Raji Sankar is opening a restaurant in Pittsburgh and came on the show to share her insights from more than a decade in the restaurant industry.
Raji co-founded Wholesome International in 2004, a multi-concept restaurant development company, which owns and operates Choolaah Indian BBQ restaurants and franchised Five Guys Burgers and Fries restaurants. She is co-CEO and is responsible for people, operations, and infrastructure.
Previously, she co-founded and sold a technology company, co-founded a media company, and held leadership positions in technology and media companies in Pittsburgh.
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Watson: So Raji, thank you so much for coming on my podcast.
Sankar: Thank you for having me.
Watson: This is pretty cool. I think this is the first time, I do plenty of interviews on site, but this is the first one I've ever done in a restaurant where it hasn't even been opened up yet. So I feel kind of like I'm ahead of the curve, or I'm getting this exclusive sneak peek on, what's going to be a banging new restaurant in Pittsburgh.
Sankar: You're absolutely right. And very few people have actually been here except for the construction folks, of course.
Watson: So I want to start off there a little bit just about, restaurants in general and the concept behind this restaurant you have, Choolaah, which is a fast casual Indian restaurant where we're located. This is gonna be the first one in Pittsburgh. And you also have some Five Guys franchises, which is one of my favorite burger joints, maybe my favorite.
Watson: So talk to me a little bit about which one of those came first and what attracted you to the restaurant business?
Sankar: So, we were in the tech world, my business partner and I, and that's where we met at a company. And we always wanted to be in an industry where we could make a difference in people's lives. And when we, you know, got done with our professional careers and we were looking to get into the entrepreneurial world, we looked at six different industries we knew something about. And we picked the one that we knew nothing about, which is the restaurant business.
It's a daily scorecard in the restaurant world. It's so exciting. And you get to work with people of all realms and very different from our white collar jobs. If you will. It also is very hard. We didn't know that, but it's a good thing. Sometimes you don't know when you get into things because it gives you a huge amounts of boldness.
And then you look back and say, 'would I have ever done that again?' So it's great to jump in when you have a little bit of ignorance.
Watson: Can you elaborate a little bit on that idea of the daily scorecard and how that compares to other realms?
Sankar: So, in most industries you'll have cycles of monthly scorecards in the form of your profit and loss statement. Or looking back at customer and vendor relations and how you performed in our world we know that shift. The morning shift or the evening shift, how well it went, did we do our best? Was everybody delighted? That's our mission is to delight every guest.
We also know how the team members felt. Are they growing? Are they training? It's this tiny window. And that happens 14 times a week. Now we can actually tell how well we did.
And so we love that dynamic aspect of the restaurant industry. It's almost like going to a football game, right. And getting your score after a few hours, very much like that in our world. So that was a lot of fun. The idea of being able to do that and then bringing HR practices, human resources practices that we had learned in other industries.
Right from the beginning, we had a dream and that people with us would make a lot of money. We want them to grow, develop, have a career in the restaurant industry. Little, did we know how long that takes right. And what it takes to set something up like that, but not knowing a whole lot, that was very exciting for us.
And we started with the idea of actually a business plan for fast casual Indian. We were very blessed to call it fast casual as the future. That was in 2003, we wrote a business plan and that's what Choolaah is today.
Watson: So you started with Choolaah first?
Sankar: No we started with the business plan, shelved it, because we had no experience in the restaurant industry. And one of the biggest blessings is we realized what we didin't know. And we ended up looking at franchises, and Five Guys was a very exciting brand for us. There were only six, seven stores at the time. And we thought, how cool would it be to bring something that is so iconic and special in the Virginia market at the time and bring it to Pittsburgh. And who doesn't love a great burger and great fries?
Watson: So you have the one that's on Pitt's campus?
Sankar: We do. Oakland is ours.
Watson: I have been a loyal patron of that Five Guys. I can tell you, I didn't even know that going into this interview. So what I'm imagining is, given your self-awareness to know that you didn't know a lot, it seems like when you are a franchisee, you really get to call upon a lot of wisdom from the kind of central entity. Now that's kind of an outside assumption. I haven't necessarily had that experience. Can you elaborate a little bit on what resources you got as a franchisee and some of the biggest lessons that you've taken away from that experience and apply to change?
Sankar: So we are huge fans as franchisees. You may not always hear that in all franchises, but of our franchisor. The reason we actually ended up with this franchise was because of the integrity in the system. We loved the passion and the craziness with which people who had created this, the family that created Five Guys had for their products, the quality of ingredients uncompromising on that.
