Most Bangaloreans, especially the older generation, will remember Ullas Refreshments with great fondness. Situated on M.G Road, within the bowels of the iconic Utility Building, it was the revered haunt of people from all walks of life, right from the common man to the wealthiest of tycoons.
With its phenomenal vegetarian cuisine and unassuming interiors, it represented an age bygone when Bangalore was a quiet and humble pensioner’s paradise, with roving greenery as far as the eye could see. However, even the best things in life have to come to an end eventually.
Unfortunately, Ullas was officially consigned to the history books in 2015, much to the dismay of its loyal customers. But, its legacy still lives on and will continue to do so in the years to come.
We caught up with former General Manager of Ullas Refreshments, Vikram Bhat, to talk about his journey in the F&B industry, the financial lessons he learned along the way, his love for heavy metal music and how he managed to retire at the ripe old age of 40.
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Apart from being a shrewd businessman and negotiator par excellence, Vikram also happens to front one of Bangalore’s longest standing doom/death metal bands, Dying Embrace.
If you ever thought finance and heavy metal make strange bedfellows, this eye-opening interview will probably change your mind and give you a thorough insight into how to manage your money and plan your financial future.
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Q. Tell us a little bit about your time with Ullas Refreshments. When and how did it all begin?
“I started working at Ullas Refreshments with my dad, the late Anant Srinivas Bhat, part-time from about 1992 to 1996. He was the proprietor and everyone used to call him Ullas, after the name of the restaurant.
It was during this period of time that I got into the habit of saving whatever little money I was earning. However, in 1996 I completed my B.Com and started working full time at Ullas.
Working in the restaurant was quite a journey and a lot of hard work. I started from scratch and had to work my way up over the years. I started at the counter level and had to learn everything hands-on – how things worked in the kitchen, how to handle purchases, how to handle inventory, how to handle payments and other things like that.
When I finally decided to call it a day in 2015, I was General Manager of the entire restaurant. I worked 20 years full-time and about 5 years part-time at Ullas Refreshments, so you could say I have approximately 25 years of experience in the F&B industry.”
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Q. What are the two main things you learned about running a restaurant, as well as running a business in general?
“The first thing I learned was that it is a very unforgiving world. It can be extremely harsh and very rough going indeed. You rarely get a second chance to set things right, so you have to be extremely careful when you make decisions. Most times, there’s no going back once you’ve taken a call on something, and once the wheels are set in motion, it’s almost always too late to make any changes.
The second thing, and probably one of the most important things I learned is, you just keep experiencing new things every single day and you have to deal with them as best you can.
You tend to meet all kinds of people from all walks of life and you slowly figure out how to handle different situations and different people. From the best to the worst, I’ve seen it all, and it’s held me in good stead throughout the course of my career and life in general.
If I had to put it in a nutshell, I learned that once you know how to deal with people, finance follows in its wake, which then leads to income generation, money, profits and sometimes even losses. But, at the end of the day, it all boils down to how you manage certain situations and how sound your decision-making skills are.”
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Q. Were you always inclined towards working in the F&B industry? Why did you choose this particular career path?
“I basically took up this job because it gave me some leeway and a certain degree of freedom to do all the things I always wanted to. Once I completed my B.Com, I had a choice. I could either look for a 9-to-5 job elsewhere like all my other friends were doing at the time, or work with my dad at the restaurant.
Back in 1996, we never really had the option of working from home or working part-time. We had never even heard of things like that, where you could work a few days and then take the rest of the week off.
It was pretty straightforward back then. You had to do a 9-to-5 job and that was it. Since I was a B.Com graduate, I had to take up an accounting job, or a sales or marketing job, or something along those lines. Those were pretty much the only choices available to me.
So, I made a choice and decided to work with my dad at the restaurant because it gave me a little bit of flexibility. I could work late into the evening and then take the early morning hours off, or take a few hours off in the afternoon. But, as long as I put in 8 hours of work every single day, no one had any issues.
That was how I got into the F&B industry, even though my heart was never really in it to be very honest. I just took the job because it offered me a certain amount of stability and it was paying me a decent wage. Plus, I could pursue other interests on the side, and at the same time, help my dad out as well. So, it sort of covered all corners.
