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

The Economic Times - - Salaam Bombay! -

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

Vada Pav

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