Ex-Googler Munaf Kapadia on Bohra cuisine, Iftar platters, and preserving a food business during the pandemic

'Why I Quit Google to Sell Samosas' author Munaf Kapadia says he dedicated his book to Indian housewives because they are "great custodian(s) of cuisine and culture... Culinary tourism in India should tap into these women."

May 13, 2021 / 10:40 AM IST
Actor Hrithik Roshan with author Munaf Kapadia and staff at The Bohra Kitchen in Mumbai.

Actor Hrithik Roshan with author Munaf Kapadia and staff at The Bohra Kitchen in Mumbai.

Munaf Kapadia is chief eating officer at The Bohri Kitchen (TBK), a Mumbai-based F&B start-up that he co-founded with his mother Nafisa Kapadia in 2014. At first, it was a weekend pop-up that he ran at home alongside his job at Google India but eventually he quit that position to focus full-time on this culinary venture.

munaf kapadia book cover why I quit googleOver time, he developed it into a business that would celebrate Dawoodi Bohra cuisine through home dining experiences, catering and food delivery. TBK has been badly hit by the COVID-19 pandemic but he is not one to give up easily.

He is out with a book titled How I Quit Google to Sell Samosas, which takes readers through his exciting and tumultuous journey. Published by HarperCollins India, and co-authored with Zahabia Rajkotwala, it is a story of ambition, enterprise, risk and reinvention. Most importantly, it is about “the courage to keep moving, whether you succeed or fail”.

Excerpts from an interview:

You have dedicated your book to “the Indian housewife, who remains the most precious yet underacknowledged asset our country has.” Could you elaborate.

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The Bohri Kitchen (TBK) was born when I realized that my mother, who is a fantastic cook, was getting very little appreciation in our house. We were just enjoying her food, and asking about the menu for the next meal. Her culinary talents were being under-utilized. When we launched the home dining experience, she began to get a lot of genuine compliments from the guests who came to eat. That helped her gain some self-actualization.

The Indian housewife is a great custodian of cuisine and culture. Imagine what could happen if a thousand housewives had the opportunity to turn their knowledge and skills into profitable businesses. Culinary tourism in India should tap into these women. They know many traditional recipes unique to their communities, and they make phenomenal food.

What advice would you offer home chefs who want to become entrepreneurs?

Start without worrying about how you will compete with full-fledged F&B operations that make hundreds or thousands of deliveries every day. Focus on building relationships with every customer, get their feedback, and use it to improve your service. Begin with what you can manage; scale up only when you feel ready. Remember the fact that you are working from your own house. You do not have to pay rent for a commercial kitchen, hire employees, or shell out money for electricity and other overheads.

What does your mom think of TBK’s transition from home dining to catering and home delivery?

When I started the business, I thought I was helping my mother do something meaningful with her time rather than just cooking at home and watching television. It took me a while to realize that she did not need that help. She was happy to relax and chill after a lifetime of working hard. She joined the business only because she saw that it was making me happy and helping me grow professionally.

As TBK expanded from home dining to catering and home delivery, I wanted my mother to become the head chef. She told me that she would not enjoy it. However, she was open to letting the people I hired watch her while she cooked. They learnt from her. My mother is 58 now. She likes to be involved only with TBK’s home dining experiences. She enjoys that, and really loves it when people go back with their stomachs and their hearts full.

How have you maintained relationships with customers during the COVID-19 pandemic?

The pandemic has been hard on us. From six delivery kitchens, we are now down to one. I had to let go of 40 people. We do not serve on demand now. People have to order 24 hours in advance but our average order value has gone up from Rs 400 to Rs 3,000 per order. In terms of maintaining relationships with customers, we have not done much other than continuing with our WhatsApp broadcasts. Thankfully, they like our food and have helped us keep the business afloat by ordering throughout the pandemic.

Film-maker Sanjay Leela Bhansali, after a home experience by The Bohra Kitchen. Filmmaker Sanjay Leela Bhansali (right) during a pre-pandemic home experience by The Bohra Kitchen.

What steps have you taken towards the well-being and economic security of your employees?

My initial thought was to shut down the business because the pandemic brought in so much uncertainty that it seemed like we would never get back on our feet. I took a decision to reduce the size of the staff, and give the people who were being asked to leave an amount of money that would help them tide through the crisis. The staff we now have get tested regularly, and follow all safety protocols. We have registered them for vaccination. They have been given accommodation right next to the kitchen where they work.

Professionals working from home seem to be ordering more food online. Which product categories are you currently focusing on to maximize your earnings?

We are looking at biryani, samosas, haleem, nalli nihari, raan in red masala, raan in kaju gravy, and traditional sweet dishes that are part of Bohri cuisine. Since this is the month of Ramzan, we have also created an iftar box with a range of Bohri starters on a platter.

What kind of government support would be most helpful for TBK and other F&B start-ups at a time like this?

It would be great if they could waive off GST, make licensing easier, and expedite vaccination for kitchen staff. Restaurants need a lot more help than businesses that deliver.

What gave you the courage to write about the stress, anxiety and panic attacks you experienced in the process of scaling up from a weekend project to an F&B start-up?

When I was going through all that, I wish I had a book like this to read. That’s why I wrote it. I hope it helps people who are going through similar things. That said, writing about my struggles was also therapeutic in its own way.

How has therapy helped you? Would you recommend it to other start-up founders?

Absolutely! Therapy makes you stronger. It’s like having a personal trainer at a gym, but for the mind rather than the body. It is really important to find the right therapist for yourself. I was not happy with the first two therapists that I went to. The third one was excellent, and helped me go through a process of introspection. I learnt how to help myself.

When you look back at your journey, to what extent have you been able to use Bohra cuisine as an entry point for non-Bohras to learn about your culture?

With the home dining experiences at TBK, 99% of our guests were non-Bohras. In fact, most of them were non-Muslims. My father insisted that we needed to give a good solid representation of our community. He made me sit down and read the entire Wikipedia page on Dawoodi Bohras. He wanted to make sure that I wouldn’t say anything that was factually incorrect. Over the seven-course meal, guests would learn a lot about our culture through conversations with our family. Because of the pandemic, home dining is on pause right now.

Filmmakers Farah Khan and Ashutosh Gowariker, among other, try a Bohra food platter. Filmmakers Farah Khan and Ashutosh Gowariker, among other, try a Bohra food platter.

What were some of the details that you wanted to put in the book but could not?

I get very passionate about branding and marketing, so the first draft that I wrote was full of technical jargon. My editor helped me transform the book into a light read. And my wife, Zahabia, co-authored it with me. I am good at writing social media posts but not at long form writing. Zahabia swooped in, and saved the day. She interviewed me, and converted the transcripts into beautiful prose. She has headed marketing for TBK in the past, and continues to help us, so she also knows the business really well.

Since eating from a thaal is central to the Bohra home dining experience, have you considered collaborating with Thaal Pe Charcha, the initiative organized by Bohra women from the NGO Sahiyo to discuss issues surrounding khatna or female genital cutting?

I know of them. What they are doing is very courageous but I want TBK to be about Bohri food, and not use it as a platform for a cause. We are answerable to our investors. After the business broke even in 2017, we raised 1.3 crores. We were unable to raise a second round of funding because of the pandemic but we want to get there.
Chintan Girish Modi is a writer, educator and researcher who tweets @chintan_connect)

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