Although raised in England, cousins Shamil and Kavi Thakrar have taken the theme of Iranian immigrants’ cafés in Bombay from almost a century ago to define Dishoom. Mel Flaherty reports

There are themed restaurants, there are restaurants influenced by a certain region or type of cuisine, there are restaurants where the food and décor is ‘in the style of’ somewhere else.

And then there is Dishoom.

To say cousins Shamil and Kavi Thakrar are passionate about detail within their now three-strong estate of all-day Indian street eateries, based on the cafés run by Iranian immigrants in 1920s Bombay, is like saying Stephen Hawking quite likes thinking about the beginnings of the universe.

Shamil, co-founder of the Dishoom “ideology” (that is the word they prefer, definitely not ‘concept’, and at the end of a very comprehensive tour of the King’s Cross restaurant, it is hard not to agree), happily admits to being more than a little obsessive about every aspect of the design of the venues.

The King’s Cross site, a huge warehouse converted to 6,375sq ft of restaurant and bar space, is mind-bogglingly full of examples – some of the seating has been designed to exactly mimic that found in the second-class carriages of 1920s Bombay trains, with the stitching pattern identical to that on vintage cinema seats in the city; the juice bar is a faithful replica of one in the Victoria Terminus in what is now more commonly known as Mumbai. There is a story behind, and a reason for every picture, photo, poster or slogan on the walls – Kavi and Shamil spent a lot of time exploring all sorts of buildings in Mumbai for inspiration, some of them officially off-limits, and sourced much of the furniture themselves. Handrails have been varnished in a specific shade and then laboriously finished to appear aged; tile patterns on the floor can still be found in historic buildings in Mumbai; spirits in the basement bar are served with a slab, rather than cubes, of ice, reminiscent of the ice that used to be imported by a Bombay entrepreneur from the US and stored in an ice house in the city, a picture of which is on the wall. The amount of thought that has gone into the place is quite breathtaking, slightly bonkers, and translates into a 50-page specification manual for that one restaurant.

Eureka moment

Shamil and Kavi look at each other then say “a lot” when asked how much they spend getting their restaurants up and running, but they will not compromise. Despite both having business-based backgrounds (Shamil has an MBA from Harvard and worked for Bain & Co as an international management consultant while Kavi’s early career was in banking including a stint at The World Bank in Washington DC), they do not focus on P&L and attribute this approach to their success. They are shy of talking about financial performance but are privately owned and the fact they will be opening their fourth site in the heart of Soho this autumn is a good indicator of how well they are doing. The group has also accrued an impressive array of gongs for everything from food to design since opening the first site in Covent Garden in 2010, including several from Time Out for things such as design to Best Cheap Eats to listings in the Michelin Guide and the Good Food Guide.

Shamil likens running the business to basketball and insists awards and profits are not the game, they are the result. He concedes it took a while to break out of the shackles of a long-ingrained traditional business mentality but that as soon as they did, the difference was remarkable.

“Instead of negotiating on the cost of lamb chops, we started focusing on making our teams happy. Before this, Covent Garden used to serve 2,500 to 3,000 guests [a week] but very quickly after this ‘eureka moment’, that went up to 5,000 and has been growing year on year,” Shamil explains, adding that all three restaurants now regularly serve between 5,000 and 6,000 guests a week.

City’s soul at stake

The Thakrar family are originally from Gujarat but Shamil and Kavi were brought up in England in the same house and are as close as brothers. Shamil does most of the talking, hopping around excitedly from one subject to another and back again, while Kavi, equally enthusiastic and articulate, is more measured in his responses. Both have a strong pull from their roots and the desire to recreate the sadly diminishing glory days when Bombay had several hundred of the traditional cafés run by Iranian immigrants that truly attracted people from all walks of life and different religious and ethnic backgrounds. The idea of bringing such a democratic eating venue to London was originally realised in partnership with brothers Adash and Amar Radia, who are no longer involved in the day-to-day running of the business. That underlying ethos has now come very much to the fore.

