Some food for thought.
A career change is never an easy feat. Founder and Group CEO of Modus, Gaurav Kejriwal treads upon this path with courage and conviction, as he successfully reinvents himself as an entrepreneur in the food industry.
By Gurleen Khanijoun Chawla
Eying a late-career change? Worry not, as you’ve got company.
Gaurav Kejriwal spent 12 years working a corporate IT job, where his core expertise was in networking and communications. During this decade, he worked alongside clients from prominent businesses such as ICICI Bangkok, PricewaterhouseCoopers and TATA Steel. As an Indian expat living in Thailand, he thoroughly missed authentic Indian vegetarian cuisine, craving familiar street flavours and mithai. Encouraged by his family, Gaurav had a career epiphany and decided to change paths. So without any prior knowledge of the food industry, or a clear vision of what the endpoint would be, Gaurav took on fulfilling and passion-igniting opportunities.
Gaurav is not your average restaurateur, nor is he simply an IT head. The hardworking entrepreneur is now the owner of two Saras outlets, and has launched his own company Modus that has several brands under the group’s umbrella, namely, Mithai offering Indian desserts, Paak providing outdoor catering services and ChefZone selling commercial kitchen equipment.
It has been seven years since he has forayed into this field and Gaurav doesn’t regret any prior career choices. After all, it was his former jobs that gave him the necessary skills to pursue a prolific profession as an entrepreneur. As he humbly says, “IT was and will always remain my first love.” With his sheer determination and perseverance, it seems there isn’t any role Gaurav can’t master.
Why did you decide to venture into a different field so late in your career?
I wanted to feel prepared before starting something I knew I would dedicate all my time and effort to. I wanted to take the best opportunity and do it at the right time. Hailing from a traditional business family, I always knew I wanted to pursue entrepreneurship. I did explore the option of venturing into the IT domain, but the idea did not materialise. My desire for food developed more when I moved to Thailand, as the choice of authentic vegetarian Indian options was limited. I used to crave Indian street food and sweets, and my family suggested that I bring those flavours here.
You launched Saras in 2010 on Sukhumvit Soi 20. How did you come up with the concept?
I wanted to offer a variety of street food with fair pricing that caters to all age groups. It was convenient to bring something like Saras under one roof, where you have a variety of regional Indian cuisines that span various communities. We have rare specialties like Daal bati churma from Rajasthan, Dosa from the South of India and Chaat chowpatty which is a popular street food. This food concept was also not yet common in Thailand, so I thought it would be new and interesting to introduce it.
So how does Saras stand apart from its many competitors such as Dosa King and Sri Ganesha?
We believe in healthy competition and we would like to complement rather than compete with each other. It is better to create an industry where we have enough space for each one of us to share and grow. I have personally been to Dosa King and liked their food, and Sri Ganesha is still one of my favourite places where I have many fond memories. This was all before the launch of Saras. Competition helps us set our benchmarks high and face our challenges head on in our journey of self-improvement.
What is your favourite dish at Saras?
Figuratively, I play the role of a father to six children, who are my chefs, and each of them have their own skills. So rather than selecting just one dish, I have chosen the best from each of them:
- Rajasthani: Satte ki roti with besan gatte
- Gujarati: Puri with undhiyo and masala khichdi (launching soon)
- South Indian: Podi dosa
- Indian Chinese: Corn kernel
- Chaat Chowpaty: Raj kachori and Vada pao
- North Indian: Daal tadka with phulka roti
As for the drinks, I love the Cold coffee with vanilla ice cream and my favourite dessert is the Ras madhuri and Amrit ras.
Do you eat there often?
One can easily tell by looking at my weight before and after the launch of Saras that I do eat there every day. I randomly sample the food at least two to three days a week, and I also have my business lunch and dinner meetings there. Let me reveal a secret — I anonymously order takeaway from Saras to different addresses to monitor the interaction and coordination of the team. It also lets me fairly evaluate the packaging and food quality.
As an Indian expat settling in Bangkok and launching his own business, were there any major hurdles you had to overcome?
As I have been living in Thailand since 2002, I was already accustomed to the Thai culture. By 2009, when I decided to venture into entrepreneurship, I knew that this country is my future home. Language was undoubtedly one of the barriers for me, but it is much less an obstacle now. Early on, I had to always depend on someone to translate my words, and while dealing with official Thai documents, I had to make sure what I was signing was correct. It wasn’t an easy beginning for me to start the business, as we did not get any funding from banking institutions. It took a long time for us to convince them that our concept is sustainable and scalable.
