A failed restaurant helped Raji Sankar discover the recipe for success at Wholesome International

Raji Sankar and Randhir Sethi were working in the tech industry when they decided to quit and open a restaurant. Self-proclaimed foodies knew it was a risky move, but they were eager to introduce American audiences to fresh, healthy dishes from their native India. And though the concept failed, the pair never gave up, and today, Wholesome International is thriving as diners embrace the warm, community feelings of India’s neighborhood ovens and gathering places. old – and the food that goes with it.

Sankar, co-founder and co-CEO of the restaurant development company, and her business partner Sethi created the Choolaah restaurant concept, which delights both Indian food fanatics and newcomers at seven locations (and plus) in three states, including two in Pittsburgh. But while Choolah may seem like an overnight sensation, it’s the product of painful, yet productive lessons learned in a failed pan-Asian noodle experiment and operational skills honed by a burger and fries franchise.

“We still call it our second MBA,” Sankar says of the duo’s early experiences in the restaurant business. “It was truly a learning opportunity. If we didn’t have these experiences, we wouldn’t have Choolaah today.

Sankar earned her real MBA from Carnegie Mellon University in 2000. Originally from Bhilai, India, she moved to the United States to pursue a bachelor’s degree in metallurgy and a master’s degree in mechanical engineering. She’s worked in artificial intelligence and consulting, co-founded a media company, and served as business development manager for Printcafe Software, which didn’t indicate her future in the restaurant industry.

But Sankar and Sethi, who worked together at Printcafe, bonded over a mutual love of food, and their shared Indian heritage guided their goals.

“We’ve always had this dream, ‘Why hasn’t Indian food been cracked yet? “, Sankar says. “In the UK and South Africa it’s popular. But in the US it wasn’t, outside of LA and New York. We love our food heritage. , so why can’t we find food that isn’t heavy or bulky, that is very clean?”

So in 2003, they came up with a business plan for what would become Choolaah – then almost immediately shelved it.

“We realized very quickly that we didn’t know how many elements were working,” Sankar says. “We had never run restaurants before, so we were sure that the business plan was a way to start something and close it very quickly due to lack of expertise.”

Instead, they opted for the safer – but still risky – route of franchising. It led to a big miss, a big hit, and a lot of discoveries about how to shape a business and define mission and values.

The right ingredients

Sankar has learned the hard way that establishing and maintaining a brand identity is vital. When she and Sethi opened the Zyng Asian Grill in the heart of Pittsburgh’s Squirrel Hill business district in the fall of 2004, they had a seemingly ideal location, across from a popular bookstore and near public parking and of several large hospitals. They figured Zyng, a fast-paced, laid-back franchise concept that started in Montreal, would spread so quickly that they’d be able to open a dozen more stores in Pittsburgh and Cleveland over the next five years.

But within a year, Zyng had closed its doors.

“The whole concept changed from when we signed up to what became reality,” says Sankar. “There was a shift from fast-casual to full-service, so that was a big change.”

There were other issues, particularly regarding the franchise’s supply chain. Sankar says some trucks have arrived with only half the expected food, and an inconsistency in ingredients has deterred restaurateurs.

“At the time, it was very difficult to see 23 stores open across the country, and none of them were successful,” Sankar says. “There were some very smart people involved. It wasn’t for lack of that. But who you are – your brand identity – is very, very critical.

Sankar compares this to the experience she and Sethi had in franchising with Five Guys, the national burger chain they applied to work with around the same time they opened Zyng. The concept was clear and consistent, focused and simple with made-to-order burgers and hand-cut fries, and the supply chain was reliable.

“If we ever ran out of bread, they would drive back to us,” Sankar explains. “I mean, how can you not be grateful for that kind of support? It can’t be stressed enough when you have a passion like that.

Five Guys quickly caught on. Sankar and Sethi opened a second location within months and today they have 25 locations in Pennsylvania and Ohio. And as Five Guys grew, its employees, who rose from the front line to management, freed up the duo to focus on their brainchild: Choolaah. This time they had the experience of their second MBA to guide them.

cooking a community

Employee training and engagement are critical to the success of Five Guys, and they have become guiding principles for Choolaah.

“That’s really where our passion was,” says Sankar. “Human Capital Growth.”

As the concept of Choolaah began to take shape in 2012 and 2013, Sankar acknowledged that the training would be especially important because few Americans know about clay tandoor ovens, and even fewer know how to cook with them. But Sankar and Sethi didn’t want Choolaah to follow the assembly line model of many fast-casual dining experiences. They wanted to have a transparent kitchen, where the food is prepared in front of the guest, creating a sense of accessible authenticity.

This meant teaching American workers to cook a complex menu.

“The most important thing is to educate people about a different kind of cuisine,” says Sankar. “Everyone knows what a fry is. You don’t have to explain it. But not everyone would know what a samosa is [a fried or baked Indian pastry] is.”

Sankar and Sethi have created training methodologies – including tastings and videos – that explain how to master the art of Indian cooking. Through this training, Choolaah instills in its ambassadors, as its staff members are called, a sense of duty and responsibility. This is reinforced by daily get-togethers at each Choolaah location, where sales figures and customer feedback are shared with staff. This is how Choolaah management strives to consolidate weak points while recognizing and rewarding a job well done.

Choolaah also uses a daily pay model, so workers have access to funds they’ve earned in times of financial emergency. Additionally, employees receive referral bonuses when they bring talent to the operation, and cookies or cupcakes on the anniversary of their start date. There are fun competitions for employees – a float challenge among stores in the spring and a pumpkin-carving challenge in the fall – and a weekly newsletter. And all locations close at 8 p.m. to give staff time to relax.

“It comes down to how enthusiastic someone is about being part of the organization,” Sankar says. “How do they contribute? How do they grow up with it? Without that, there is nothing. »

A recipe for success

From their early experiences as restaurant owners, Sankar and Sethi also learned the importance of details. The family that launched Five Guys tasted more than a dozen mayonnaises before deciding on the one that became a fan favorite. Along the same lines, the owners of Choolaah have insisted on custom spice blends so that visitors from multiple locations experience consistent taste.

“You don’t want to have another type of tikka masala just because you’ve been somewhere else,” Sankar says. “So we’ve chosen to take this harder route of making our own spice blends, and we’re very crazy about the quality and cleanliness of what they put in there.”

They also put a lot of time and thought into the ambiance of the restaurant, with music, color and decor choices contributing to a contemporary art museum-like atmosphere.

“We wanted the space to be very accessible, very accessible to anyone who comes in, so they wouldn’t be intimidated,” says Sankar.
Since the first Choolaah location opened in the Cleveland area in 2014, the design has been refined, with the launch of a delivery kiosk and online ordering system just before the pandemic hit. The pandemic experience has also strengthened the restaurant’s supply chain resilience and taught Sankar and Sethi that they are capable of operating a Choolaah site in a smaller real estate footprint than they previously occupied. .
This final lesson is valuable as plans to open 100 Choolaah sites over the next five years take shape. That’s a lofty goal, but what else would you expect from two foodies who haven’t let their lack of restaurant experience deter them from getting into the restaurant business.

“It’s funny to go back to the original [Choolaah] business plan,” says Sankar. “Our menu is quite close to what was written in 2003.” ●

TAKE AWAY FOOD

  • Learn from initial failure to create future success.
  • A reliable and resilient supply chain is essential.
  • Brand identity and product consistency are key.