Zorawar Kalra Talks About Indian Food Achieving Global Success

The restaurant business in India is massive. From generating employment opportunities directly and indirectly to providing Indians a source of enjoyment and sustenance, the restaurant business formally and informally offers a lot. There are many Indian restaurateurs who have managed to open successful restaurants and even chains across the nation, but perhaps the most famous among them today is Zorawar Kalra because of the impact his restaurants have had on generations. After all, young or old, you would have heard of if not eaten at places like Farzi Cafe, Made In Punjab and Masala Library. 

What makes Zorawar Kalra so popular among his peers in India is not only the fact that he runs so many popular restaurant chains, but also the fact that he has strong roots in the Indian food business thanks to the legacy his father, the incredible Jiggs Kalra, has left behind. In conversation with Slurrp, Zorawar Kalra opened up about his father’s legacy, his own achievements and all about how his restaurants are making Indian food a global hit. 

Jiggs Kalra has left a lifetime’s legacy behind, and you have continued to keep it thriving for decades now. Could you tell us how this motivates you and how you have added to the legacy yourself over the decades? 

The very reason why I got into the restaurant business or the Indian food business is because of my father. During my pre-teen years, even earlier, I was enthralled by his lifestyle and what he was doing. And more importantly I was enthralled by his sense of responsibility and passion towards Indian food. I used to see the effort he used to put into it all, how annoyed he used to get when people called Indian food a “three curry concept”, when, especially in London, they used to think of it as a cheap after-drinks meal at curry houses. He took it very personally.  

I had a very keen interest in the food business from an early age because of this. Every action that I took while developing my further interests, higher studies, getting into the business of food, it was done with the idea that I’ll come back and start a restaurant business to imprint Indian food in the global palate forever. Of course, when I got back, my father had already fallen sick. I started Punjab Grill with a small food court format, then it grew and I later sold it and started Massive Restaurants.  

Our purpose is to spread Indian culture worldwide through its food, and that’s a massive goal. I hope through my efforts that this founding goal is achieved while upholding my father’s legacy. 

Going beyond Jiggs Kalra’s legacy, you have innovated immensely in the restaurant industry of India and beyond. Could you tell us about your independent journey and your innovation process? 

The idea of modern molecular gastronomy and fusing that concept with Indian food came to me when I went to this restaurant in Spain in 2006 called El Buli. I’d gone there for my honeymoon because I wanted to go to this iconic restaurant that’s only open for 6 months of the year. It was the hardest table to get, but I was able to. And when we went to the restaurant, it was an enlightening experience. I realised that chemical science and the art of cooking can be combined to create something magical. That’s how the ideas for Masala Library and Farzi Cafe first came about. 

Now of course the world has moved on from molecular gastronomy because it has been far overused. Even we have moved on to a post-molecular gastronomy world by exploring other avenues of food innovation. We like exposing our customers’ palate to fresh experiences, and our entire team is very young so that we keep up with the spirit of innovation. But even when our food uses very cool techniques, we ensure that the authenticity of the food remains intact. It always tastes familiar to the Indian palate, even at restaurants like Pa Pa Ya. The food has some amount of theatre around it, but it’s never gimicky and always focused on providing comfort. 

Farzi Cafe started popping up on our radars in the mid-2010s and has been a name to reckon with since then. Now, the restaurant has 26 branches around the world in 9 countries. Tell us about the concept behind the restaurant and why it has been such a raging success in India and beyond? 

I think Farzi Cafe has been such a huge success because it celebrates the uniqueness and variety of Indian food in a beautiful manner without compromising on the flavours and authenticity. It was the first brand that made Indian food cool. What Farzi Cafe did was bring cool food, great cocktails, a fun decor in a casual and approachable environment, so that the restaurant created a renaissance for Indian food among our youth. Now, Farzi Cafe is nine years old and within this decade, we should be able to say that it has had a huge impact in ensuring that the love for Indian food continues in India for our youth. Because if our own youth doesn’t like our food, what chance do we have of impressing the world? 

You started your foray into the cloud kitchen field in 2021, and now you have Slyce Pizza, Louis Burger and Butter Delivery. What inspired you to venture into this area? 

When COVID happened and we all went into lockdown, I had all these huge costs built up in my company. We had a lot of people to take care of and zero money to do it with. Had you asked me before the pandemic about starting a delivery or takeout business, I’d have said never, because we can’t control the ecosystem. I had a hundred reasons to not do delivery. But when the lockdown happened, I realised that if it should continue or if COVID hits again, we should be able to at least keep our head above water. Right after the lockdown was lifted, my chefs, my wife and I went to one of our restaurants in Mehrauli and started trials for Louis Burger in the heat of Delhi. We opened Louis Burger a year later, after the second lockdown and it became a mega success. You can say that having a steady revenue stream in case COVID hit again was our main motivation behind getting into this market. And now we love it and it’s a large part of our business.  

Running restaurants in Delhi, Mumbai and all over the world must be a massive operation. How do you set the benchmark for quality across all these cities? 

You know a restaurant is not just about one thing, the food. There are different parameters that come into play. The look and feel of the restaurant, the speed of the service, the air conditioning, the type and volume of music, how easy is it to park near or access the restaurant, how warm is the hospitality—I think there are a whole host of factors that come into play here. You must hit it across most parameters to be successful. Yes, food is the most important aspect, followed by the warmth of the service.  

In the food business, if you give a first-time customer a good experience, there is a 40% chance that they will return a second time. If they come a second time and you give them a good experience, there’s 42% chance of getting them back again. And if they come a third time and you give them a good time, there is a 70% chance that you’ve got the customer for life. So, it is a business where you must get everything right, repeatedly. 

The most important thing about quality control on a global scale is the culture of the place. What I think, what my vision is, should percolate down to the top management and then trickle down to everyone. I’m always talking about quality over profit, customer satisfaction, then that flows down as culture as well as competence. Building the right culture is the most difficult thing, and yet the most important thing because if you do make it, it’ll be very easy to maintain consistency across the world.  

The relationship between a visionary chef and a restaurateur can lead to culinary magic and successful businesses. What’s your take on this? 

A restaurateur is akin to a music composer. In an orchestra, there are cello players, violinists, flautists and other musicians. In the restaurant business, the chef is like a musician who has talent and creates flavours through it. The restaurateur’s job is to make the music come together by giving chefs the space and support they require. The combination of a focused, visionary chef and a focused, visionary restauranteur is a marriage made in heaven. And if this relationship works in the long term, then the business will be a success.  

Lastly, with so many young people venturing into the restaurants and cloud kitchen space today, what is the key advice you would like to give them? 

Get into the restaurant or cloud kitchen business for the right reasons. This is not a 9-to-5 job, this is a lifestyle choice. Figure out if you are willing to run a restaurant for free or without a salary, and then decide. If you are not willing to spend long hours and weekends, burn the midnight oil, then this is not the business for you. There is no glamour in staying up all night looking at sales and vendor reports, or working the weekend when everyone is relaxing. But if you are willing and happy to do it, this can be the most rewarding industry.