Ranjit Mathrani is not your typical restaurateur. A former investment banker, he spent much of his career managing merchant banks and advising governments and corporations on privatisations and large-scale project financing. But a head for numbers and a strong stomach for risk and deals happens to be highly relevant experience for running a group of restaurants. Now in his mid-60s, Mathrani looks content with his vocation.
He is married to Namita Panjabi, a designer and the sister of Camellia Panjabi, the ex-marketing director at the Taj Group where she launched 40 restaurants including London’s Bombay Brasserie and the Ile de Kashmir in Paris. In the mid-1990s, Mathrani advised Namita and Camellia on the purchase and operational set-up of Chelsea restaurant Chutney Mary, which became an overnight hit with critics and diners alike.
Initially his involvement with the restaurant was born of a desire to catalyse and monetise the talents of his wife and sister-in-law, but as things progressed it became clear that the restaurant business had been in his blood all along. The trio purchased the ailing Veeraswamy in 1997 and, shortly afterwards, Mathrani stepped back from the City to became a full-time restaurateur.
The three deferred to specific roles within the business – Mathrani handling finance and ops, Camellia overseeing the food and marketing and Namita creating interiors and branding. The first challenge Mathrani set the group remains his biggest to date: to bring authentic Indian cooking to the mid-market and take on the curry houses at their own game. Masala Zone, now the largest branded Indian restaurant outfit in the UK, was born.
“It felt like a missionary endeavour to bring real Indian food to the UK,” recalls Mathrani. “People’s palates have been afflicted by thousands of Bangladeshi owned restaurants. I don’t think these places are representative of real Indian food. We wanted to do something that was authentically Indian and that meant a regional approach.”
The group now operates 10 sites in central London. Three fine-dining restaurants – Chutney Mary, Veeraswamy and Michelin-starred grill Amaya in Knightsbridge – plus seven Masala Zones, serving a combined total of one million customers a year. Camellia, who now lives in Mumbai, is a world renowned expert in Indian food and the group favours employing chefs directly from India, trained in a specific aspect or region of the country’s cuisine. Dishes are made fresh on site each and every day. Food quality is high across the group and all the restaurants do well in the guides.
It may come as a surprise that the boss of a group famed for the authenticity and quality of its food believes service is a more important attribute to a restaurant than cooking. As a rule, investment bankers spend a lot of time in restaurants, and Mathrani was no exception. His former career saw him experience hospitality at all levels – restaurants and hotels, airlines, and conferences all over the world.
“It gave me a great understanding of service, an appreciation of the different stages and elements that became a very useful skill as I moved into the restaurants business,” says Mathrani. “I have observed what works and what doesn’t from the customer’s point of view.”
At Masala World, service is influenced by American hospitality rather than European. “The Americans achieve the complex balance of courtesy and informality better than the Brits,” he says. “People come to enjoy themselves, the quality of the food is a backcloth. Warmth and friendliness is paramount. When people come to a restaurant they spend their money but even more importantly they spend their time. You have to give a good overall experience – you can’t hide behind good food.”
Another idea borrowed from across the pond is embracing the use of student labour. Like many US operators, Mathrani relies on students almost exclusively for non-senior front-of-house positions.
“Get them young, get them bright, get them energetic. It’s a great way to go, but it does put huge pressure on the training side,” he says.
Masala World is one of the few restaurant groups that operates both fine and casual-dining sites. To achieve a better service standard across the group, there is significant cross-fertilisation between the restaurants. “We like to loosen up the fine-dining people in the casual restaurants and get high-end techniques into Masala Zone. Three of our restaurants may be fine dining, but the friendliness, the smile, the explanation of the dishes and the way staff are trained is identical across the group.”
This linked-up approach feeds through to the kitchen too: a core dish from Masala Zone may be taken to Chutney Mary and refined, or a high-end dish from Veeraswamy could be taken to Masala Zone and simplified.
Currying favour nationwide
The business is privately owned through family trusts. Turnover is over £20m per annum. When Mathrani entered the business he had enough capital to fund expansion and – with his considerable experience in the City – knew enough about partnerships, venture capitalists and shareholders to want to keep things in the family.
“Having a partnership with your wife and sister-in-law is complicated enough. Happily I had enough funds to avoid bringing anyone else into the equation,” he explains. “We’re answerable only to each other, it’s a good situation to be in.”
While the group’s three fine-dining restaurants are hugely successful, the sole focus of Masala World’s expansion is Masala Zone. As it is with most successful casual-dining operators, the main barrier to expansion is a lack of suitable sites. Despite this, Masala Zone looks set to be one of the few Indian restaurant brands to go nationwide.
“We wanted to build up a core in London; we needed the hub and the infrastructure to move forward. But we’re now looking seriously at sites in the south-east: Brighton, Oxford, Cambridge, Guildford and Kingston-on-Thames. Our brand has the potential to move to between 40 and 50 sites in the UK, a similar number to Wagamama which, incidentally, has similar site selection criteria to us: large sites in densely-populated areas.”
Branded Indian food operators
Expansion will initially be funded organically, but to achieve these ambitious numbers, Mathrani is looking to adopt a franchise model.
The news that Masala Zone is looking for sites outside the M25 is highly significant. The family owned structure of Indian businesses in the UK has not been conducive to growth and – although independent curry houses make up a significant part of the restaurant landscape – branded Indian food operators are conspicuous by their absence.
But cultural differences in business dealings are not the only reason. “Fundamentally, the role of a typical curry house is to provide cheap, reasonably spiced protein with stodge on the side. By their nature, curry houses are not in the business of selling a particularly memorable experience. The thing I love about the business is that it’s market capitalism at its most simple, you stand and fall on your product.”
While other Indian operators may not agree with this sentiment, the outspoken Mathrani – with his keen understanding of the market, deep pockets and a strong concept – looks well placed to become a national force.