Mumbai chef Mahesh Raikar on challenges of serving Indian food overseas
Ahead of his Mumbai visit, city-bred Mahesh Raikar, who helms one of the fastest growing desi food chains in the UK, talks about the challenges of serving Indian fare overseas
Even a decade ago, dining out was a grand affair. So, in 2011 when Mahesh Raikar and his friends visited the Mainland China outlet in Saki Naka and the bill added up to Rs 11,000, a whopping amount in those days, everyone fought over the bill, while Raikar watched silently.
"I was working with a Fortune 500 company in UK, but couldn't pay a bill. That made me feel small," recalls Raikar, who now owns Wrapchic, one of the first QSRs in the world to have originated out of India that serves desi burritos, wraps, sandwiches and bowls. "When I returned to UK, I handed in my papers. This was at a time when my business wasn't even ready on paper, and recession was high with most people holding on to their jobs," he shares, ahead of his week-long visit to Mumbai to discuss the venture's future in the city.
An outlet in Guilford, London
A year and half later, after visiting several Mexican joints and a three-month-long field research, Raikar opened the first outlet in Birmingham in 2012. "I invested all my savings and borrowed from friends and family to deploy the first store. Most people advised against the decision. They said, 'there's no such thing as an Indian burrito,' but there was a gaping hole in the UK market. Since most 'Indian' restaurants there are actually run by Bangladeshis, the food is a poor representation of our cuisine. People raved about chicken tikka masala, but it was in effect, a bad mock-up of butter chicken. Or you could buy microwave-able products from a supermarket shelf," explains Raikar, who grew up in Mumbai and studied at Dadar Catering College before migrating in 2001.
The paratha wrap range
Growing up in Mumbai meant a daily diet comprising dishes like dosa, paratha, and vada pav. And so, for him, the venture was not just business-oriented, but also an attempt to revisit his roots. "Whether there's a festival, marriage or death in the family, in India, food remains the focus. In the West, this is not the case, though it's changing now," he elaborate. And this Indian-ness lends itself to the brands name, too — a play on the Bambaiyya slang word, rappchick i.e. too good.
(Left) Soya rice bowl and (right) chicken methi burrito
And challenges were a part of Raikar's endeavour, whether financial or logistical, like breaking through a difficult market and carving a niche. This comes through in a post a customer shared on Instagram. "Indian burrito. Never thought I'd try one of those. Actually works," it read. "People did not believe that Indian food could be commercialised in a QSR format because it was always assumed that it requires a chef. But I was clear about wanting to serve food that was accessible to a wider audience. And so, we re-imagined desi flavours like lamb kheema, chicken methi, aloo matar and the bestseller, chicken mughlai, in the form of a burrito, which people there were familiar with," he elucidates, adding that since the company was always designed to be scalable, once it took off, so did the outlets, with 30 currently functioning out of UK, one in Dubai and another one in Chennai.
"We are in our test phase in India, and have entered the country in a joint venture with Karan Tanna's Yellow Tie Hospitality, so we are polishing the offering before we enter Mumbai, my home town. We hope to open in Bandra by May," he reveals.
But what's the moral of the story, we wonder. At the risk of sounding like a dadaji, Raikar aptly summarises, "We have a very loyal customer base. Our first walk-in, Chris, still stays in touch. With yoga and vegetarianism in vogue now, the possibilities are endless. But I always say one thing, all these years we followed the West, now they are following us."
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