Former barrister Nisha Katona juggles running a fast-growing restaurant business with book writing and regular TV appearances. Following Mowgli’s gong for best emerging concept at the Retailers’ Retailer awards, Finn Scott-Delany catches up with the workaholic restaurateur and passionate foodie
It has been a transformational 12 months for Nisha Katona’s Mowgli Street Food, even by the standards of the fast-moving restaurant industry.
The concept, which is based on recipes from her Bengali Brahmin family background, has added two new sites to grow to five, and lined up four more – a second in Manchester, as well as others in Nottingham, Cardiff and Leeds.
It is part of a plan to add four or five sites a year, with the backing of Foresight Private Equity, which invested £3.5m in Mowgli in July last year.
Alongside this growth, Katona has be-come a regular fixture on TV and radio, as a panellist on Radio 4’s The Kitchen Cabinet with Jay Rayner, a judge on Top of the Shop with Tom Kerridge, as well as her own Indian cookery show, which is in production. Yet amid all this momentum, one highlight of the last year, which vividly animates Katona two months after the fact, is her recognition as best emerging concept
“I did not think I was going to get that”, she says over lunch at her second Liverpool site in Water Street. “Who are we? I’ve been doing this for three years. I’m an upstart with a lot to say, and a lot to hate actually! For your peers to give that award was the most touching thing. I was really moved.”
A gap in the market
So what is it about Mowgli that has caught the imagination of consumers and her peers? For Katona, who reflects with the colourful flourish of a writer, it is a mixture of hard work, passion, luck and naivety.
“It’s not that I’m more worthy or hardworking – I’m sure everyone is as passionate as me. It’s simply that there was gap in the market, and I happened to have a product I was passionate about, which was quite fortuitous really.
“That gap will soon be filled by a million other Indian street-food operators, and then they’ll be another gap in the market somewhere else, and it will move on.
“But at the moment it’s fresh. I’m new to business and have built it my own way. It’s not templated, it’s a visceral thing.
“The language I use is not business language. I came late in life from another career. For me it’s about the food, training chefs, the recipes. I probably have quite a naive approach, quite endearing perhaps.
“It’s a sweet tale, like watching a toddler learning to walk.”
Having built the restaurant business from the ground up, Katona gives Mowgli living, feminine characteristics when describing the brand.
While the design varies according to the location, she is influenced by the faded grandeur of the colonial buildings of India – think tree branches, temples and monkeys – as well as her grandmother’s ancestral home, Varanasi, though she is wary of avoiding ‘ethnic’ stereotypes.
In the kitchen, Katona is looking for “curry virgins” she can train to execute her family recipes precisely and consistently – not chefs who will want to tinker with the spicing.
Having the food “specced to death” means the concept is more scalable – and also means Mowgli is not reliant on south Asian cooks in the way that a traditional curry house is.
Meanwhile Mowgli’s base in the north of England means it employs far more British staff than a London restaurant – around 85% – leaving it less exposed to the pervasive impact of Brexit.
“If I was dependent on a particular sector of humans to make this work, I would have stayed a barrister,” she says.
The business jeopardy
While Katona’s name is not above the door at Mowgli, her personality and brand are hard to separate, something she admits could be a positive and a negative as her profile grows.
“Therein lies the jeopardy. If people don’t like you they will punish the business.
“But I don’t know how else to build a business. My rudder is, ‘does this feel right? What does this say about me?’
“I wouldn’t know how to build a business which wasn’t based on my experience and personality.
“If I had to look outside myself that would be too exhausting.”
A child protection barrister for 20 years, Katona says the career experience has given her a keen understanding of how to deal with people.
“You’re meeting people at the lowest point in their life, counselling them, teaching them. You have to forensically work out if people are telling the truth.
“That’s an incredibly useful skill when recruiting. If I have high staff turnover I don’t have a business model.
“In hospitality the most important asset is your staff. You can make the best meal in the world, but unless it is animated by a face, it would be dry and cardboard-like.”
As well the human touch, there are legal skills which come in handy, with Katona able to negotiate her property deals (“Negotiations are when I come alive”).
Coming to the hospitality sector later in life also gives Katona real life consumer experiences.
“As a barrister you dine all the time. You eat together. You come with maturity. Everything is in perspective. You don’t sweat the small stuff. You know which battles to fight. That comes with being older. There’s no ego. There’s none of that young hubris.
“It means life is that much easier, there is no pride. There are arguments you lose, people say bad things about you. But you can be more hardy and robust about it.”
Just because she comes with a fresh perceptive, she is under no illusions that her way is the best way – it is just the only way she knows.
No formula to follow
“I look at the way people do things, people who’ve been doing it longer and better than me, and I don’t understand it. I don’t follow a formula; I’m a maverick. I don’t know any other way to be.
“If I’m going to jeopardise my career and future, I won’t do it for someone else’s ideas. If I’m going to die by the sword, it’s going to be by my sword.”
It was this sense of inexperience which was a motivating factor for her to seek investment, with Foresight’s backing seeing Café Rouge founder Karen Jones join the board, someone she sees as a maternal figure who provides a moderating influence to her creative whims.
“I wanted to share the table with a mentor. It’s lonely doing things my own way. There’s not many people you can go to for advice.
“What I love is our psyches our quite aligned. I have complete respect for her. When I go to her for advice, I come with complete humility. I trust her judgement.
“I also like that I can push back and we can come to an agreed decision. I thought it was going to be monstrous as I’d never had a boss in my life.
“When you take on investment, suddenly there’s accountability. It’s important to be tested in that way. You learn maturity of having to be transparent and take criticism. It gives the business oxygen.
“Having a board and chair, brings a different perspective. Steel sharpens steel.”
One decision Katona has wrestled with, and that Jones gave cautionary advice on, was opening in London.
While Katona was eager to set up shop in the capital, Jones was able to make her see that it may not make the most sense business wise.
“It took the weight off my shoulders. She saved me from something that could have been an albatross around my neck.
“The majority of my peers are in London – my heroes, the people I’m closest to. You feel a bit out of the cool club. It’s insecurity.
“I’ve got to be stronger than that – it’s not about emotion, it’s about business.”
The need to slow down
With several broadcasting projects on the go, Katona knows she will have to slow down at some point, though she is confident she has created a brand that can go on without her at the helm.
“I will always be the voice of the business. Even if I took a minority position, the dishes would march on with my name attached to them.
“I’ve set the standard, I’ve built the model. Everything is catalogued. Every brick is locked down. It can continue to be con-sistent. It will have my hand on it forever.
“There will be a point when I can’t continue to work at this rate. I work from 8am until 2am at night, seven days a week. All I do is work. There will come a point when I need someone to take over part of the business.”