Seven years ago two young friends Thomas Fenn and Zachariah Jacob started a Kerala restaurant in Delhi. The restaurant gained popularity among the Delhites. Zachariah shares his experience about how they went on to start a restaurant in Delhi and how they managed to successfully run the business amid covid. He also tells the importance of feedback from customer for the growth of a restaurant.
Discovering the potential market
When I came with my school friend Thomas Fenn to Delhi from Thiruvananthapuram to study at St Stephens, we used to visit many Kerala restaurants that served good food. But when we thought of taking our North Indian friends to experience the taste of Kerala food, the ambiance and hygiene was not there. We understood there was potential to start such a restaurant in Delhi. Since we were in college, we used to joke that if we were thrown out of the college we would start a food joint near the college.
The food is priced high not to make it unaffordable for keralites, but because of the Product placement – the location of the restaurant and the kind of customers we are targeting. We are trying to maintain a certain level of hygiene and standard, for which there is good expense. In order to cover the cost we need to price the products High so as to sustain the business.
After graduation Thomas, did MBA, and became a management consultant and I went to study law. And worked at a law firm as an in-house counsel. Then we reached a point when we decided we need to do something different, either higher studies or another stream.
Locating the premises
When we started earning, we started thinking about our restaurant idea in college. So we decided that if we get a good place we will start a restaurant in Delhi. Now we have one at DLF, Mall, Saket at restaurant block and another at a delivery kitchen in Gurugram. In Saket it was an existing South Indian Vegetarian restaurant, serving mostly Tamilian food. The owner was looking for someone to take over. For us it was the best case scenario. Already there was a set up which we had to set up for our needs.
When we were negotiating the property, we both together hardly had Rs 50000. Beginning the restaurant business was a leap of faith.
Leap of faith rather than expertise in this field
We both did not have any experience in this field, all we had was a dream. We had the:
- product placement
- market segment
We did not have any clue how to go about it. Thankfully things fell in place. When we were negotiating the property, we both together hardly had Rs 50000. To start a restaurant business in Delhi was a leap of faith. We were learning on the job, there was struggle. Now it’s seven and half years.
Customer satisfaction is crucial
Despite the two years of complete lockdown, we could survive. It was the customers who are responsible for our survival, and we will always be thankful for that.
Customer Feedback in important
In the restaurant business, we cannot move forward without appreciating feedback. Criticism at the end of the day will keep you on your toes. On an average 20% of the customers you serve won’t be satisfied with your product. There is always scope for improvement. End of the day the feedback is important to see wherever you can improve and focus on your product. If a response comes online, we make sure we give a response to every comment. My partner takes care of it.
For a Keralite restaurant we may be priced on the higher side, but in the mall area we are located, we are the cheapest compared to other restaurants in the area.
Catering to a combination of customers
Initially, in 2015, 60% to 70% of the customers were malayalees. But under the Malayalee restaurant we cannot rely entirely on the Malayalees’ catchment, if we had to survive at this cost. For a malayalee restaurant we may be priced on the higher side, but in the mall area we are located, we are the cheapest compared to other restaurants in the area.
Now 80% of our customers are North Indians and we also get foreigners as they also appreciate such food. Without such a combination it is difficult to work in our segment. We have to be open to everybody. End of the day we are using Mahabelly as a place for outsiders to experience Kerala.
Introducing Cuisine and Culture to the customers
It is not just food, we are doing cultural representation also. Whether it is the ambiance that we have, you can see in our social media handles we talk more about the unique culture of Kerala, about which we are very much proud.
End of the day the feedback is important to see wherever you can improve and focus on your product.
During the pandemic, when dining options were few, we had a special homely menu like kanji payar. More than malayalees, North Indians ordered those combinations. We were surprised, because even when North Indians go to Kerala, they don’t get such food in restaurants. We get them only at home. Still when we gave the customers such an option l, we got a very good response.
I know many North Indians who like puttu. Idiyappam, etc. We think that they know only appam and porotta as Kerala cuisine. In the beginning customers came to have idli, dosa. The whole idea is to give them an exposure that Kerala food is not the same as Tamilian or other South Indian food. We got our own unique cuisine, which has a lot of options. We are just focusing on that.
Branching out Vs Personal touch
We do want to begin in other cities. But our circumstances are like that. We are now 7 years in this field. Since we had no experience in this field it took us 3 years to learn the business. In the 4th year there was demonetization and GST issues. Then there was renovation in the mall, so there was uncertainty whether we will have to relocate. After that there was COVID. We had signed for a property, but the builders financial situation went sour, so did not go forward.
During the pandemic, when dining options were few, we had special homely menu like kanji payar ((Rice Gruel with lentils). More than malayalees, North Indians ordered those combinations.
So for reasons not in our control we could not expand. But at the same time the response is good. The response is better than the precovid situation. So hopefully we will be able to expand apart from these two outlets.
We are unsure whether we will be able to give the personal touch that we bring to the table if we expand. Ideally, in the market we are familiar with, the DelhiNCR, we want to start a sitting restaurant in Delhi NCR, in Gurgaon. Noida and Central Delhi, in these places if we are able to start multiple branches. Then we will have a bigger team helping us with scaling up and expansion. Even though we want to expand to Mumbai and the Middle East, for the next 3-4 years we will only be looking at Delhi, NCR Area.
If you need to grow as an organisation then there is no need to keep a secret recipe. Everyone has to learn.
Quality vs Aggressive growth
We are a small organisation, we haven’t approached anyone for external funding and we haven’t thought about it. Our plan is not to go too aggressive about it. Because if we become too aggressive the attention to quality will be affected. Both of us are directly involved.
Cooking magic at the fingertips of the chef
We cannot keep secret recipes because me and my partner, we both are not good at cooking. If there is any recipe secrets, only our chef knows. If you need to grow as an organisation then there is no need to keep a secret recipe. Everyone has to learn. If a customer asks we have no problem in disclosing the recipes. The best part of Kerala recipes is that no matter how many recipes you follow, the magic of the fingers of the cook is very important. Possibility of customization is also large. So standardization is a big challenge. There are no secrets, we are ready for any recipes anybody would want to know.
Need to be thick skinned to enter the food business
You need to be thick skinned to enter this business. Food is very close to the heart of the people. There will be complaints like ‘I am your customer since the beginning of the restaurant, and I recommended the restaurant to at least 100 were but the last order had a problem. To build a reputation takes time, but you can lose it very easily. Negativity comes with one unhappy experience. So you need to be open to comments.
Onam is our main event yearly, celebrated for four days serving 1200-1500 sadhyas. We produce all the things working day and night in a small kitchen. We had planned everything out. We also take care of delivery.
Once it was raining heavily in Delhi, on Onam day and the parcel reached half an hour late. So the feedback was ‘this was the worst day of my life’ . We know how difficult it was to deliver, but the customer is also justified, because this is a big occasion for him. They might have planned early, there might be kids and elderly waiting. So their pain is justified. For us this is an everyday challenge.
How was the COVID effect?
Half of the time in the two years the dining was closed. Before COVID 80% of our business came from dining. Thankfully the delivery business picked up. If it was 80:20, now it is 60:40. We did not have to lay off any staff and paid all the salaries.