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What Varun did right

It is a truism to say that the pandemic has had devastating consequences for the restaurant industry all over the world.

At the end of India’s first wave, I wrote about three brilliant chef restaurateurs (Ritu Dalmia, Alex Sanchez and Regi Mathew), who were still standing despite the adversity they had faced during that terrible period.


At the time, I did not realise that restaurants would be hit even harder by the second wave and that restaurateurs would have to learn to cope all over again. Alex Sanchez’s restaurant Americano in Mumbai has created delivery events, like a Tex-Mex menu on a weekend that is so much in demand in Mumbai that the food sells out on the basis of pre-orders. Ritu’s delivery services continue but she has become, for the most part, a Covid angel, helping people find oxygen concentrators and trying to save lives. (And she did all this while battling a second bout of Covid which is even more admirable.)


   Regi has protected the livelihoods of his employees and Alex has tried not to sack anyone. The first priority for any restaurateur must be to keep his business afloat. If the restaurant goes under, then all jobs vanish and staff are out on the streets at a time when nobody is hiring. So, caring is great but you have to find ways to save the business.


   Varun Tuli of the Yum Yum Cha mini-chain in Delhi is another restaurateur I admire because he has found ways to stay afloat in these terrible times.


   Varun has followed a policy of care and concern. All of his staff are tested every week. Anyone with the slightest symptom (say, a cough) is isolated at once (on full salary) till a test can be conducted. Many employees who are healthy themselves have asked for leave to return to their homes outside Delhi to look after the sick and the ailing in their families. Varun has given them the time off and assured them that they will have jobs when they are back.


   I discovered all this almost by accident. Varun runs Noshi, a delivery food operation, which I have used through both waves of the pandemic because I regard it as one of the best, safest and most reliable options in the capital. Plus, the food is pretty damn good, too.


   A fortnight ago (probably a month ago, by the time you read this), I tried to order lunch from Noshi and was told they had temporarily suspended delivery at lunch-time. I asked Varun why this should be so and he said that some of his staff had gone home and he did not want to compromise on quality.


   Within a week, Noshi was back to delivery at lunch and dinner and I enjoyed a Thai meal (at extremely competitive prices) at home. The quality of Noshi’s packaging is famous in foodie circles so that didn’t surprise me. What was unusual was the high quality of the Thai food — unheard of from a pure delivery operation.


   I have known Varun a long time. In 2008, I first wandered into The Yum Yum Tree, the restaurant he had just opened in the then-hot New Friends Colony market. The restaurant was large, had a section with a sushi-style conveyor belt and the food was very good. It was, I thought, the right restaurant for the wrong period. It was at least a decade ahead of its time, strove for authenticity and had among the highest food costs of any restaurant in Delhi.


"When the lockdown and then the various ‘curfews’ hit the restaurant business, Noshi suddenly took off in a way that no one could have foreseen."

   As much as I enjoyed eating there, I wondered how long the restaurant could survive. Of course, I did not say any of this to Varun at the time: nobody wants to discourage a young restaurateur who is raising the bar for food in Delhi.


   Last week, while researching this column, I asked Varun about The Yum Yum Tree. It turned out that I had been right. The restaurant never made any money, Varun was a foodie who had been forced to return to India from the US by his parents, had refused to join the family business and had started The Yum Yum Tree on his own without properly thinking through the economics.


   But he got lucky, Arjun Sharma (now probably best known as the owner of Select City Walk), a regular at the restaurant, asked Varun to cater a party for 500 people. Despite The Yum Yum Tree team’s lack of banqueting experience, they pulled it off and soon catering became the profitable part of his business.


   When it was time for Varun to open another restaurant, Arjun Sharma came to his rescue again giving him a small space at Select City Walk. Varun’s architect backed out of designing it on the grounds that the space was too small but Varun made it work.


   He called it Yum Yum Cha and focussed on dim sum, sushi and stone bowl combos of South East Asian dishes, emphasising rice and noodles. The restaurant was not just an instant success; it was also surprisingly egalitarian, attracting well-heeled shoppers as well as the people who worked in the shops.


   Varun opened three more branches and could have done more of the same.


   Instead, sensing that delivery was going to be big, he opened Noshi, serving a version of the Yum Yum Cha menu with outstanding packaging.


   When the lockdown and then the various ‘curfews’ hit the restaurant business, Noshi suddenly took off in a way that no one could have foreseen. Because the catering business went cold, Varun used the chefs who would do Indian food at events and launched Pot Pot, an Indian delivery service that did North Indian, coastal and chaat style menus. He followed this up by commercialising one of his pet obsessions: baking. An avid home baker, he would make excellent bread for friends. That bread and other baking products formed the basis of Wheaty, a new brand. (I am a fan of his gluten-free San Francisco-style Sourdough.)


   At present, the Yum Yum Chas are shut and the catering business is largely moribund, but the success of the delivery operations has allowed Varun to offer secure employment to his staff and to look after them during this horrific period. There is more expansion on the way: an Italian restaurant will open at the DLF mall in Saket in the late summer, and the delivery range will expand.


   But when I see how Noshi has set the standards for delivery in India, I wonder what Varun did right. I guess the answers were staring at me in the face all those years ago at Yum Yum Tree; I just didn’t see them.


   Varun has always been part-foodie and part nerd. Once he gets into something, he can be obsessive. The umami heft in his vegetarian Thai food comes from a house-made vegan Worcestershire sauce that he developed. The rice for his sushi comes from California, where it is used at sushi bars. The flour at Wheaty was chosen after months of study. The pizzas at his soon-to-be-opened Italian restaurant will be made with a starter culture that he has carefully sourced. The mutton will be free-range.


   All he lacked in the early years was a business sense. He has got that now. And because of that he has been able to offer his people the best gift of all in this terrible time: job security, a company that looks after you when things go wrong and a boss who cares.



Posted On: 22 May 2021 11:22 AM
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