In any case, my dad was always the proprietor and I was always the paid employee, so he could always tell me to bugger off whenever he wanted, haha.”
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Q. Most young people, especially in this day and age, are always looking to retire as early as possible, but find that the road to achieving that particular goal isn’t as smooth as they would like to believe. Keeping that in mind, the fact that you managed to hang up your boots at the age of 40 is quite impressive, considering the times we live in. In fact, it’s something of a pipe dream for the majority of the populace. Can you tell us how you managed to achieve, in such a short time, what so many people take an entire lifetime to achieve?
“Well, since I started working at a really young age, I managed to accumulate a decent amount of savings by the time I was 37-38 years old. I don’t lead a fancy lifestyle, so my advice to a lot of young people out there is to never be under the impression that your life post-retirement is going to be all rosy. Retiring doesn’t mean you can finally splurge as much as you want or live life king-size. It looks and sounds great in movies and books, but the ground reality is quite the opposite.
I would say retirement is all about perfect financial management. It’s all about how you manage your finances, how you budget yourself every day, every week, every month and every year. It’s all about knowing your limits, and how to stay within your limits when it comes to spending, and how to plan well in advance for the future. This is really what it’s all about.
After you retire, it is imperative that you budget and forecast at least 6 months in advance since you won’t have a regular income to fall back on, apart from your savings. So, you need to take a close look at what you have and how much you can actually spend out of what you have.
Additionally, you also have to look at saving as much as possible in this area as well. From a financial standpoint, this makes things a whole lot easier as the years go by.”
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Q. How and why did Ullas Refreshments finally come to its end? Was it a pre-planned decision?
“When I was 39, I had the option of carrying on working at the restaurant. My dad, however, was 70 years old by then and wanted to retire, so he gave me three options.
The first one was to continue working as the General Manager of the restaurant, where I’d still receive my regular salary and he would go into retirement. Under this scenario, I would continue to give him updates as far as the running of the restaurant and its accounts were concerned, which was a similar situation to what I was already doing for the most part of my stint there.
The second option he gave me was to take over the restaurant completely from him.
The third option he put forward to me was selling the business altogether, and I, as an employee, would receive a severance package.
Those were the three choices given to me, and it was a massive decision to take. In fact, it was quite possibly the biggest decision I ever had to take up to that point. So, I took some time off to figure out what I was going to do with my life.
Although I was running a music store on the side, it wasn’t enough to fall back on. The store was purely a hobby, so I really had to think about what I was going to do.
That’s when I decided that since the restaurant was 40 years old and had built something of a legacy, which also happened to revolve solely around my father, it was better it ended with him retiring.
After all, the restaurant was him and he was the restaurant. He had all the recipes, he knew the business inside out, and it was a huge part of his life. So, in that sense, it was only right that the two should retire together.
The one thing I’ve noticed with many family-run restaurants is that things are never the same when the second generation takes over. Even if they have the same recipes, the same cooks, the same staff, the same decor etc., people always seem to come up and say that it isn’t as good as it was before. I’d heard them say, “It was better when your dad was there, or it was better when your uncle was there” or something similar.
I didn’t really want to hear things like that from our customers. That’s when I told my dad that I preferred to put in my papers and let him decide what he wanted to do with the restaurant.
So, he decided to sell the restaurant outright. He recovered his investment in the business, while all 40 employees, including me, received our settlements. And that’s the savings that I now fall back on.’’
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Q. You’re also an avid heavy metal fan, which may come as a surprise to people who know you purely from a business point of view. A few years ago, you started your own music store and distribution label. Can you tell us more about how and why you decided to go down what some would say is a ‘left-hand path’?
“Music, and especially metal music, has always been a passion of mine. In 2014, I branched out and started this tiny, little music store called Mahatobar Distribution. It began purely out of the love I had for the music, and I decided to just give it a shot and see what happens.
The reason I started the store was because, as a diehard fan of this kind of music, I always preferred to buy it in physical formats, like tape, cd, or vinyl. Unfortunately, all the music stores in the city slowly disappeared over the last decade or so, which meant that I had to either order my music online or order it directly from people in other countries, which would then take ages to arrive.
