of Indian restaurants in Sydney. Constantly experimenting with new ideas and foods, trying new business models in new locations, entering and exiting business partnerships, striking new alliances and eventually finding his path. In his first 15 years in Sydney Billu had bought, owned, co-owned and sold 10 restaurants, including Billu’s Thai in Harris Park. In recent years he has moved into other cities in Australia, and now plans to explore franchising.

When you talk to Billu, it’s hard not to get the feeling that a restaurant’s success owes a great deal to the owner’s personality. Billu has not just been a businessman or a restaurateur. Active in several community and cultural associations, he is a Sydneysider with political views and connections. Whether it is the status of Indians in Australia, the problems within the Indian community, or the Harris Park Chamber of Commerce, or the Punjabi Australian Business Association, Billu’s views and involvement have made him well known within and beyond the Indian community. Building bridges, striking alliances, cementing networks, influencing men, sharing good times, celebrating, creating memories, giving back to society even while expecting change, all these are his business. Andthis is what makes him passionate about food.

Getting the best ingredients, the best staff, great chefs, and good service are key to a good restaurant, says Billu. He says it’s a shame that most Indian restaurants don’t have a clean toilet. And he thinks many small Indian restaurants are being set up for dubious reasons. However, Billu thinks that location is the most important factor to keep in mind for a new restaurant. According to him this is decisive in making or breaking a restaurant, apart from the rent.

The famous Billu’s Eatery on Harris Park’s Wigram Street is an example of hissense for location. Billu spotted Wigram St, like other successful Indian restaurants in Harris Park, at a time when Harris Park was far from becoming the “Little India” it is today.Billu was one of those early prospectors who sensed the direction of the wind, and got down to work, not just to set up his business, but to put an Indian stamp on Wigram street. If Wigram Street is a bustling “Little India” today, Billu’s and a group of restaurants on the street have played a key rolein this transformation.

When he started out in Harris Park the majority of his customers were Indians. Today there are as many people from the wider Australian community as there are Indians atWigram Street’s Billu’s.

As I was saying at the beginning, one of the secrets to good food is a great restaurant. One of the secrets to a great restaurant is a great location. What makes a great location is an ability to instinctively tell where the sun and the stars are at a particular time and what that constellation means for a particular street or location. In the modern world it’s called “making the trend your friend”; they say that one needs to understand the market, the competition, the prevailing tastes and so on and so forth. Many aspiring entrepreneurs follow these business recipes religiously, and they are rewarded with the modest success they are after.

However, Billu has never found a resting place or business model or recipe. Again, as I was saying in the beginning, he is a ‘place hunter’, a modern avtar of the old-time diviners of auspicious places. While the notable members of the Indian diaspora and the wider Australian community habitually look at corporate investors, doctors, lawyers, politicians and other formulaic figures when they speak about the community, they miss the significance of a contemporary phenomenon that is more than just Indian food. Billu has all the traits of a regular businessman, constantly thinking about the practical aspects and problems of business, but you’d have to be blind or indifferent not to see that here is a man who instinctively understands how crucial the restaurant business is to the social life of the Indian diaspora and its future place in Australia.

While the Indian community’s love and sentimental attachment to its food makes an Indian restaurant apleasant venue to socialize, little do they realise that these Indian haunts are capable of, through their silent influence on aspiring entrepreneurs, creating more and more Wigram Streets in the years to come. No it will not be the doctors or the lawyers or the scientists or unionists, or the councillors or the members of parliament, the respectable elites of the community, who will be at the forefront of change in Australia. These will only be a mere gloss over the transformations working their way through society.

It might be this feeling that motivates Billu to be active in the Indian community, as a businessman, employer, social worker and leader—like a man with a mission. Billu says that the increasing complexity of doing business in Australia dampens the spirit, but as in the past one can expect him to find new ways to use the odds to his favour and stay ahead of the pack.

The real impact of Billu, however, will be his influence on a new generation of Indian restaurateurs who many build on his successes and adorn the next wave of Little Indias that are likely to mushroom in Sydney and beyond in the decades to come. Good food is much more than just good food. It’s what makes the simple hard.

Published in The Indian Sun (Indian Newspaper in Sydney)

 

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