Back in 2013 Rola Wala was an established part of London’s street food scene, so it came as a surprise when, a year later, the naan roll specialist upped sticks and moved to Leeds to open its first brick and mortar site. Swapping car parks and festival fields for a shopping centre, the brand initially embarked on a month-long residency at Trinity Kitchen in Leeds, the street food area of the then newly-opened shopping centre, but two months later was invited back to open its first permanent site in the Trinity Centre itself.
When the offer to uproot from London to Leeds arrived, Rola Wala partners Mark Wright and Danny Vilela had their reservations. While a semi-permanent spot at Trinity Kitchen was a step in the right direction, the pair had made a strong start in the capital with their business serving grilled chicken tikka, Bengali spiced beef, and Goan roast pork rolls, as well as vegetarian options, over the previous 18 months.
Word of mouth had quickly led to queues at residencies such as London’s Street Feast and the pair were in demand at festivals. Would moving 200 miles up country put this in jeopardy?
“We didn’t expect a whole lot”, admits Wright. “We were a London brand. We were worried that no one would know us, and that people wouldn’t want to pay London prices.”
Turning up in Leeds with nowhere to live and no menu they felt woefully unprepared. But the doubt melted away on the first day as 45-minute queues formed outside their stall, a popularity that has been maintained over the two years since in Leeds, enabling Rola Wala to compete with seasoned operators such as Pho and Tortilla.
Retail environment potential
It was a turning point for the brand, which was also co-founded by Mark Christophers, formerly of West Cornwall Pasty Co, as they realised the potential of retail environments for their Indian food offer.
“For us that was a real eureka moment that Indian food can sit in the mix”, says Wright.“It changed the course of the business, and made us rethink where we wanted to go as a street food brand.”
Despite the differences, Wright reckons hip street-food markets are not so far removed from branded leisure spaces. “Where it converges, retail is all about experience, shopping and leisure, and food is a massive part of that,” he says. It’s no different to going to a car park in Dalston. People have the same needs.”
Rola Wala’s time at Trinity Kitchen also provided invaluable operational and management experience, enabling the team to practise the logistics of delivering food from its production kitchen in Stratford. While Rola Wala has maintained a presence in London’s Street Feast, being in Leeds has also allowed it to grow away from the harsh London-centric glare.
Rola Wala’s experience of Trinity has also encouraged it to look at other retail spaces. The team – which has recently enlisted know-how and investment from Camden Town Brewery and Barworks group co-founders Marc Francis Baum, Andreas Akerlund and Patrik Franzen – has chosen the Westgate shopping centre in Oxford in October for its third bricks-and-mortar opening.
Opening in Shoreditch
For Rola Wala’s second site, however, the pull of London has proved too great. Following a kati roll kitchen pop-up at The Griffin pub in Shoreditch in June, later this month it will open in Shoreditch, on Brushfield Street.
Rola Wala’s success can be attributed to a few factors. The street food vendor has been at the vanguard of the trend for new-wave Indian food that has been sweeping the capital and beyond and also the trend for better quality fast food. Its approach is Indian food that can be eaten every day, with a range of gluten-free, low carb, and vegan options on offer and with no dish having more than 500 calories.
Meaning ‘man that rolls’ in Hindi, Rola Wala’s menu is inspired by Wright’s travels around India and has been designed to capture the flavours of Bombay beaches, Kolkata street markets and Keralan waterways. Customers choose from either a freshly hand-rolled sourdough naan; hot brown rice ‘khicheree’; masala black bean noodles and charred broccoli; or a cauliflower rice and kale bowl before adding one of Rola Wala’s ‘twisted Indian’ fillings and its range of chutneys.
Dishes for the London menu will include nagaland lamb; charred chicken – chicken thighs marinated overnight in seven different spices and then cooked over flame; and Bengali spiced beef – slow-cooked beef brisket in Bengali spices.
Indian themed drinks
The Indian theme continues with its range of soft drinks, that includes mango, lime and turmeric sodas made in collaboration with Hackney-based small batch soft drinks producer Square Root, and it also serves a selection of craft beers and wines.
One potential obstacle in Rola Wala’s way is persuading people that Indian food is an appealing lunch option. The company has been helped by the likes of Dishoom, which has extended the Indian meal occasion from breakfast through dinner, and by burrito brands such as Tortilla, which have made hot wraps a popular lunchtime staple.
“It’s the crux of the challenge,” says Wright. “We managed it in Leeds, and if we can do it there, we can do it elsewhere as well. We want to inspire a generation with authentic fast food. That’s where the industry is moving. Customers are expecting a better experience.
“No other cuisine does sweet, savoury, salty and sour in one bite in a fast-food environment. It’s a real flavour explosion, and we’ve tried to recreate that in every roll. It’s that which separates us.”
Wright intends to capitalise on this point of difference and has built Rola Wala with scalability in mind. The simple counter model of its permanent sites, that require just one person back of house and a few staff to prepare the wraps, makes it a relatively simple operation to roll out, as does the tight menu of six items, with three of these set to be vegan.
While Wright is reluctant to put an exact figure on Rola Wala’s expansion targets, he says if it gets to 20 in the UK he’d be happy, and over 30 even better.
“The challenge is how quickly F&B moves. If you’ve got a good concept, someone can come in and take it if you don’t move quickly. We see a really good opportunity in that there’s currently no big fast-fresh Indian food operator. The market’s open for it. We believe we can fill that.”
It isn’t hanging around, either. Another London restaurant is expected to open later this year and Rola Wala is already exploring franchising opportunities in the Middle East, with Wright believing its stripped back model makes franchising straightforward.
“It’s not like opening a restaurant, it’s essentially a service counter,” he says. We’re not anything like Subway but the set-up is no different. Our approach is how to make this easy to run? We’ve got a clear way of operating – the question is how do we template it?