Did your limited experience in the industry lead to any other major challenges?
Arranging sufficient funds to initiate and sustain the restaurant, selecting chefs who specialised in many core cuisines, training staff to understand our concept, procuring a large list of raw materials from all over India and Thailand and being updated on our products and services were just a few of the other challenges. The revenue was also not what I expected, and in order to survive,
I had to venture into diversification.
So did the popular mithai corner come later?
Back in 2009, whenever I craved for Indian sweets, I would have to take the extra effort to travel to Phahurat which required a lot of time. So during the planning of Saras, one selfish idea was to serve Indian desserts. We also wanted to offer exclusive sweets, such as Bengali sweets, Ghewar and Sandesh, which are not available in Bangkok.
With Diwali coming up, is there anything special on the cards?
Most of our mithais are created during the weekdays, as on other days, the consumption is much less and the sweets cannot last for more than two to three days. Since Diwali is one of the major festivals, every year we introduce four to six kinds of exclusive premium sweets, each with their own unique presentation and taste. Packaging also plays an important role during this time, so we focus on fancy boxes to enhance the overall offering.
Out of all the destinations, what prompted you to launch Saras in Pattaya in 2012?
Actually, Pattaya is our third outlet. Not many people know this, but we had opened a second outlet in Siam Paradise Night Bazaar in Udomsuk. Somehow, the overall night bazaar concept did not do well, which affected our operations adversely, and we had to move out. We then explored Pattaya as our next option.
Pattaya was selected because we always wanted to open a second branch not more than two hours distance by road from Bangkok so that we could understand the operational and logistics issues which we were yet to experience. Other available options were Hua Hin, Pattaya and Khao Yai, to name a few. Pattaya was the best option amongst all, due to more tourists, local residents and expat footfall.
The restaurant business is no doubt an extremely risky endeavour. How did you manage to keep your head above water?
The restaurant industry does come with several challenging issues, particularly if you are an expatriate. It’s not easy to run and make any restaurant profitable with only three days of weekend business. One needs to constantly remain creative and find ways to generate more revenue to break-even.
We went through many ups and downs, but we never wanted to quit. So we remained in the battlefield and kept exploring options to survive. I strongly believe that it’s good to have formal education in the industry you would like to pursue. But it’s more important to be passionate, be willing to take risks and to always remain positive no matter what. School only taught us to give the right answer, but life teaches us to give the best answers.
Are you planning to launch any more branches?
Of course, our journey has just begun. We are waiting to explore new locations and hopefully we will be sharing exciting and good news soon.
When did you decide to launch your own company Modus?
Modus was launched in 2009 because we quickly managed to develop a substantial network within the food industry. We brought together our IT and FMCG expertise to sell to wholesalers and retailers in the form of commercial equipments, raw ingredients and quality pre-packaged food. These are available in and around Thailand in modern trade outlets, grocery and department stores in the HoReCa (food service) industry. Our journey of diversification didn’t actually start by choice. It was more of a necessity to help sustain Saras.
What inspired you to branch up and down the food supply chain?
We did not always get a regular supply of ingredients from the same brand, and this affected our food quality and costing. We started supplying Indian raw materials to leading hotel properties and caterers, so for us it was very important to have a regular supply of consistent brands. We approached leading Indian brands, namely Amul, Gits, Dawaat, Pilsburry, Ashoka, Girnar, Suhana, Bikharam Chandmal, Cycle, Golden Tandoor and many more. Now we exclusively represent them in Thailand and the CLMV region (Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar & Vietnam).
There are three brands under the Modus umbrella. How do you manage your involvement in all of them?
I am blessed to have a young team who are all as passionate as I am. Based on each business vertical, we have unit heads who help each other contribute towards a common goal. We also evaluate the projects on hand, and develop strategies based on present situations and future demands.
What would your advice be to people who are planning to start an all new career?
To trust your instincts and be persistent with your goals! Don’t spend too much time sitting and writing your business plan — be proactive instead. Having a business plan only provides the guidelines, not the roadmap. As you execute your plans in the real world, you may not find things going in exactly the same way or order that you want.
What are your future plans for Modus?
We will continue what we have been doing so far, and strive to do whatever we take on in the future to the best of our capabilities. Our core expertise is in the hospitality and food sector, and we will continue to expand and grow with strategic partnership and regional presence. For me, success is not about how much money you can make, but rather how many lives you can improve and benefit.
Originally published in Masala Magazine August- September 2017.