How Dishoom, London’s beloved restaurant group, scales with quality
Co-founder Shamil Thakrar on designing a culture and world — “from Bombay with love.”
Arriving in London last Saturday night via Eurostar, our first thought was dinner: Oh, yes! There’s a Dishoom at King’s Cross.
We rolled our bags up the hill, excited by the prospects of grilled chicken tikka and gunpowder potatoes, and turned the corner at Coal Drops Yard — to see a massive queue. A 90-minute(!) wait, we were quoted, even as coronavirus anxiety had started to set in. (Business had only declined slightly that week, but — like all restaurants — it’s in for unprecedented times now.)
Dishoom, founded in 2010 by cousins Shamil and Kavi Thakrar, has become one of the UK’s top modern brands. Its restaurants, serving a smart take on Indian food and drink, always seem impossibly busy — the group serves 50,000 customers per week. Walking into one, such as the giant King’s Cross location, with a long marble bar and multiple balconies, feels like entering another world — the sign of effective interior design and storytelling.
And over more than half a decade of regular visits whenever I’m in London, even as the group has added more restaurants — it’s now opening its eighth in Birmingham — Dishoom seems to have maintained, or even improved, its quality, while generating a profit.
After a morning chai at Dishoom’s Shoreditch restaurant, Shamil Thakrar (pictured left, with Kavi right) and I walked across the street to the company’s headquarters to chat about running a hospitality group in 2020, how Dishoom builds its company culture, tells its story through design and media, how it responds to the changing consumer, and whether it will ever open in the US (perhaps eventually!).
Thakrar, a former Bain consultant with a Harvard MBA, seems an unlikely restaurateur. But I found his approach genuine and unique, and appreciate the results.
What follows is a lightly edited, condensed transcript of our conversation.
Dan Frommer: How has the last week been, and how are you thinking about Covid-19? (Note: We spoke on Monday, March 9.)
Shamil Thakrar: It’s held up pretty well. We’ve seen a small drop-off in trade — about 5%, not significant — so it could even be week-on-week.
I’m fully expecting people to make more decisions about staying home. So I think we’ll see a much more significant drop-off over the coming weeks and months.
We’ve created a few different scenarios by which to plan. The first is a moderate downturn. The second is a more serious, significant downturn. The last one is a sort of lockdown, Italian scenario.
The business is in decent financial health, so I think we’ll navigate through. We’ll make sure we look after our customers, look after our people — that’s the priority. We’re planning quite thoroughly.
What’s incredible about Dishoom is that whenever a friend posts on social media asking where to go in London, it’s always one of the first replies, often in all-caps with multiple exclamation points. But for those who haven’t visited, in your own words, how do you describe the concept?
Dishoom was born from an observation that in the UK, at one level, you have high-end restaurants, which are great. You can go to Benares and have delicious food, and they’re very very good — they’re expensive, Michelin starred restaurants. And on another level, you have the curry houses, which are also good. But there’s nothing in between.
We started from that idea that something needs to be done here about Indian food. Britain has an old relationship with India — clearly. It goes back centuries. And in some ways, old relationships can get a bit complacent.
I feel like the way people would think of India was in a series of clichés: Bollywood and cricket and curry house and maharajas and maybe tech now. But I think there was so much more to be said culturally about India. We thought food was a great way to say it.
We thought about this great, deep strain of heritage — which is a thin seam, but a deep seam — which are the Irani cafés. These cafés were set up by immigrants from Persia in the early 20th century and late 19th century. They came along because of religious persecution. And they set up these cafés on every street corner in Bombay — by the 1960s, there were 400.
What was very cool about these cafés, because these guys were outsiders, is that they had to let everybody else in. You would see in these spaces — which was not typical of Bombay in the 1920s — a hooker, a taxi-walla, a barrister, an actor or a film star, an artist. They would all be congregating.
For me, that’s a vital function of what we do in our restaurants as well. We love to break down barriers and bring different people together.
We will genuinely have celebrities — Lakshmi Mittal — coming in, and they will be sat next to some poor student who loves that we top off the chai for £2.50, and he gets free chai after that. And the other guys will be ordering vintner champagne. And that’s a really, really important and healthy mix.
