1947 was a watershed year in India's history. It was equally important in the lives of two tea vendors from Gujarat. That was when they bought a tiny restaurant tucked away between a cluster of cloth and electronic stores in a narrow, crowded street in Crawford Market, and began serving south Indian snacks to ravenous workers.
Sixty-one years on, this humble eatery, then known as Ishwar Bhuvan, has become one of 18 Gujarati thali restaurants and snacklets, or snack outlets, across Mumbai, run by the Barot family. They have 20 more outlets in other parts of India, and one in Dubai. Today, the tea vendor's eldest son, Kamlesh Barot, 53, is the director of Encore Hotels, which owns and manages hotels, fine-dining restaurants and the ubiquitous Rajdhani - the first air-conditioned thali restaurant in Mumbai to serve unlimited authentic Gujarati cuisine.
It's hard to imagine that the unassuming and eloquently soft-spoken Barot was responsible for turning a modest little udipi restaurant into a full-fledged branded business that has reached international shores. But it's precisely Barot's humble and homely warmth that epitomises the spirit of Rajdhani. "Before Rajdhani, most Gujarati joints in Mumbai were nondescript, non-air-conditioned eateries, where people sat on one side of a table and paid for every extra item they ordered," he said. "Lavish Gujarati meals were restricted to grand occasions like weddings. We were the first to feed and treat guests like kings.
"We were also the first restaurant to pre-plan a monthly menu that we followed to the T," Barot continued, mentally ticking off Rajdhani's firsts. "We pioneered the concept of food festivals." Ramesh Jain, a businessman who has been a Rajdhani regular for nearly 18 years, believes it represents the perfect blend of two generations. "The older generation initiated the idea and the younger generation has cultivated it as a professional business," he said. "Although it has been around for several years, it is the only Gujarati restaurant that has consistently upgraded its tastes, menus, décor and services to adapt to the times."
After starting the first Rajdhani restaurant in Baroda in 1985, the Barot family returned to Mumbai in 1988, when their tiny dosa diner in Crawford Market was reborn as the fiercely proud Gujarati Rajdhani This is when Barot's three-year degree from Dadar Catering College paid off. "We were taught to change menu items daily, to focus on nutrition, see colour combinations and the cuts of vegetables and approach menus scientifically," he explained. Little wonder then, that in the days when a thali cost Rs 5, Rajdhani rid you of Rs 15. "We didn't cut costs by using cheap derivatives, so our thalis were priced higher," said Barot. It was a price many were willing to pay to savour an exceptional variety of food in a presentable setting. Haresh Mehta, managing director of Kohinoor Fabrics, has been a Rajdhani loyalist for 12 years. "There are always new dishes," he said. "I'm Gujarati, but I always find one that I have never eaten at home."
Bit by bit, Kamlesh and his brothers Pankaj and Rajnik revolutionised Rajdhani - by using JJ School of Art students to create ethnic interiors, coming up with a cyclical menu showcasing seasonal vegetable dishes, introducing Maharashtrian and Rajasthani items, and in 2001, ushering in the concept of the silver utsav thali, which became extremely popular among celebrities and industrialists, such as Shabana Azmi, Parvez Damania, and Anil and Nita Ambani, whose names the restaurant began inscribing on the plates.
Rajdhani adapted astutely to Mumbai's rapidly changing cityscape. The late 1990s saw the emergence of north Mumbai as the new hub of retail and recreation, and Barot realised its potential. In 2003, they launched their second, and most successful, Rajdhani, in Inorbit Mall, Malad. They also introduced Rajdhani "snacklets", which are self-service outlets offering items from Rajdhani's thali. In 2005, the Barots formed the Encore Hotels with an old friend Om Goenka, a businessman who claimed he knew nothing about the hospitality industry. "I realised that the model of Rajdhani would be very successful because in my international travels I observed that Indian cuisine was in great demand," he said. Goenka's finances and sharp business acumen coupled with Barot's professional expertise and dynamic vision has seen the chain expand rapidly.
The Barots own 70 per cent of the restaurants, and give the rest as franchises to relatives and friends. The franchisees may be jewellers, doctors, or engineers, far removed from hospitality, but are people the Barots trust. "They want to share in the success of our brand and a franchise is a win-win situation for both parties," said Barot. The franchisee invests the capital and worries about the profit, while the Barots continue to be in charge of operations and ensure that the guest is satisfied. "Giving a franchise out is like marrying a daughter into another family," said Barot. "There has to be the same soul in all the properties." In order to make the franchisee's life easy, the Barots do a feasibility study of locations suitable for an outlet, provide him or her with trained staff and help set up and operate the restaurant, including the launch, preparing menus, marketing and ensuring the overall smooth functioning of the franchise. The footfalls in the first Crawford Market Rajdhani rendered it useless to spend on advertising and marketing. "We got tremendous support from food critics like Behram Contractor and Rashmi Uday Singh," said Barot. So we got editorials instead of ads." Rajdhani was also featured on several listings in international guidebooks.