I’m an old-fashioned guy and I don’t really get the whole concept of torrents and downloading music. It doesn’t give me the same feeling as when I was a teenager and I’d go to a music store and browse through all the music there. I used to love spending hours on end checking all the albums out at different stores across the city, trying to figure out which ones to buy.
So, I just wanted to bring that feeling back for people who missed out on it, especially for the younger generation who don’t really know what it feels like to walk into a music store and really immerse themselves in the entire experience.
It’s been 3 years now since I’ve opened the store, and for something that seemed like a suicidal move at the start, it has since turned out to be quite successful. I never really expected it to take off the way it did, especially since almost everyone I knew advised me against it.
I put aside a small amount of savings to invest in this venture, so I just said to myself, ‘If it works, great. If not, then I’ll just consider it a write-off’. That’s pretty much how the store started out, and fortunately, it’s been going well so far. I’m able to pay the rent and make a tidy sum as well, so I certainly have no complaints whatsoever.”
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Q. You also have a number of apartments that you own in Goa, which you rent out to tourists. Tell us how and why you decided to invest in real estate in Goa and what advantages it has over a city like Bangalore.
“Around 2004-05, Bangalore saw a pretty large real-estate boom. Everyone was investing in Bangalore and buying property and apartments. Since I’ve been born and brought up in Bangalore, I kind of felt over the years that Bangalore would eventually reach a saturation point, especially considering the way things were going.
In fact, it’s happening right now as far as the real-estate sector is concerned. It’s plain to see that the supply is way more than the demand at the moment.
If you want to buy an apartment, you have an umpteen number of builders offering you umpteen number of flats, so you’re spoilt for choice. Don’t get me wrong though. Bangalore is still a good choice if you’re looking to invest in real estate, just as long as you plan on living in the home or apartment you’re looking to buy.
However, if you plan on investing and then renting out your apartment or house, I really wouldn’t say it is particularly profitable.
If you look at your investment to interest ratio, you receive a pittance as rent if you plan on renting out your apartment. Let’s say, for example, you buy an apartment here in Bangalore for Rs. 50 lakhs, which is fairly standard for a two-bedroom flat, and your rent it out for Rs. 15,000 per month. Does it really match up to your investment? If you do the math and factor in other aspects like tax and inflation, then certainly not.
So, that’s when I decided to look towards investing in Goa. I used to visit Goa quite frequently on holiday, but even during those visits, my mind would always look at the financial aspect of things.
I paid attention to the number of people coming there from other parts of the world, like Europe for example. I noticed that they would stay there for an extended period of time, for around 3 to 4 months, in order to beat the winter there.
It works out extremely cheap for them to stay in Goa as compared to the amount they spend back in Europe during that same period of time since the amount of money they spend on keeping their houses warm for a week in Europe during the winter is roughly equivalent to the amount of money they spend on a month’s rent in Goa.
So, for them, it’s very affordable. That’s when I decided to buy a small studio apartment in Goa in 2008. Later on, my mom invested and bought a few more apartments, and it’s been 3 years now since we started renting out these apartments – a venture which we named Casa Amigos, which you can check out on social media and elsewhere if you’re looking to make a booking.
And it’s been doing really well so far because we get a lot of foreign tourists who come here during the season who are looking for apartments to rent out for a substantial period of time. We also have a lot of enquiries from people from other parts of India looking to holiday in Goa.
I found that the investment-to-return ratio was much better in Goa as compared to Bangalore. My mother is currently retired, and although she has savings in the bank (which is of course very stable), she found that she was getting better returns by renting out the apartments.
If she had invested in Bangalore, I doubt she would see very good returns as compared to what we get in Goa. Also, Goa is a lot cheaper than Bangalore when it comes to other things, like maintenance costs for example. So that’s pretty much how were started investing there.’’
Q. Investing can be a fairly tricky and confusing task for most people, especially the younger generation. What is your take on investments and what advice would you give to people who are looking to invest their money?
“One of the first things I did when I started working was opening a PPF (Public Provident Fund) account. That was the first investment I ever made, and even though the interest rates weren’t particularly great, and the lock-in period was 15 years, I just felt that the money would be safe. In my opinion, it’s a great way for young people to save some money for their future.
