GF: What led you to launch Curry Up Now and how did it evolve from a food truck to a brick-and-mortar retail store?
AK: It was launched as an experiment as something fun after we rented a truck for one of my kid’s birthdays. We invited a couple of hundred people and we served some food that we still serve today. We then bought a truck, it went from once a week, to twice a week and then we realized, ‘we’re onto something here’. One truck led to five, and in 2010, we started looking into restaurants and that’s how it started to get some legs.
GF: Did the business change during the pandemic?
AK: If you think about where we came from, our soul, our roots were based on to-go food. We had the most amazing technology, fortunately, and we had launched it about a year before [the pandemic]. So when March of 2020 happened, there was really nothing we needed to do, apart from getting some sealing tape and things like that. And that’s why we’ve been able to fight through this scenario and this situation.
The only change we made is that we launched some family meals that were trending in the very beginning of the pandemic – we made sure we stayed with the times.
GF: What are the biggest challenges facing the industry, specifically Indian food, right now?
AK: There are so many. A lot of our locations are built around businesses and huge tech parks. But they’re not back at work fully – maybe 15 or 20 per cent, twice a week, so we’ve lost that business. It’s come back a teeny bit, but the stores that are around the neighborhoods where people are going to get lunch while they work from home, those have done better.
The other challenge I’ve felt is happening now is that fast casual restaurants have to adapt to the advent of the park. The pandemic has led to a 30-seater restaurant now becoming a 100-seater because they’ve bought street presence. That’s been a little bit of an adjustment because some of our stores are small little places where you just come to take food to go and now people want an experience and to sit out. They want to be served because they hadn’t been able to get that over the last few years. But I think things are changing. I don’t know if we’ve struggled with it or been given an opportunity to rethink things.
GF: What is your go-to piece of advice for successful leadership?
AK: It’s all about your number two person, your number three person, but more than that, your restaurants are run by your operators, your managers, your kitchen managers. Sometimes I don’t set foot in some of my restaurants for six months. All I do is take care of the people who take care of my guests. I heard that in restaurants, more fast than fine, 50 per cent of staff have been in the job for less than six months. And you can tell. But some of our management teams have been around 12 years and I think treat them as though they’re the owner, sharing profits with them and letting them make decisions, whether they fail or not, which more often than not they don’t. You just have to say, ‘this is on you, this is yours, this is your shop’.
And the other thing is once you bring the right person in, do your darnedest to not let them go. That’s not just on management, it’s the front and back of house.
The other thing I’ve learned is to be approachable to your team. I didn’t go to business school, but I’ve been a leader since I was 19 so there has been a lot of ‘hard knocks training’ I’ve been through. Being very human has worked for me.
GF: What will Curry Up Now look like in five years?
AK: We will be 18 years old, a full-blown teenager. We’re now in five or six states and by the end of the year, we’ll be in about eight. I always say we’re the biggest and baddest Indian food brand in America but we want to be global. More importantly, we don’t want to feel like a chain. Hopefully, we will be the go-to Indian fine casual brand in a few countries, while we take care of our community and our people and make the world a better place, one bite at a time.