The Dishoom story: How co-founder Shamil Thakrar built the much-loved group through culture and authenticity  

The moment you walk into a Dishoom restaurant, you know you’re entering a brand experience crafted with love, care and the utmost authenticity. The business, which launched in 2010 and now has five sites in London and one in Edinburgh, has developed a huge cult following for both the quality of its food and the immersive brilliance of its restaurants, which pay homage to the old Irani cafes of Bombay.

Indeed on any given night at a Dishoom café, you are likely to see people queuing out the door for the chance to sample the delicious, ingeniously creative cuisine. Since opening its first restaurant in Covent Garden eight years ago, the business has expanded to other coveted locations such as King’s Cross and most recently Kensington. Reflecting its phenomenal popularity, Dishoom won the Yelp! award for Best Restaurant in the UK two years running and was last year ranked #36 in the Sunday Times ‘100 Best Companies to Work For’ list. It currently employs over 700 people.

At the heart of this extraordinary story is co-founder Shamil Thakrar, who runs the business with his cousin Kavi. Together they have pioneered a new approach to brand building by putting culture and authenticity centre-stage. It was a delight for The MBS Group to host a breakfast discussion at Dishoom’s Soho restaurant earlier this week during which Shamil took us through the Dishoom story – including how the business is driving growth through steadfast commitment to its unique brand values.

Shamil began his presentation by outlining his own background, and how he and his co-founders arrived at the idea for Dishoom. Having studied for an MBA at Harvard Business School and then worked as a strategy consultant at Bain & Co, Shamil got his first entrepreneurial experience by working as a director of his family-owned rice business Tilda, and also by starting a rice farming company in Africa.

By 2008, reflecting on his Indian heritage, Shamil had noticed that representations of Indian culture in British life had become tired and clichéd. He began to think about the opportunities for a new business that could change perceptions.

“To a great extent India and Britain have a fantastic relationship, but it’s quite an old relationship, and old relationships can become quite complacent,” he said.

“When British people think of India they might think of things like the days of the Raj, palaces, Bollywood, curry houses or cricket. I had the sense that a lot more could be said about India, both food-wise and culture-wise.”

Shamil and his fellow co-founders hit upon the idea of paying homage to the Irani café from 20th century Bombay, a little-known aspect of Indian culture synonymous with diversity, cosmopolitanism and cultural fusion. It was fascinating to see Shamil speak with such passion and knowledge about Indian history and the role that these cafés had played in bringing together people of different races and religions at a time of great conflict and post-colonial strife.

“I had the sense that a lot more could be said about India, both food-wise and culture-wise” – Shamil Thakrar, co-founder, Dishoom

With Dishoom, the founders aimed to reflect these inclusive values while also replicating the cafés’ early and mid 20th century Bombay aesthetic, with its family portraits, marble tables, chequerboard-tiled flooring and whirring ceiling fans. That’s not to mention, of course, redefining how people think about and experience Indian food, with Dishoom having a strong focus on the food of Bombay.

Yet Shamil admits that it wasn’t all plain sailing. Upon opening the first site in Covent Garden, the new Dishoom concept generated a healthy degree of buzz and regular trade, but it wasn’t growing as quickly as Shamil had hoped.

He reflects that at that point he remained too committed to the hard-headed business principles that had been drilled into him from his consultancy days – in particular a preoccupation with profits and costs. These concerns were preventing him from focusing on the overall quality of the experience, and from building the kind of brand culture he wanted.

“When we first started at Covent Garden we focused a lot on costs – whether that was trying to negotiate down prices with suppliers or sending home staff if we thought they weren’t needed at a particular time,” he said.

“The problem was that revenues were staying where they were. We realised it was much more important to build the quality of the experience so we refocused the business around awesome food, awesome service and having a happy team. The best way to lower costs is to get your revenues up but I think people forget that.”

With this realisation in mind, Shamil came up with three core pillars that would guide Dishoom’s strategy going forward: creativity, complexity and culture. Turning to the issue of creativity first of all, Shamil wowed us by explaining how he (with the team) writes an in-depth story each time Dishoom opens a new restaurant, imagining who may have launched the equivalent café in the era of 1960s Bombay, and who its patrons may have been.

“We realised it was much more important to build the quality of the experience so we refocused the business” – Shamil Thakrar, co-founder, Dishoom

This commitment to brand storytelling shines through in every detail of the restaurant, from the decor on the walls (including carefully chosen graffiti slogans) to the copy on Dishoom’s menu. Shamil also explained how one of the company’s marketing managers is being mentored by a novelist (rather than going to writing courses for marketers) to encourage her to unleash her creative instincts in the brand’s communications.

“There’s a lot of received wisdom out there that says that brands should be experiential and tell stories,” he noted. “That’s great – but you should only do it if you genuinely care about that story and believe in it.”

When it comes to complexity, meanwhile, Shamil explained that he had again disavowed “the consultants’ way of thinking” which promotes the simplification and streamlining of operations as a way of reducing costs. Having realised that Dishoom’s previous efforts at cutting costs had compromised on the quality of the food or the experience, Shamil said they now “embraced complexity” as a core part of the Dishoom business model.

From the unique, detailed layout of each Dishoom site to the bustling atmosphere and large queues for tables that form in each restaurant bar, Dishoom’s complexity is what lends the brand its vibrancy. “We’ve given up trying to take costs out of the business by simplifying the offer,” confirmed Shamil.

Finally, on culture, he outlined how the business encourages its staff to approach their working lives with “a big heart”. It does this in a number of ways, from regular refreshers and training in the brand’s values, to its focus on social responsibility and charity initiatives. This includes a partnership with Magic Breakfast, an organisation that provides healthy school breakfasts to hungry and malnourished children in disadvantaged areas of the UK, and with Akshaya Patra, which provides lunch to school children in India.

To encourage diversity and inclusion, the business also hosts celebrations for all major religious festivals. Additionally, Dishoom hosts an annual festival event for all its employees, suppliers and their families to ensure they feel at home in the business. Even its most junior workers earn well above the London living wage and the business creates clear opportunities for those who want to develop their careers and rise to management level within the company.

“You should only tell brand stories if you genuinely care about that story and believe in it” – Shamil Thakrar, co-founder, Dishoom

Put together, it’s not hard to see why Dishoom made the Sunday Times best employers ranking last year. “We don’t have a chance of making the customer feel happy if the team isn’t happy,” argued Shamil.

It was a great way to round off a hugely thought-provoking presentation – and a launchpad for some very interesting questions from our assembled group of esteemed executives and company founders. “What is your long-term goal for Dishoom?” came one query.

Refreshingly, Shamil was reluctant to put a figure on how many restaurants he believes the brand can grow to. Indeed he noted that some of the restaurant industry’s present troubles have come from over-aggressive expansion fueled by plentiful capital. For Dishoom, building strong brand experiences patiently and carefully remains paramount.

There was certainly agreement in the room that values, purpose and people should be core tenets of any modern growing business. Shamil’s story proves that in illuminating fashion. After a fascinating presentation and discussion, we all had plenty to reflect on as we finished our delicious breakfasts and supped down our cups of Dishoom’s specially brewed chai. | @TheMBSGroup | The MBS Group