30 November 2017 Issue 20 Dec/Jan

How Mowgli created a scalable restaurant model

Mowgli founder Nisha Katona devised a scalable format to build upon from day one for her chain of Indian restaurants.

Unlike many independent restaurant owners who set out to open a eatery, Nisha Katona already had a clear plan on how to take her business nationwide even before opening her first site.

‘It’s entirely scalable,’ she says of Mowgli, her Indian street-food chain, which currently has two sites in Liverpool, one each in Manchester and Birmingham, and a branch in Leeds opening early next year.

Katona took on £3.45m in investment in July 2017 to fund further expansion.

Mowgli’s angle is to offer traditional home-style Indian food, but in the kind of relaxed restaurant environment that’s proving successful for burgers, pizzas and chicken.

Katona herself is a former barrister who switched to writing about Indian food. Her first Mowgli restaurant was designed as a format that could easily be stamped out. ‘Not a lot needs to change,’ she says.

Katona reckons expanding a restaurant business boils down to several key elements:

Tiny format

Firstly, it’s important to have compact space requirements. ‘Mowgli works in a very small kitchen. I can take those sites other people don’t want.’

She adds: ‘[Accessing] the low-hanging fruit in terms of property is a huge factor.’

Location, location

Katona thinks looking at locations less in demand also gives her an edge in finding the best deals on potential sites.

She decided to focus on northern cities from the start, rather than London where, although there are lots of hungry people happy to spend on eating out, the rents are high and there’s lots of competition. It’s helped by the fact Katona hails from Ormskirk, Lancashire.

Northern exposure

Plenty of restaurant founders who try to grow from London to the north struggle, she argues, because they don’t know the cities well enough and don’t have experienced staff nearby to help out when things go wrong.

‘If you’re a London brand, the north can be a terrifying place.’ Assuming what’s worked in Marylebone will work in Manchester is dangerous, she suggests.

She advocates using a local agent if a business isn’t accustomed to what works in a particular area, and investigating regional tastes and work and leisure patterns.

Stripped down design

She’s avoided expensive fit-outs and embraced the efficiency of a one-format model at the expense of looking like a chain, and even decided not to use the traditional tandoor ovens. Katona says: ‘We build [restaurants] relatively cheaply.’ Decor is wood and stone with a standard set of furniture, lighting and bar across all the sites, making it faster and cheaper to open more.

‘Usually the legals drag,’ she adds, ‘but take them out of it and we should be a 10-12 week build.’

Curry novices

When it comes to kitchen staff, Katona has decided not to recruit chefs. ‘I take curry virgins and hand-train them, quickly,’ she says. Within two weeks they start to cook Mowgli’s simple menu under supervision.

UK footprint

The compromise might be creativity and flair in the kitchen, but Katona believes she has a bigger pool of people to recruit from and ensure the food that comes out of the kitchens is more consistent.

For 2018, Katona is looking at sites in Nottingham, Manchester, Oxford and London. She hopes her efficient flexible formula can build a format that’s recognised across the UK.

Nando’s secret sauce is Katona’s inspiration

‘What Nando’s has done is genius,’ says Katona.

Since arriving in the UK in 1992, the South African chicken chain has become a high street fixture, with over 350 branches nationwide.

Aside from its democratic appeal, reasonable pricing and tasty chicken, the operation is conducive to scaling.

The combination of counter service at Nando’s allows it to work without lots of service staff. One or two people bring dishes to customers, without the need to set tables, take orders or settle the bill.

The chicken itself is marinated and part-cooked slowly, with a final grilling to give it its charring. It’s a simple cooking and serving operation that doesn’t rely on technical skill.

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