So, in that sense, PPF is the first thing I’d advise everyone to go in for. It’s a very traditional and old-school form of investment, but it’s the safest bet in my opinion. The entire amount you receive at the end is completely tax-free, which is a huge benefit.
The good thing about investing in PPF is once your money is locked-in, then regardless of how tempted you are, you can’t withdraw it. So, when you get older, it helps you out with a substantial amount of savings.
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My advice to people who are looking to invest their money is to go in for some safe investments, so you have something to fall back on. For people who like to dabble in stocks and Mutual Funds, you can afford to take risks when you’re young, but I would suggest you avoid putting all your eggs in the same basket.
Ideally, you should look to park 60% of the money you are investing in safe avenues like Fixed Deposits, PPF, Gold etc., while the remaining 40% can be invested in shares, Mutual Funds and similar investment avenues where there’s a little bit of a risk involved.
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Ideally, when you’re young, it’s also a great time to take out a Home Loan. The reason I’m saying this is, if you’ve taken out a 20-25 year Home Loan, by the time you hit 50, you would have paid off the entire loan amount.
So, by the time you retire, your loan would have been paid off and the property is your own. There’s less stress, and any money you receive when you retire comes straight to you, instead of paying off loan EMIs if you took out a Home Loan at a later stage in life.”
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Q. What role does insurance play in your life? How important is it for people to purchase insurance? Do you have any tips on what benefits it offers, or what people should keep an eye out for?
“Insurance is always a must in my opinion. I would strongly advise all young people to take out an insurance policy as soon as they start working. I started most of my insurance policies around the time I was in my mid 20’s, so most of my policies are going to mature in the next 4 to 5 years.
That means, even though I’ve retired, I won’t have to bear the burden of paying my premiums in the future, since all these policies will mature in the next couple of years. This gives me a nice kitty to fall back on.
In my opinion, Health Insurance always helps, especially if you’re married and have kids. This way you have a cover for everyone.
Life Insurance, I feel, is also extremely essential. If you take a quarterly, half yearly or yearly premium, you just keep adding drops to the ocean. Once the policy matures, you get a sizeable amount, which is a great thing since you don’t even realise over the years that you’ve set this money aside until it finally pays off in the end.
All insurance policies I’ve purchased have been with the Life Insurance Corporation of India (LIC), mainly because back in the 90’s there wasn’t much choice.
I’ve found that most private Insurance companies tend to conceal a lot of information or make the fine print so tedious and vague that you can never actually go through or understand the entire offer document sufficiently. So, you end up getting in a snag at some point or another.
However, I’ve never had a problem with LIC, since its government-run and I’m assured that my money is safe.”
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Q. Do you own a Credit Card? How do you manage your Credit Card expenses and what do you do to keep yourself from giving in to temptation or going overboard with your spending?
“Yes, I do own a Credit Card. I currently have an HDFC Bank Credit Card, which has a specified limit. If I find that I’m nearing the limit on my card every month, I make sure that I do my best to avoid using the card again as much as I possibly can.
I’ve been using a Credit Card for about 5 years now and it hasn’t been much of a hassle thus far since I’ve been able to manage my spending well. Like I mentioned before, I don’t lead a particularly fancy lifestyle, so I keep my spending within check.
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For people who are looking to manage their Credit Card expenses, or trying to keep themselves from going overboard, I’d say set yourself a limit on what you’re going to spend and do you best to stick to it.
If you find yourself getting close to that limit, I strongly suggest you keep your Credit Card under lock and key and use your Debit Card to make purchases instead. That way, you only spend what you have.
If you don’t follow this, you may find yourself at risk in case you come face to face with an emergency in the future, and you can’t handle it because your Credit Card bills have become a massive burden on your finances.
Always exercise restraint. It just takes a little bit of willpower, but it could save you from a whole lot of trouble down the road.”
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Q. Thank you very much for the interview, Vikram. It was extremely informative. Do you have any last words for our readers out there?
“It’s very simple. Money is the best thing ever. If you manage your finances well, there’s nothing better than money in the entire world.”