Equally as well, we self-consciously celebrate big cultural events, the big Bombay or Indian cultural events. So, for example, we celebrate Eid, Diwali, which is a Hindu event, we do a big Iftaar, which is a breaking of the fast, we do Christmas carols. All of those things serve that we’re breaking down barriers and bringing people together.
I’m always surprised by the consistency of your popularity — the restaurants I visit always seem to be bustling, even many years after they open. So let’s talk about keeping quality high as you scale. How do you keep that up?
If I said I had a definitive answer, I’d be lying. I only know what we do, I don’t know what works.
I’d like to think we give you some of the best Indian food you can eat. That’s me saying that, so take that with a pinch of salt.
I’d like to also think our service is extremely good. It’s not Michelin star or white tablecloth service, because it’s not as formal, but we aim for really good casual service.
In some of the most beautiful restaurant environments that I know — and again, this is me speaking. But when I walk into one of our restaurants, say it’s King’s Cross or Kensington, I still get my breath taken away. I love being in those environments. I think we manage to create beautiful spaces.
And if you take those three things, then, for the meal we charge you a really moderate amount — it’s not super expensive. You can spend up at Dishoom, and you can spend down at Dishoom — you can eat super cheaply as well. It’s a reasonably good value experience.
I think as long as we’re delivering value to customers — which is our aim — then I think we can keep that demand strong.
The fuel that makes that possible is that we really, really focus on culture. And making sure that’s embedded with everyone.
Everyone says that. So how do you define culture? What do you mean by that?
It’s such a slippery concept, isn’t it? When I first came into business — I’ve done time in consulting at Bain, and I’ve done an MBA — when you come out of that sort of background, everyone goes on about culture. Everyone says, well, “culture eats strategy for breakfast.” And you have these great phrases. But it’s such a slippery fish — it’s hard to hold onto this thing.
It’s only now that I think I understand it a bit. I think culture is probably best defined as the things people do when there isn’t a process in place, or when nobody is looking.
And to affect people’s behavior, you have to coalesce around a shared system of belief, around what you think is important about business — and maybe about life, to some extent — and to agree on that, and then to make sure everyone is inspired by that and buys into it.
For us, to really make that work, we do several things. One is, I talked about the whole “breaking down barriers” piece. That’s a key part of our culture — making sure we bring people together, making sure we celebrate stuff together.
The other aspect is we have created a sort of philosophy of how we operate. This is the Hindi word for selfless service, which is called “seva.” Our understanding of human nature — and especially people in hospitality — is, I think we are most happy and most present when we are giving fully of ourselves.
If I’m trying to make you a drink and I’m a barman standing across the bar, and you ask me for an Old Fashioned, my first urge is to be generous. I want to give you a great Old Fashioned because I’m here to help you, to make you happy, because I’m in hospitality — I want to look after you. But my second urge is I want to make you the best flippin’ Old Fashioned you’ve tasted, so if you die tonight, you’ll die happy. And if I can bring those two together, then I think that I’m fully alive, fully present.
And we essentially have turned this into this cornerstone of how we think of our values and our business. We really take you and look after you — we don’t just serve you. It’s generosity first, and absolute first-class execution second.
We build frameworks around this — seva leadership. We think about how to train leaders in selfless leadership. How do we make sure you’re really, really looking out for your people? That’s become the sort of cultural underpinning of our business.
In the end, who you are in your culture will determine your strategic choices, in a way that it wouldn’t if you put strategy first. And my belief — which I don’t think they teach you in business school or in consulting — is that strategy should be determined by culture, and not the other way around.
Don’t get me wrong: I think processes are terrifically important. Every time we repeat anything, we turn it into process. Equally, I know, you can’t have a process for everything — you’re never going to. And, in fact, the processes only get created eventually because you have a great culture.
We’re extremely methodical in the way we run the business, as well. Whether it’s the reporting, or the way we structure our management, or the way we implement projects, we’re all GTD junkies — Getting Things Done — everyone here reads it, anyone joins as a manager, we send them on a course.
We’re all big fans of Daniel Kahneman and his work, so we do a pre-mortem before any project. We have a lot of internal processes, which I think help us, to free our mind for the creativity and for the culture. And I think that’s how I would say you should scale.
How do you balance that culture of hospitality with the need to build a successful business?
When you leave a background like consulting and business school, you carry a little template in your head. And that template is a P&L — with revenue, and cost, and profit, and maybe capital, and IRR, return at the bottom.
