The Caterer

Inside track: Shamil Thakrar on why a bad review turned Dishoom's business theory on its head

04 September 2019 by

It took a disastrous review for Dishoom for Shamil Thakrar to realise he needed to turn his business theory on its head

When we first opened Dishoom back in 2010, my fellow co-founders and I were pretty much new to restaurants. We were certainly bright-eyed and enthusiastic and had business backgrounds, but otherwise we were fairly unencumbered by relevant knowledge or experience.

By the time we launched, we felt we knew what to focus on. Cash was clearly important – can't run out of that. Then, we were sure that a successful restaurant would be one with a good P&L focus. Revenue minus cost equals profit, obviously. Open the doors of a nice place with good food, negotiate with suppliers, manage costs very carefully and profit will come. Lovely.

Then came the graft and chaos of a start-up restaurant, which many of you know well. Costs too high, service ropey, not enough guests, the GM has just left, and so on. We had a nice desired P&L in our heads to guide us, naturally.

Since costs were too high and revenues too low, we tightened rotas, renegotiated the price of lamb chops and asked servers to sell second drinks, all while trying to fix the operational issues. Sensible, surely.

One fine summer's day in 2011, the best thing ever happened. In our pop-up on the South Bank in London, our tandoor broke. The place was teeming with hungry customers wanting to pay for food.

What to do? Someone decided to put our minced lamb in burger buns and sell these (instead of the right dish, which we couldn't make without the tandoor). It certainly got cash in the till that day.

The next day, I saw a blogger's review. It had a very large leading photo of said bun and mince with an enormous caption: "Frankie went to Bollywood and SHAT IN A BUN!".

Being honest, the review was even sort of witty. But wow. What a body blow. It really hurt, like a wound. I never, ever wanted to feel that feeling again. That review was definitely one of the reasons we started rethinking things. It took us time to figure it out, but actually, having the focus on the P&L was just wrong. Sure, you need to control costs carefully.

But your mind and your energy need to be completely on the quality of your guests' experience.

And for this to be great, your team needs to be happy.

It's actually simple. Awesome food and drink, awesome service and a happy team. Control costs and the revenue and profit are the applause that follow a good job. That's it. It's so simple it sounds trite. But once we switched our focus, changed the things we measured and talked about and obsessed over, it changed everything.

As we did different things on a day-to-day basis, our stagnating revenues actually step changed up. And clearly, the best way to a good cost structure and a healthy bottom line is higher revenues. Of course, restaurants are complicated and hard, but I have to say that this specific mental shift was critically important for us. Honestly, beware the profit focus. It can really get in the way of your financial well-being.

Over the years, this method of thinking has become deeply embedded in our business. More recently, though, we've been thinking that, in the end, perhaps it is just all about people. Much of our focus is on creating an environment that enables our team to be happy and on doing everything we possibly can to help our team to do well – which, in turn, makes our guests happy.

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