Restaurateurs behind Ponsonby’s Sidart hand over the reins

Popular Auckland fine dining restaurant Sidart has changed hands under an ownership structure rarely used within the hospitality industry.

When serial restaurateurs Sid and Chand Sahrawat started Ponsonby-based Sidart in 2009, they did so with more than $300,000 of a silent investor’s money. Now some 12 years later, the pair are paying forward the kind deed with the same restaurant, helping one of their head chefs get on the business ownership ladder.

Sidart has been sold to Lesley Chandra, the head chef of Sid at The French Cafe, who will officially take over the running of the restaurant in September.

Chandra was first employed by the Sahrawats in 2014 to develop the menu for the couple’s modern Indian-fusion restaurant Cassia, after Ben Bayly recommended him for the role. Chandra had previously worked with Bayly at Baduzzi.

The restaurateurs have helped fund Chandra into the restaurant and will become silent partners – not involved operationally but available for counsel and guidance if needed.

In essence, the pair have loaned Chandra the money to purchase the business. He has paid a “token deposit” as part of the takeover transaction and will pay off the balance in chunks. The sale price is undisclosed.

“When we started Sidart in 2009 we were helped by an investor. Sid used to go to a coffee shop and [the owner] owned a couple of coffee shops and they got talking and he expressed his interest in opening his own restaurant, he used to work at The Grove at the time, and so this investor came along said ‘I’m not going to be involved in the day-to-day operations but I will fund you into opening your own restaurant – do whatever you want,” Chand Sahrawat, who prior to starting Sidart was a secondary school teacher, told the Herald.

“We’ve always wanted to do [the same] in the future, when we were ready, for somebody else.”

The pandemic and last year’s lockdowns were a catalyst to take the leap, Sahrawat said.

“Covid hasn’t been a financial thing for us, but it has been a mental drain over the last 18 months, where we’ve felt really stretched with three businesses plus Cassia at Home and not spending enough time with the kids.

“Lesley has always expressed his desire to open a restaurant ever since he started working with us and always showed a keen interest in the business, and he’s had our back with the concept change at Sidart, being an R&D chef when we got him back from his sabbatical, and also he’s had our back being the head chef at The French Cafe – Sid and I have implicit trust in him so it was kind of a natural fit and the timing just came together.”

Chandra and the Sahrawats started talking about a transition in December and progressed the arrangement in January. The takeover goes unconditional today.

With one less business to juggle, the Sahrawats now plan to develop their Cassia at Home jarred sauce venture born out of Covid in November. That will be Chand’s focus while Sid will spend more time focused on Cassia and The French Cafe.

Vendor financing is not very common within the hospitality industry, but Chand said it was a great way for young chefs and front of house staff to enter.

“People often think of hospitality is a dead end career but I don’t think any career is a dead end career, you can always grow. But what is the next step once you become a head chef? You can become an executive chef and run a couple of restaurants in a hotel but if you don’t want to do that how do you step into owning your own place? I think this is a unique way of doing it.”

Sid said the pair have key staff in their other businesses that they would potentially look at doing a similar arrangement with in the future.

When the Sahrawats set out on their own business journey, Chand was an English teacher at Rangitoto College and Sid was working at The Grove. The only asset the young couple had at the time was their home and their peers thought they were mad to be opening a restaurant during the global financial crisis.

The first two years in business were the hardest, Sid said, but it became easier once Sidart began winning accolades – first with the Best New Restaurant in Metro and then Best Dish the following year.

The restaurant was recently voted Top 10 by Jesse Mulligan and Albert Cho in the Viva Top 50 Auckland Restaurant Awards. It was also Cuisine Magazine’s Supreme Restaurant of the Year in 2019, and is one of only four three hatted restaurants nationwide.

Trade at Sidart has recovered from lockdown losses but remains 10-12 per cent down on pre-Covid levels as the borders remain shut to all tourists bar Australians. Before Covid, 60-70 per cent of its regular diners were international visitors.

Chandra, 32, said the move to take over the business was exciting. Without the silent investor ownership model his dreams of owning his own business would still be years away, he said.

“For me this is massive. First restaurant, and it’s not like I’m starting from the beginning, I’m taking over a legacy. I’m super excited and nervous.”

Chandra said it would be business as usual at Sidart, but he has plans to introduce more Pacific flavours into the Indian-fusion menu as a nod to his Fijian-Indian heritage.

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