When the trough left its industry, Irani did not hesitate to merge his marketing and sales skills and his lifelong passion for food.
âI’ve decided it’s my turn to make a difference,â he said. “I will go ahead and apply everything I have thought and learned about to opening a restaurant that would be a manifestation of my vision of accessible Indian food.”
Feeding people was in his blood. Irani’s parents and grandmother ran a large private B&B in the 1970s and 1980s for Westerners who came to his hometown in India because there was a spiritual ashram there. Irani had to learn to help his mother prepare Indian food that would appeal to a Western palate and be accessible without dulling it. He also had to learn how to cook western staples. The family learned about comfort foods like spaghetti and meatballs and casseroles, but worked to make them more interesting through Indian techniques and cooking.
“Initially, my inspiration for cooking was my personal frustration with the state of Indian cuisine in the US when I first came here as a PhD student in 1990,” said Irani. “I was already informed of this idea that you can actually make Indian food accessible and appealing to a more western palate without dumbing it down or losing anything.”
The decision to start Indian street food at his first Chai Pani restaurant in Asheville, NC came from knowing that it would ask too much of him to bring all of India’s cuisines under one roof. Street food naturally draws who cooks it and who to feed it, all of these influences, Irani said.
âStreet food is the most Pan-Indian food you can put on your plate,â he said. âIt’s in the big cities and is prepared and developed by rural migrants who make food that is instantly available to millions of workers from different backgrounds. So it has to cross all possible religious and ethnic boundaries and be accessible. I knew it would be a perfect vehicle to show India to everyone. “
His business background serves his expanding empire as much as his cuisine. Irani draws on its experience to create a retail sensitivity. He not only focuses on what’s on the plate, but also on the story he tells, which tells how someone feels while eating.
“You know, great retail is about storytelling,” said Irani. âPeople don’t buy a Mercedes and say it’s because it’s more reliable than a Honda or because it has better gas mileage. You buy it because of the history of heritage, history and the feeling of being connected and part of it. All of that is branded into the brand. I knew I had to create a brand where India and the food, the culture, all of that would be essential. Our job here is to give people a feel for India. Every aspect of what you see and feel, not just what’s on your plate. “
This is one of the things that consumers will notice while eating at any of Irani’s restaurants. It is a completely immersive experience and as soon as someone walks through the door they are in that story they want to tell. There’s no distance between him and the diner, and Irani has worked to build a team that has this full buy-in, backed by personal experience.
âI rely on the staff to be the storytellers,â he said. âThat’s why we send up to 12 employees, from dishwashers to GM, on these immersion trips to India every year. I always talk about cultural competence. If you want to represent India and talk about this country and its food, you need to be culturally knowledgeable and sure about how to take the customer with you on this trip. “
Irani has always been visionary when it comes to innovation in its business, and its expansion has always come from an organic place. After achieving success with Chai Pani in multiple locations, he wanted a way to expand into India’s barbecue traditions without changing existing menus that were already working so well – that’s how Botiwalla was born. A desire to explore the traditions of pork grilling and fried chicken led to a partnership with Elliot Moss and his Buxton Hall Barbecue and Buxton Chicken Place.
His need to source high quality spices and a desire to establish direct relationships with producers began his foray into the import of spices. Other chefs he cooked with noticed the special quality of whoever he worked with and it became clear that there was room in the market for what he was procuring for his own restaurants. Spicewalla was the natural offshoot that was successful in both commercial and direct sales to consumers.
Irani’s newest company, Nani’s Rotisserie Chicken, is a concept fully emerged from the pandemic and a perfect example of how a pivot can become a real innovation.
“During the pandemic, who worked and cooked at home, my wife Molly came out of the store with a roast chicken every week,” he said. âI had a love-hate relationship because it was sitting there under a heat lamp in a plastic tub and something was wrong with it straight away. Surely someone can make a beautiful, juicy, delicious bird that doesn’t have to sit under a heat lamp all day. “
Irani realized that if someone could do it right, they would buy her chicken from him once a week instead of from the supermarket. He had rented a small room that was originally intended for a Chai Pani extension and was vacant due to the pandemic. It was a lightbulb moment.
“I have a place,” he said. “I have an idea. And most importantly, there is a need. There are hundreds of people who go to grocery stores and buy fried chicken every day because it makes sense when you are stuck at home. It’s a healthy and easy one Choice. How do we make it really tasty? “
Irani’s knack for closing naps in the market, not to mention his style being a natural, has paid off over the past year and a half. In the middle of the pandemic, after making simple but important menu changes in both Chai Pani and Botiwalla, they made the same takeaway numbers as before, without the added boosters like alcohol sales and desserts. Nani’s Rotisserie Chicken opened with food specifically designed for home consumption, allowing the new concept to thrive when other restaurants faltered and new locations are in the works.
“I think when a crisis occurs, the instinct is to simply want to orbit the wagons to protect certain assets,” Irani said. âIt’s not intuitive for us in the restaurant business, but I think it’s really important to be open to opportunities to change and grow. One thing might stop working and that might not be a bad thing because that other thing could be amazing and you never imagined you could do it because you felt so comfortable with what you always did. “
He attributes this unique vision to his entry into the restaurant business in the middle of a recession.
“The minute this pandemic broke out, I remember telling myself that things will never be the same again,” he said. âWe will live with a new reality. It doesn’t have to be a bad reality. So it was my job to envision this future reality as a good one that we will come back to stronger and smarter, and to lean towards being a part of it for my team and our customers. “