Before Shamil Thakrar, cofounder of Dishoom, took London’s restaurant scene by storm, the capital wasn’t short of Indian restaurants. At the high end we already had the likes of Benares and Amaya, while the U.K.’s curry houses had given us chicken tikka masala – which has a strong claim to have supplanted the roast and fish and chips as Britain’s national dish. But unbeknownst to most Brits, there was something missing.
Pointing to a copy of William Dalrymple’s The Anarchy, which recounts the rise of the East India Company in the second half of the 18th century, Thakrar explains that the deep history between the two countries “left us with a feeling that we know India well. But when you know someone well over centuries, the relationship can turn into cliches and I think Brits would think of India in terms of Bollywood, cricket, curry houses, days of the Raj, Maharaja – those sort of cliches.”
Thakrar and his cofounders felt there was more to say about the food and culture – specifically paying homage to the food, architecture, vibe and culture of Bombay’s Irani cafés to communicate something fresh about India (which is eloquently covered in his book). Thakrar wanted to build something beautiful: “I want to feel a sort of mood when the music and the typefaces and the design and the colour of the wall and the pictures and the food and tastes and people rushing around and the lighting all come together to just make me feel like I want to be here.”
His love of Indian food and culture inspired him, of course. But initially he also thought it would be a good way to make money. Perhaps ironically, given Dishoom’s runaway success, Thakrar doesn’t recommend the restaurant business for anyone looking to make a quick buck. “It’s a terrible commercial idea. But in the end we made it work, but paradoxically I think you make it work when you treat it non-commercially. When you fall in love with the idea and you really get focused on what it is that makes people love restaurants. If you see it as a cold, sterile business then I think it’s harder.”
“When you come into business from somewhere like management consulting, you have a template in your head,” the former management consultant explains. “It is a very sensible template – most business people have it – which is revenue, costs, profit, capital, return, right – and that’s how the world works and returns are really important because that’s a percentage and it’s probably about 15 or 20 if you’re lucky and, you know, happy days.
“We came to the realisation that meant that the team were negotiating the price of lamb chops every two weeks, or every 10 minutes, and sending the staff home for the rest of the day when it wasn’t busy in the afternoon, when what they should have been doing is making sure that the food and the service was brilliant,” says Thakrar. “This is gonna sound really trite, but go with me: it’s awesome food and drink, awesome service, and a happy team. If you do those three things, and you control the costs because, you have to control the costs, then the revenue and the profit that follows is like applause,” Thakrar adds.
Thakrar thinks after you have the strategy and business model, there are two main levers: processes and culture. While top processes are essential, Thakrar says “culture is what you fall back on when no one is looking.” A big part of his job has been “coming up with a definition of it, and then just repeating it till I’m blue in the face, then repeating it again, and then finding new words for it, and then repeating it again. And eventually, people start feeling like that’s what we do.”
Charity is also important to Thakrar. Since 2015, for every meal served by Dishoom, the team donate a meal to a child that might otherwise go hungry – a meal for a meal. They have just passed reached the milestone of donating 10 million meals to children in the U.K. and India through their charity partnerships with Akshaya Patra and Magic Breakfast.
So far I’ve ignored the elephant in the room. As I write, Dishoom’s restaurant doors are still shut. “When the pandemic hit it was like we had to go whitewater rafting”… “but I think we managed to unleash some good creative energy.” While Thakrar hadn’t wanted to go into the delivery business, they have done so alongside launching a products business. It has been a steep learning curve: “We had exploding ice packs and all sorts of things. Customers were pretty forgiving and we worked hard to make it up to them.” He’s now committed to both these “cool little businesses”.
“I had friends calling and saying I’m so sorry the restaurant business is never going to be a thing again”, says Thakrar, but at a fundamental level he remains confident. “Our ancestors gathered around fires and we ate food and we sang, and those people who wandered off into the jungle on their own – they were loners and didn’t like doing that – all got killed by saber-toothed tigers.” In other words, “natural selection means that we all love restaurants.”
He isn’t blinkered though and expects challenges, rattling off statistics such as the 700,000 people who have just left London, the 1.2 million people who have left U.K., the 100,000 people who have sold houses in London and moved out, and Bill Gates’s prediction that 20% to 25% of our working lives will no longer be spent not in the office.
The magic of restaurants like Dishoom is sorely missed. Thakrar wants to make you feel like you’re entering a slightly different world: “we make doors slightly the wrong size; we put handles in the wrong places”… “we mess with you a bit.” The delight is in the detail. When it’s safe to do so, I expect Dishoom’s famous queues (or infamous if you’re at the wrong end of it in the wrong weather) will return.
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