Dishoom’s Love Affair with Bombay
At a time Irani Cafés are becoming a part of in Mumbai ‘s history, Dishoom, an Indian restaurant chain in London - inspired by Bombay and its Irani cafes - is flourishing. Co-founder tells what makes Dishoom so special
How did Dishoom happen? In Britain, people think about India in terms of clichés like Bollywood, Cricket, Maharajas and Palaces. We wanted to bust through these clichés and Irani cafes, with their impact on Bombay, seemed like a nice way of introducing the British people to a very different aspect of India.
To me, Dishoom is a lovely platform to express my feelings about India. Living here in London, I grew up with a strong affinity to Bombay where my grandmother still stays. I used to travel with Ba and Dada - we are Gujaratis from Porbandar originally - all over India. So I grew with a strong obsession for Indian history, mythology and culture.
Also, the fun and energy of Bombay is infectious. It is a really cool city. I think it’s because Bombay has lots of shared spaces like the Chowpatty beach and the Irani cafes. Especially, the way Irani cafes brought people together over food. We were quite inspired by this and saw it as a big opportunity. Eventually, I and my cousin Kavi Thakrar started Dishoom in 2010.
What makes Dishoom the most popular eatery in the UK? We are obsessed with making sure that the food and service are great, the environment is beautiful and the food is inexpensive. I want that food here is as good as any Indian food served anywhere. Besides, our pricing is pretty affordable. You could have a dal at 5 pounds, a Roomali roti for a couple of pounds and you can have a beer for 3-4 pounds. So at 10-11 pounds you can have a delicious lunch with a beer. In the daytime we top up the chai, so it is bottomless chai till 5 pm. The porridge is bottomless in the morning breakfast. So sometimes you would find a group of people eating very inexpensive food at Dishoom and at the same time at the next table, you might see Lakshmi Mittal or some celebrities drinking champagne. I love that.
I think that even receiving awards is lovely but you have to be careful because the moment you start thinking you deserved this, it’s lost.
Where does all the creativity behind each Dishoom come from? Every Dishoom is a sort of love letter to different aspects of Bombay. Our creative vision is quite simple - each Dishoom weaves around a story of Bombay. For instance, take our biggest Dishoom at King’s Cross. We imagined the site to be a big old godown behind VT station. And a young Irani in 1928 came there and set up a chai store. In two decades he had taken over the whole place and was running an Irani cafe. We also imagined that he was into politics and active in the Independence movement. So you see a lot of Independence era posters on the left as you enter.
In the back we have got some pictures of Homai Vyarawalla (India’s first woman photojournalist) and there is a little gallery which has her photographs from Independence era – right from the salt march to voting for Partition, to Gandhiji’s assassination, funeral and so on. King’s Cross Dishoom is our story of the Independence struggle. We did huge amounts of research. There is a 50-page training guide we give our staff to explain the different things and references to our visitors.
The booze in the Dishoom King’s Cross is modelled after Bombay local trains and the stitching of the seats is same as seen in Eros Cinema. I wanted this to feel like an anti-club – cool enough that everybody can come. So my father and me made up this thing ‘Do Roti Har Insaan Ka Haq’.
What have been your challenges in creating Dishooms? From my business school and consulting background, it was easy to think that business is all about profit and loss. But I gradually realised your action is the main thing you need to be focussed on. The result will come anyway. That was the first switch - Not to get too obsessed by profit. Once we understood that, things changed for us. A look at the sales numbers from our first restaurant at Covent Garden will explain this. We launched in 2010, we grew in 2011 but we didn’t grow that much between 2010 and 2011. In 2012 we understood the action theory, and consequently we grew enormously from 2012 to 2013. We started seeing 20-30% growth year-on-year once we understood it is about doing Seva and forgetting about the result.
The second challenge is to make sure that every one of our staff is happy. If the staff isn’t happy, our customers won’t be either. The first thing is to make sure that your team have got the tools, they are paid well, the conditions are good and then things will change. That made a big difference.
What about opening Dishoom in India and elsewhere? There are two reasons why we are not opening Dishoom in Bombay. One is that we have our hands full. It takes too much work to build one Dishoom. And secondly, I don’t know how it will be to put up something like this in India. What we are doing here is all very directly referenced to Bombay but doing it in Bombay would be weird. A lot of people have asked us why don’t we open in New York or Dubai? But we are happy building Dishooms here and we don’t want to grow too fast. We want each Dishoom to be better than the last one. From Covent Garden to Shoreditch to King’s Cross to Carnaby Street, we are making it deeper each time.
What would be the typical profile of a visitor? And what about the long queues of people waiting to get in? I think we have two core customers – one is Indians and second is foodies. And outside that everyone comes – young, old, black, white and brown. I firmly believe that you have to over deliver.
Each Dishoom has 6000 to 7000 customers per week. King’s Cross is the busiest as it is the biggest. But all of them are fairly popular – even for breakfast. We open from 8 am to midnight daily.
Our chef Naved, a former executive chef from ITC, is really good and skilled and has been with us since the beginning. He really understands the tricky balance that a pav bhaji should be a pav bhaji, you can’t mess with it. It shouldn’t be a pav bhaji with a twist. A dal makhni should be a proper black dal. And yet when it comes to some other dishes like chilli cheese toast - we have messed with it a little bit. So the trick is to know what to mess with and what not to.
Indians relate to Dishoom because it allows them to see Indian things as cool. Even something as desi as Chai or Lassi in this context can feel very cool. While Indians bring their English friends to show how cool Indian stuff is, English bring their Indian friends saying you have to see this, you will love it. Young people bring their older relatives saying this is so vintage you will love it. The real test of whether we have done it right is passed when somebody from Bombay gets it and relates to it.
What is Dishoom’s philosophy of giving back? We believe we have a responsibility to give back - especially when we have poverty back home in India and even here in London. Our chef is a Muslim and he once said that Ramadan is not just about fasting. It is also about Zakat – charity. We decided for every meal that we serve during Ramadan we would feed two children - one child in East London school and one child in India, where we work with Akshaya Patra. Even on our Dishoom restaurant business cards, we put a little crescent moon during Ramadan. I thought it was important at a time Islam was getting such a bad rap. And then later at Diwali we would make this practice permanent. So every time you eat a meal with us, we feed a child in need. Like Irani cafes, that’s a big part we care about - bringing people together over food across barriers. We get very focussed on each other’s differences but I think differences are cause for celebrations.
Dishoom King’s Cross - 2
Shamil Thakrar at Shoreditch Dishoom Bun Maska & Chai
Dishoom Carnaby Street - 1