Shamil sounds like he would make a very good politician when he talks animatedly about how London is in danger of losing its soul if it does not provide spaces that are accessible for all. He loves the fact that people can come in and drink bottomless chai with snacks for a few pounds or have a full-on meal with Champagne, spending £50-plus if they want. And he is determined to always keep the lower-priced items cheap — if costs go up, any necessary menu price increases are added to the more expensive dishes so they are soaked up by those better able to afford them.

The restaurants also celebrate a wide variety of religious festivals, everything from Diwali to Christmas and the Muslim festival of Eid, which its customers have enjoyed together, irrespective of their own religion:

“For Eid, we took a picture of three people who had their hands painted with henna here – one was Hindu, one was a Muslim and one was a Christian.

“Our business is looking after people – staff and customers – we have a responsibility to make them happy and maybe to educate them,” Shamil muses.

Culture collaboration

Shamil likes Dishoom to do things that you would not normally expect in a restaurant, whether it is serving unusual spirits in corked mini bottles that the customer has to open and pour themselves, or putting on a yoga event outside the King’s Cross restaurant.

“No one told Steve Jobs to invent the iPad, he just did it” he says. “We serve the food and drink that we want people to have.” (Although he quickly adds they do listen and respond to feedback to fine-tune dishes and menus)

The menu across the sites is a far cry from the standard anglicised Indian offering, as a cursory glance at the Dishoom website will show you, and each restaurant has its own, unique, signature dish.

“There is a long relationship between Britain and India, which is comprised of clichés – days of the Raj and palaces, cricket and curry houses – but I always felt there was more to say about India.”

The story the Dishoom business weaves resonates as well with Indians (Shamil says the restaurants do attract a high number of Indian people, which he says is the “litmus test” for the authenticity and quality of the offer), but are also frequented by, he says, Time Out readers – adventurous trendy Londoners, including the ubiquitous hipsters at the Shoreditch site which opened in 2012, and a wide variety of people from local and passing trade.

When the Soho site opens later this year, the business will add 120 more employees, taking the group to 500 staff – each will meet the Thakrars, have an in-depth tour to get to understand the fabric of the business and will work for two to three weeks in another Dishoom before spending two weeks with their new team on-site.

The Thakrars agree it could become more challenging to keep the level of attention to detail as the business grows, but are confident the skills across their core senior team are sufficient to achieve this for their current ambitions.

Kavi focuses on day-to-day running of the business and on-site builds, while Shamil is responsible for strategy and the overall design and culture. They lead a team of fellow ‘babus’ (typical of the firm’s tongue-in-cheek humour, they explain that babu can be a term of respect in India but that it is more frequently used to refer to bureaucrats behind desks who don’t do much) comprising Brian Trollip as operations manager, executive chef Naved Nasir, plus Sara Stark who heads marketing and social media.

Unique requirements

Plans for the next restaurant, a 7,000sq ft unit in Kingly Street, near Carnaby Street, are being closely guarded, but going by the other restaurants, the ‘narrative’ of the design and presentation will play on the area’s colourful character and past, relating it back to the equivalent in 1920s Bombay, which could prove interesting.

Beyond Soho, expansion will not be rapid or large and will depend upon finding the right sites, not necessarily in London, as Shamil says: “There are clearly cities around with plenty of cool people and Indians and they would be suitable.”

Every restaurant has to be different to the last one, with its own tome specifying every unique fixture, fitting and decoration. The name is the same but there is not even a company-wide logo. The Thakrars say they will stop opening further Dishooms only when they have no more stories to tell.

Speaking at the recent M&C Allegra Foodservice Marketing in Foodservice conference, Karen Fewell, the founder of Digital Blonde agency, said sharing a brand story and using imagery to tell customers why a product is special increases sales.

At the same event, Alex Myers of Manifest PR said Generation Y is concerned with the relationship of a brand to the consumer.

The Thakrars seem to have this all worked out already.