Maintaining consistency in food and service in 40 outlets sounds daunting, but Rajdhani has a well-oiled system, overseen from the chain's head office in Lower Parel. Every month, a detailed menu is emailed to all chefs and they all meet on the 25th of every month to ask the head chef questions before the menu is rolled out. Most chefs are hired from Rajasthan. "Rajasthani chefs are adept at preparing both Gujarati and Rajasthani food and are experienced in handling the high pressures of a restaurant," said Barot. From the 1,750 employees under Encore at least 60 to 70 per cent are have been nurtured and trained within Rajdhani. Apart from the corporate office's quality control team that regularly visits all outlets, Rajdhani's customers, too, serve as watchdogs. "We are perhaps the only restaurant to have a large sign welcoming guests into the kitchen," said Barot. "This enhances customer service and forces chefs to be hygiene and maintain decorum."
By changing the menu everyday, the Barots ensure that the food is always fresh. "The chef cannot utilise the previous day's cauliflower because that sabzi will not even be on the menu the next day!" said Barot. Innovation is not restricted to the food: its waiters too communicate using an ingenious sign language. Each of the 28 items on the menu is assigned a particular sign, and instead of yelling across the restaurant for an item to be replenished on a customer's thali, the waiters use the assigned sign. "We used to communicate a lot in sign language because my sister is aurally impaired and mute. So we incorporated this concept in our service," Barot said.
Within two years of its makeover, the modest 1,000-square-feet restaurant thriving in the congested chaos of Crawford Market was listed in the Lonely Planet, a rare achievement for a local Mumbai eatery serving purely regional cuisine. After hours of treacherous navigation through crowded market streets, foreigners sought Rajdhani out to revive their parched throats with the signature-smoked chhaas, strongly recommended by their indispensable city guide.
Today, Rajdhani serves its trademark thalis in Mumbai, Delhi, Bangalore, Nagpur, Baroda, Jaipur and Dubai, the last of which is soon set to become its most profitable outlet. The Encore Group of Hotels, under which Rajdhani operates, is projected to have a Rs 50 crore turnover next year according to Barot. The Barots charge a royalty of one percent of their monthly sales from the franchisee. The city's penchant for eating out certainly helps the business. "One can expand to unlimited avenues because this city can take in about 18 such restaurants in close proximity, which means every station on the railway lines is actually a city on its own," said Barot. "So we can have a Rajdhani in Malad as well as Andheri, just as we have one in Opera House and Crawford market." The locals' adventurous spirit in trying different cuisines attracted the non-Gujaratis. Barot said, "Muslims, who usually prefer mutton gravies used to come from Mohammed Ali Road to regularly eat the simple Gujarati food of Rajdhani. Parsis and Punjabis too are our loyal customers."
True to Rajdhani's slogan, "Ek khandani parampara" (A family tradition), Barot believes the family has been a catalyst for Rajdhani's success. "We combined our mother's age-old masala chaas recipe with the contemporary flambé to create our trademark smoked masala chaas," said Barot. Unlike many other families where brothers-in-business usually go their separate ways, the Barot kin have stuck together for 60 years. "We have seen the fruits of a joint family set-up," said Barot. "Kamlesh looks after operations, F&B and PR, I manage the finance and HR; our younger brother looks after projects and expansion."
The legacy of Rjadhani continues with the next generation of Barots. While Kamlesh's daughter is a lawyer, his son just completed his first year in catering college. "Youngsters today look at hospitality as a glamour industry. They visualise themselves as a GM of a hotel in a three-piece suit," said Barot.
Barot dismissed talk of competition without arrogance. "There are a dozen one-off Gujarati thali joints, but no one comes close to us in terms of numbers, staffing, turnover, seating capacity and brand recall." He admitted though that the chain's expansion was threatened by the influx of fast-food eateries such as McDonalds and pizzerias. To overcome this challenge, Barot simply knocked off the idea of ordering from a menu. "The moment a guest enters, we start serving," he explained. "You can finish your meal in 20 minutes. We became faster than fast food." They were thus able to capture professionals who preferred nutritious homely food to junk.
"One of our biggest challenges is to maintain consistency of food across outlets," said Barot, who found himself in a fix when he realised that the staple Gujarati patras found in abundance in Mumbai, were unheard of in Bangalore. "We had to wrap patras in gunny bags and transport them by train from Mumbai to our Bangalore outlet. Similarly, we have to deep freeze aam ras and send it to all outlets in cities that don't get fresh Alphonso mangoes." Goenka, chairman of Encore Hotels, confessed that while some outlets are doing well, collectively the venture is yet to become highly profitable.
But Barot is optimistic. He revealed a startling statistic. "Soon, new Rajdhani will open nearly every 15 days. We have tied up with the Aditya Birla Malls, the Pantaloons Shitij group, HPCL and BPCL. We have a waiting list of more than 100 potential franchisers." The HPCL tie-up means there will 450 Rajdhani outles across the country serving thalis to the highway public. The next time you travel by train, you might just be able to drink Rajdhani's signature smoked chhaas.