Say ‘chole kulcha’ and most foodies will immediately think of spicy chickpeas, fluffy white bread in butter, and some pickle and onions. While most popular in Delhi and other Northern states, this beloved dish is slowly becoming sought-after in Central and Southern parts of the country as well.
So much so, that a Delhi-based startup has now taken it from the streets to the mainstream restaurant segment. Koolchas, a quick-service restaurant, has become popular among kulcha lovers, all thanks to 69-year-old Sunila Bahl, a homemaker who shared her recipes and secret ingredients with her son, Gaurav.
Architect to foodpreneur
“I am an architect by profession with a business management degree. I consider myself creative and try to explore opportunities,” says 45-year-old Gaurav.
In 2016, the real estate industry started showing signs of slowing down, and this prompted him to search for lucrative alternatives. One of his friends suggested he enter the food industry. “Being a foodie, I loved the idea. But I did not want to copy any existing models in the market,” he says.
After some initial discussions with family members, he decided to sell hygienic and affordable chole kulcha.
“My mother has always been very passionate and eager to learn — at the age of 55, she took Bharatanatyam lessons! When she learned my business was in the food industry, she quickly picked up interest. She’s always been a fabulous cook and the family has followed and loved her recipes for the past 50 years. She took control of everything from the basic ingredients, perfecting the recipe to even the pricing,” Gaurav says.
He adds that the recipes were finalised after carefully selecting a blend of ingredients, and regulating the amount of spice in the food. “For example, we both may eat paneer, but the amount of spiciness or preferred taste may differ. This level of detailing was also covered by my mother,” he says.
Sunila was at the core of training the staff, developing recipes, grinding and blending the spices and maintaining the quality of ingredients. She ardently watched food channels to learn different recipes, and to perfect them. After two years of extensive research and preparation, in 2018, Koolchas started its services in Sushant Lok, Gurugram, offering 18 types of kulcha and 24 varieties of combination dishes.
Made with love
The entrepreneur says the dishes sold at the outlet follow the same recipe used at home. “We grind our spices the same way we do at home, which ensures freshness and no adulteration. Apart from enhancing the taste, there are no modifications in the food,” Gaurav says. “I decided to try and offer kulcha pizzas and sandwiches that are popular among kids. But by far, the traditional chole kulcha from the tandoor and tawa kulcha with mathra (boiled peas) remain our bestsellers. We also introduced whole wheat flour kulcha against the conventional one made with white flour to serve with the mathra, making the food healthier.”
Gaurav adds that the main challenge was that he did not have any experience in the food industry. “I had no technical knowledge, which took longer to get into the food business. However, with qualifications in business management, the sales and marketing strategy was not a hurdle,” he adds.
The outlet saw 1,000 customers on day one.
“The profits scaled from earning Rs 2 lakh a month to about Rs 7 lakh within a year. Good business allowed me to open the second outlet in sector 14 in 2019,” he says.
However, the COVID-19 pandemic posed a new challenge to the business. “We were about to open 10 outlets in various parts of Delhi when the pandemic struck. We have now changed the business operations entirely and brought safety into priority,” Gaurav tells The Better India.
The 24×7 outlet now functions from 7 am to 9 pm. There are exhaust fans to circulate fresh air inside the premise, and hygiene measures have been improved. Gaurav says a new franchise model has been modified to reduce investment capital and operating costs by half.
“From an average of about 100 customers a day, Koolchas sees about 60 orders post-pandemic, and they are growing. My mother remains the backbone of the business. She learned a lot from my grandmother, and I’m sure this helps her give a traditional and unique flavour to her recipes,” Gaurav says.
He adds that Sunila has constantly been working to improve and standardise taste across all Koolcha outlets. “Apart from keeping customers happy with quality food, constant innovation and focussing on standardising the recipes are the crux of our business,” he says.
Speaking about the successful survival of a young start-up amid a pandemic, Gaurav says, “Prioritising hygiene, being honest about the business and offering the best quality food are the main ingredients to stay afloat and sail through tough times.”
The entrepreneur adds that adapting and improving business models also helped during months. “We have also standardised the business plans and are ready to take the venture outside India,” he says.
(Edited by Divya Sethu)