They chucked up cosy IT jobs at Tata Consultancy Services and Wipro because they kind of missed homely food in Bangalore. And they are now ready to go global with their eatery chain, which has 60 branches spread across four Indian cities.
Eight years ago, Pallavi Gupta, 37, and her husband Gaurav Jain, 40, both engineers with MBAs from the Institute of Management Technology, Ghaziabad, set up the first unit of Mast Kalandar not far from their then home at Bangalore’s Bannerghatta Road.
“We then knew the business only as consumers. How to get organised was something we did not know,” recalls Gupta.
The laminated-top tables and hard-back chairs remind you of a college canteen.
Customers place orders at the counter, but are served at the table. The meals are freshly cooked. The name Mast Kalandar — loosely translated as “merry acrobat” — symbolises the casual, happy, homely ambience that the eatery aims for.
“A girl can come alone and eat here. The ambience is relaxed but contemporary — not ethnic,” says Gupta. “This is for someone who uses an iMac or an iPhone but eats dal-chawal.”
Mast Kalandar, which has 800 employees, has 49 branches in Bangalore and the rest in Chennai, Pune and Hyderabad. Springleaf Retail Pvt Ltd, which runs the chain, has raised more than $11 million (Rs 68 crore) in venture funding from Footprint Ventures and Helion Venture Partners and is looking for a fresh round next quarter.
“Now we plan to go to the north, and Bombay will be next year,” Jain says. “We’ve also been thinking global and travelling to Singapore, London, Sydney and Dubai. Indians there don’t like the Indian food available. The price points are not right.”
He expects the first overseas branch in less than two years and 350 to 400 outlets in around four years.
Things have come a long way.
The founder couple recall early days, when hordes of north Indians like themselves made the southern city their new home – only to notice that apart from rich-food restaurants, there were only the austere Udupi-style “darshinis” that served southern fare like idlis and rice.
At Wipro, where Jain worked, employees would get pizzas on the house. “After 150 pizzas, I asked myself: why can’t we get parathas?” he says. That gave rise to the chain.
They took the plunge after some market research, but the key piece was missing. The big chefs were doing too much “glossy stuff” and thanks to friends, the couple got hold of qualified chef Samta Gupta, who had run a homely eatery in Delhi. Then began a hunt for recipes, ideas and tips from “aunties, uncles and daadis (grandmas)” — with an emphasis on handcrafted and fresh food.
Mast Kalandar has now aggregated various northern Indian cooking genres and targets customers looking for healthy food. It has been profitable from the second month.
Tens of thousands of people from the north hunting for mom-style kitchens are a regular draw — and typically can make 30 to 40 visits every month. And those with monthly salaries in the Rs 30,000-40,000 range are the target customers —spending an average of Rs 2,000 a month on the chain. However, with word spreading out, 40 to 45% of customers are locals trying out authentic northern stuff, say the couple.
The restaurants are completely owned by the company, unlike many eatery chains that grow with the help of franchises. The staff enjoys various benefits including company accommodation and interest-free loans.