When looking for a strapline that summed up Mowgli, her casual Indian restaurant brand, Nisha Katona had initially liked ‘Indian canteen’ as a description. Yet while it fitted with the laid-back, inclusive and almost cafeteria style of her growing restaurant group it didn’t make the cut because, as she says, “it sounds a bit cold”.
Instead, Mowgli is described as an ‘Indian home kitchen’, so named because it aims to replicate the food Indians eat at home and on their streets, whether it be the lunchtime tiffin boxes such as those deftly distributed by the nation’s famed dabbawalas or the often vegetable-based curries and chat. ‘Mowgli is not about the intimate, hushed dining experience,’ reads the website. ‘It is about the smash and grab zing of healthy, light, virtuosic herbs and spices.’
Katona is good with words, as the careful use of ‘virtuosic’ demonstrates, which isn’t surprising given her background. Up until a few years ago she was a successful barrister with 20 years’ experience – she drops the odd Latin legalese term into her general parlance – but quit her job to open Mowgli in Liverpool in 2014 to follow her dream of bringing home-cooked Indian food to the masses.
Now, with five restaurants in her group and a number of others in the pipeline and with funding from Foresight Group, what started as a bit of a punt has blossomed into one of the most exciting new restaurant brands in the UK.
Mowgli’s early success was as much down to circumstance as skill, but its growth ever since has been driven by Katona’s belief in her concept, not to mention her ambition. Her intention was to launch Mowgli in Liverpool One, the city’s premium retail and restaurant complex, a decision she describes as being “born out of fear”. “It had to work and the only way I thought it had a chance was there,” she says in the straight-talking manner of someone who has spent time at the bar. “It was through naivety and fear. I couldn’t afford to lose my house.”
Branching out: Mowgli now operates five sites
But with the prohibitive rents of the development beyond her reach, Katona had to look further afield to some of Liverpool’s cheaper neighbourhoods. She eventually settled on a former Chinese restaurant on Bold Street – an up-and-coming area for independent restaurants although unbeknown to her at the time, as she describes it as being “in the arse end of nowhere”. “Bold Street was a hinterland. It was District 13. But it was affordable and it had a two-year break clause on the lease so it had security. Reluctantly I took it.”
On Bold Street Mowgli became an instant success. Next door to stripped-back, small plates restaurant Maray, which had also just opened and was proving a hit, the non-reservations restaurant soon had long queues of people waiting for a table at peak times. Its success then as now is down to its accessible price point and the buzzy vibe generated at the restaurant, she says, but also due to the inclusivenesses of the menu, which effortlessly caters to vegetarians as well as meat eaters.
“We are not a curry house, we have different nomenclature and menu semantics. It’s very informal and quick. You can be in and out in 30 minutes if you want and you don’t have to spend a fortune. The majority of items on the menu are vegetarian or vegan, we don’t use cream and almost all dishes are gluten free. It’s not contrived, it’s just the way Indians eat and it’s why we are busy.”
Average spend is around £14 for lunch and £23-£25 for dinner depending on location, with Katona saying the pricing structure has been designed so that people can use Mowgli on a regular basis rather than as a treat. “It’s got to be cheap. I want people to use Mowgli as Indians use the street stalls of India. I want them to be addicted to the dishes. It’s not about sugar, fat and salt, but fenugreek, turmeric and mustard. I need people to physically need us two or three times a week
“What is the ascent and descent of the brand? If KFC closed tomorrow I’d be heartbroken because I need their hot wings. I want people to think the same about my food. Surely that has to be at the centre of our approach.”
Food for all occasions
Mowgli’s menu is relatively straightforward, but a lot of dishes are crammed onto it. Split into ‘street chat’, ‘street meats’, ‘the Hindu kitchen’, ‘the house kitchen’ and ‘carbs’ sections, early menu dishes include gunpowder chicken made with ginger, garlic and garam masala and fried in a chickpea batter; spice omelette wrap; and sticky wings coated in gram flour, Manchurian spiced molasses, dark rum, cumin and garam masala. Options from the kitchen section include tea-steeped chickpeas; picnic potato curry; house chicken curry and a Goan fish curry.
An expansive offer: Katona is planning to reduce the amount of dishes as the business scales
Other menu items, including the Mowgli chip butty – a roti wrap filled with ‘fenugreek kissed turmeric fries’, chilli pickle, red onion and relish – and the curry in a bread loaf bunny chow, described as a South African Indian railway worker’s favourite, provide the opportunity for a quick one-plate eat. There’s also Mowgli’s tiffin boxes for one which, for £14 or £16, offer ‘food roulette’ with four tiers of meat, veg and carbs chosen by the chef as it is in India.
