Thank God it's fry day
A trip to Amsterdam gave Jai Vaswani a mission, to upgrade fries from the margins to the mains
Most men will balk at the popular social media hashtag, fries over guys. Not Jai Vaswani. He gets it. The warm, crunchy, mouth-watering snack is his ultimate weakness. "I think my mind and body are programmed so that I feel I've never had enough when I'm eating fries," he says. But, it took a trip to Amsterdam for the 32-year-old to see the fried starch in a new light. "I discovered the fries-in-a-cone concept and was blown away by how they were served and perceived. Until then, fries were something you would have on the side with a burger or sandwich. I wouldn't think of ordering fries for mains."
In 2013, Vaswani, who moonlights as DJ Nanok, launched The J at Churchgate. Here, fries are served in a cone with a combination of sauces including chipotle, cheese garlic, and chilli flake ketchup. You can also opt for toppings in the form of mozzarella cheese, crushed tortilla, chicken sausages, and battered fried fish. He admits to have plunged into the business blindfolded because there was nothing else that he wanted to do at that point in time. "I thought the model could be replicated and would find takers.
Being a youth-focused brand, we kept the pricing affordable and marketed it as a value for money venture." To play it safe, he also added burgers, wraps, and sandwiches to the menu. The USP, however, remained fries in a cone.
As their first store was located across two city colleges—KC and HR—fries and beverages began to fly off the counter. Vaswani says he would man the store himself and chat up with customers to seek feedback. The idea of serving fries topped with Thai sweet chilli emerged from a casual conversation with a student. "I remember the time when a customer was intent on ordering something sweet, but couldn't decide between a cupcake and milkshake, we whipped up a red velvet cupcake with a vanilla milkshake.
This is how our signature red velvet cakeshake was born." Eventually, the sandwiches and wraps were phased out.
Vaswani now helms 40 outlets in eight cities. But that doesn't mean they've had it easy. Out of the 60 outlets he launched, some have closed, while others have been relocated. Staff attrition and the disparity between steep rent and spending power of customers are factors that have led to the closures. Another challenge is the shelf life of fries. "Unfortunately, they don't travel well. You see, fries are good [for a] few minutes, [after they are] out of the fryer."
Over time, competition in the fast food segment has grown. Vaswani says he faces tough competition from McDonald's ever since they introduced combination fries. To stay ahead of the curve, he has now launched The J-Express, a scaled down version of the brand. It is currently capped at R50, including taxes. "We sell smaller portions of fries and beverages, but the customers get more bang for their buck." Through the kiosks, he hopes to target railway and Metro stations, which experience high footfalls. The one in Saki Naka sees 300 customers a day, he says.
Interestingly, the man who seeks a high-carb eat is a fitness buff. "As of now, we haven't been affected by it [trends towards healthy eating]. But if that time comes, we will be ready with healthy, baked fries."
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