I think that’s missing the point — business is not about that.
The discovery for us was when we saw that the team, very focused on profit, used to negotiate the price of food ingredients every couple of weeks. Or would send team members home when the restaurant wasn’t busy. And your focus there was on the cost — I would say the secondary aspects of operating.
The switch we then made, and it took us a while to figure this out: In restaurants, what we do is try and provide awesome food and drink, awesome service, and a happy team. And then if you control the costs, the revenue and the profits are the applause that then follow from doing a good job.
Applause, like clapping?
Yeah! I think if you’re a concert pianist — not that I am, or will ever be — I imagine that a concert pianist has to be motivated by the quality of his playing, and the applause follows from doing a great job.
For everyone who really cares about doing something, the job — the love of doing what you’re doing — is the motivation. And then the revenue and the profit — or whatever — is the in the applause that follows from doing a good job. It sounds almost obvious, but that’s certainly not how I thought about it before.
And I think that’s what we should be doing in hospitality.
We saw a massive difference to top-line very, very quickly. The restaurant just got very, very busy. I think it was because we were really, really focused on the customer experience and the team experience.
How do you measure quality? How do you keep yourselves honest?
We’re good at dashboards. Our dashboard is not called a dashboard, and I think it’s not a conventional dashboard. It’s called a jantri, which is the Hindi name for the astrological charts that a holy man consults when you ask him what to name your child.
Our jantri starts with a line that says “obsess over.” And we obsess over all the quality measures, like awesome food and drink — we measure that in a bunch of different ways — awesome service, and then we look at the measures around happy team.
And eventually we get to “control” — costs.
And then eventually we get to the “applause,” which is revenue and profit. So it’s mentally structured differently.
How do you think about growth and adding more locations?
We have a key phrase, which I think is where culture has determined our strategy. Our phrase is: “Deepen, don’t dilute.”
We decided that what we needed to do every time we opened a restaurant is to make it better.
Most times, there is an assumption — particularly in hospitality — as you grow, it gets worse. And I think people sort of tolerate that. When a business turns into a chain, you’re like, “Well it used to be good, now it isn’t.” But you sort of have some tolerance for it.
We decided to swim upstream and say, “hang on, this is exactly what we don’t want to do.” We are going to make it better every time.
So when we open a restaurant, we would like to think — and I think it is — the food and the service and the design of the restaurant is better than the first one we opened or the second one we opened. And even in the second one we opened, the food and the service should be better than it was yesterday, and the year before, and the year before that.
What that meant is that it sort of restricted the speed at which we grew. We open about a restaurant a year. We’ll keep doing that — I think that’s how much we can manage while still increasing standards.
Your newest restaurant is opening in Birmingham, not New York or Las Vegas or Mumbai. How do you think about global expansion?
The first thing to say is that it’s really, really difficult to go overseas. British brands have failed in scaling overseas, particularly in the US, many many times.
I often like to say, or someone maybe told me, that going into the restaurant business is a bit like the first ten minutes of “Saving Private Ryan.” You know, you get on the beach, and ten minutes later, there’s a few of us left. I feel like we made it to the second half of the movie. Going to the US, the difference is that no one made it off the beach — there’s literally very few brands, almost none, that succeeded.
We’re looking at that. I would love to open in the US. I’ve got a real affection for the country, I sort of have a massive admiration. And I think that Americans could be our natural consumers. Although there isn’t much Indian food in the US, a great deal of our customers are American.
But I think we would do it with massive trepidation and care and skill. We wouldn’t just be expanding, we would be going there and making a fantastic business and really dedicating ourselves to it. We’ll jump with both feet and make it work. And to do that, I’m aware that personally, I’d be spending a lot of time there, our senior team would be. But we’ll do it eventually.
What’s the science of figuring out where your next restaurant goes? How’d you pick Shoreditch before it was cool?
Back in 2011 or 2012, when we found this place, we’d just walk around and say, “Yeah, looks good! Let’s open here.” There’s a bit more science now. We might put down some numbers and create a revenue model and think about the demographics.
But there’s still a great deal of feel — you just get around and you feel the neighborhood, you walk around the neighborhood, you compare that to the demographics, and then you see if you can make that into a business. I don’t think there’s a massive amount of secret or science to that — it’s just the common sense stuff that you look at.