It’s an expansive offer, and one that Katona admits requires tweaking as the business expands. She says she is looking at those dishes in particular that take a long time to prepare to see whether efficiencies on the menu can be made. “I’m looking at where I can shave it.”
Mowgli’s expansion has thrown up a few challenges with the operation and the menu, but it has also shown the brand can work in different locations, both in the same city and across the country. Mowgli now operates two restaurants in Liverpool, the other located on Water Street near the Corn Exchange building. Although the larger site is just a 15-minute walk away from the original, it hasn’t cannibalised trade, proof, she believes, not only of Mowgli’s popularity but also of Liverpool’s growing food culture.
Manchester was Katona’s second venture, an ambitious 170-cover restaurant in the Corn Exchange, and the brand now operates in Nottingham, Birmingham and Oxford, often located in retail developments, which haven’t been without their challenges.
The opening of Birmingham, in particular, was tough, with Mowgli facing consistency issues as a result of there not being an opening team in place – something Katona is keen never to repeat. “You need an opening team and to have people in loco parentis. We opened, we were busy but we didn’t cope well. Chefs take shortcuts when they can. You need an opening chef to sit by them and train them. We’ve learnt a lot from that.”
Future locations on the cards include on New Station Street at Trinity Leeds and Cardiff, with Leicester and Reading also being mooted. But it is Katona’s second play in Manchester that she describes as the biggest risk so far. The site will open on Oxford Road, close to the universities, later this year and will be designed to cater for solo diners as well as students.
“A Five Guys is coming there and there’s a university complex where there is no real food offer. It’s our biggest punt but it’s our forte – student-friendly, cheap and quick.” It is here that the dismissed canteen strapline comes back into play. Katona says the restaurant will very much resemble a canteen in usage, with people able to come for a quick bite to eat on their own and plug in their laptop and work if necessary. “I’d rather eat on my own and that’s the canteen feel we’re going to create there.”
Building the business
Mowgli’s sweet spot for sites is 80-100 covers and Katona isn’t shy about her ambitions to grow the business. Expansion has been aided by a £3.45m cash injection from private equity company Foresight Group. The decision to take on investment, and at such an early stage in Mowgli’s life, wasn’t taken lightly but it was something Katona felt she had to do.
“I’m 45 years old. I have dependants. As a family we have never been more at risk. If Mowgli failed we would have lost the roof over our heads. I took the investment for security for me. I’m not reckless. I have no restaurant background and I wanted someone at the board table who could become a mentor.”
That person is Karen Jones, founder of Café Rouge and chair of a number of groups including Graphite Capital-backed Hawksmoor, who Katona describes as a straight-talking mentor and a huge benefit to the business, despite her initial misgivings. “Karen is incredible. I was dreading having someone on the board more than anything else; I was a barrister and self-employed. I was used to being my own boss. But she is very valuable. I know what my limitations are. I leave every board meeting feeling euphoric.”
Rather than encourage Katona to take the plunge and make a move in the capital, something she admits she was seriously considering, Jones advised her to stay well clear for the time being. Hearing that, she says, was liberating. “You feel like you’re out of it when you’re not in London, you want to be where your mates are, but I’ve come to a place of peace. Karen said to me ‘Listen love, there’s a lot of loose teeth to come out in London, so just wait’. To have my chair release me from the idea of coming to London was liberating.”
The capital hasn’t been ruled out completely, but just not in the short term. Katona says that Mowgli was created so that it would work in Liverpool or Shoreditch, but that doesn’t mean she has to prove that quite yet. “It would be financial folly to come to London at the moment, but I wouldn’t have gone past two restaurants if I didn’t think Mowlgi couldn’t work anywhere. But I’m not going to take a site at a ludicrous rate that the rest of the estate would need to prop up. And why the need to open in Shoreditch, anyway? Why not open in Preston? I need to honour my roots.”
Katona might revisit plans for London in two or three years “if prices become more realistic” but insists her primary focus is on product not location. She describes herself as “product obsessed” and the company employs five ‘supertasters’ (“they are like quasi siblings”) to ensure standards remain high.
“The only thing that really worries me, and which is the central tenet of Mowgli, is consistency. People come to us for our food, it’s not about how we look, that is just an ancillary benefit. It is down to the product and when you cock up your sales will fall away. We are only as good as our last curry.”