Your restaurants do a particularly good job at making me feel like I’m entering a different world, from the menu wording and design to the interior. How do you do that? And does that mean you have special requirements on where you can open?
We’ll only take a site which allows us to create our world. We think about Dishoom as an entry into a different time and place. Even if you look at the cover of our book, we’re thinking about you coming through this door into our world. You’ll see it’s a [cookbook], but also a “highly subjective guide to Bombay” with a map.
In terms of needing specific spaces, we always want a space that will help us communicate that. We won’t take a space which is too modern, or we don’t have a feeling for it.
And then we will attach ourselves, or think about the local history and cultural context, and we will find some aspect of Bombay out of our knowledge and history of the city to sort of bring those links together.
We sort of really love that idea that you walk into this world that we really deliberately create. So every time we open a restaurant, we write a story that becomes the emotional architecture of that space. For us, that’s really important. That informs everything in the restaurant.
So he is a guy — we didn’t name him — maybe we should name him. We made him up.
Here’s a guy who comes to London from Bombay. His family is Irani, who are the guys behind these cafés. He comes to London in the 1960s — his parents maybe send him here to study something dull as dishwater, like accounting or law — and then he gives up.
Because it’s 1966, he becomes a songwriter. He has a flat on the King’s Road. You find him tripping at sunrise on Primrose Hill, or dancing in the Ad Lib with Jean Shrimpton and David Bailey.
And then in 1968, we see him in the Oceanic terminal at Heathrow Airport, along the high window, smoking a cigarette as you then could, with his guitar case and his great clothes from Carnaby Street. His dad’s dead — there’s a telegram in his pocket, a palm print of sadness on his chest — which says “please come back, your father’s died.”
And his father owns an Irani café — or used to, I suppose — and we imagine him going back to Bombay and recreating this café in his image.
We also discovered this fantastic rock scene in Bombay — this sort of cul-de-sac of history, where kids listened to the Beatles and the Stones — they picked up their guitars and they recorded music.
And so we imagined him in that scene with all those people. We create the restaurant or café of that time. And then we found all the people in that music scene and we basically made a record of their music, plus London music. It’s an actual record.
A lot of modern chefs and restaurateurs feel like they have to become personalities these days, with TV shows, podcasts, Instagram fans. Do you have to participate in that world to be a successful restaurant group?
I’m not sure if we’ve done it that much. We’re fortunate — we do get a decent amount of things written about us. But generally I think the articles we see about us are about what we do — about the culture we’re creating, or about the creativity, or about the food, which is obviously center stage.
Our chef is very good, he’s around a bit, he talks about the food. But we’re not really into personality that much.
We’d like to think we really care a lot about what we do, and I don’t think it’s necessary to create a profile of who you are in order to communicate what you do.
I think we’ll continue in that vein. The book here is a lovely example of — this is the journey, this is what we care about, this is what we want to communicate. In terms of the PR strategy, it will always be based around this stuff.
How do you evolve the menu and the items? Does that reflect changing consumer habits, or is it purely “editorially” driven by your soul?
I think you need both. It has to be driven by your soul first.
Our chef Naved [Nasir] is a fantastic guy who really understands how to take the food of Bombay and bring it to you in a very simple and immediate way. For us, food is obviously, maybe the most important thing that we do.
Some of these food items we have on our menu have stood the test of time over decades and centuries. For a reason — because people love them.
And we do a lot of research in Bombay, to find the best versions of that food around the place. And we work hard to make sure ours is the very best of that type. So if we take a pau bhaji or take a keema pau, these are very simple dishes, but we’ll work super hard to make sure these simple dishes are just brilliant, you know, the best you can eat anywhere.
In terms of the evolution, things move on.
A few years ago, there was a great vogue for very hard drinks and cocktails, and there was a vogue for barbecue food, people were eating a lot of meat. Naturally, as a team, we get into that sort of stuff and we sort of work with that idea, and then we find the things in Bombay that work with that.
Right now: Lighter food, and there’s a consideration around drinking less. We’re working with that as well.
We do have a lot more vegan food. And a lot lighter drinks. And we’ve got a fantastic range of non-alcoholic drinks. So there has been some changes.
All this stuff is stuff that we’re conscious of — this is stuff that our customers are moving toward. And we consider that. But it has to be with soul. Everything has to be with soul.
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