And we love that aspect. And that's what attracted us to the business. We learned a lot. And that's something that you will find in Choolaah too, that we don't compromise on quality of ingredients. I think at the end of the day what we put in our bodies is so important. And I think people recognize that and never settle for something mediocre that you put inside your mouth or feed your body.
So that's one of the principles that we loved and they've still maintained that. And we also learned with them as they grew. They went from seven stores to today almost 1400 stores. So we have seen the growth trajectory, how the training systems evolved, how real estate selection evolved, how supply chain evolved. So there was a great deal of learning and there's a great deal of those learnings in Choolaah today.
Watson: Absolutely. We took a tour before we started this interview and the meticulousness in which the restaurant has been designed and the small notes that are specific to this location. And I'm sure, just as assuming, having spoken a little bit are replicated in the other locations speaks to not only the size of the investment that you're making here and how big of a bet you're placing, but also the just passion that you must have for this concept specifically. And that's something I kind of wanted to piece of part a little bit more when I spoke to a few people about coming here for this interview, fast, casual Indian is not a phrase that many, if any people have heard put together before. So this is kind of charting new water in many ways.
Talk to me a little bit about maybe just where the inspiration for this came from and what challenges come along with this new concept?
Sankar: So right from the beginning, we knew that we were not taking the easy route erode, even when it came to fast casual. We could have gone with the standard model that you see in many concepts in fast casual, where there is an assembly line approach.
We decided to cook in tandoors right in front of you. And, uh, give you a meal with premium quality ingredients and do that in five to seven minutes at a price point that you can bring your family for four and eat under 40 bucks. All of that is something that we wanted, right from the beginning.
That was our dream, and having your meal be an experience. Not just something that you ate really good. And you have had many tasting meals everywhere, but if you saw your chicken come right out of the tandoor or the naan that you saw come right out out of the tandoor, it's an experience. It's not just having a meal anymore.
And so we set out to create joyful experiences. That was one thing that was in the back of our minds, that this is something that we want to bring joy. How do you do that? So everything in our restaurant has that whimsical aspect to it. You mentioned the little notes. There is a lot of discovery to be made, even your hand washing station, right?
And kids love it. And adult kids love it. So those little details come from having that singular mission. And that we're going to create joy.
Watson: When you're creating something new like this, so, just the nature of the location that you have, the design that's gone into it. There is a substantial investment being made, and this is the fifth location for Choolaah.
If you could take us back to the first location, and even before that was opened, the experimentation phase, where despite the lessons that you've learned from the Five Guys network, you're still kind of, figuring out what works and what doesn't. What was that process like? What are some lessons you learned along the way or mistakes that were made as you were figuring out the content?
Sankar: Well, one of the interesting aspects of being a franchisee is that you have a lot of things figured out for you. The menu is figured out for you. Supply chain is figured out for you. For most part training systems are figured out for you and you choose a real estate, you find the people, and then you figure out how to augment the existing processes. In Choolaah, we were sort of the franchisee and the franchisor melded together. So we had a huge run, having a lot of fun during the R and D phase. 2011 is when we actually finalized our current mission, vision and values. And we started there and then we said our vision is to transform the quality of lives of everyone we touch.
And it sounds really good big, right? You're like, what are you thinking? Who are you to even think that's possible? So, we said okay. We are going to do this through a very smart business that can keep giving. Right. That was one of the things that we wanted to do that was based on excellence.
So one of the things we did is, we are huge fans of, you know, Maslow's Hierarchy and finding peak performance technologies. That's one aspect. The second element, that's individual human being. How do we elevate people, including ourselves? Starting with us, to be at our best. That's always been something that we are still on a journey on.
And then the second aspect was how do you get business to peak performance? So there is this wonderful framework called the Malcolm Baldrige framework.
Watson: I'm not familiar, educate me.
Sankar: So the Malcolm Baldrige award is a national quality award in the United States. It's given every year by the president of the United States to a handful of deserving businesses.
There must be about 100-110 that have won to date since 1986. And, you know, they include Disney. Ritz-Carlton, and only two restaurant companies have won that award today. And so we love that, we're big fans of excellence. And we've been on that journey on how could we create that utopian place.
Right. So we applied the framework to Choolaah even before we actually did anything. So we wrote an organizational profile. What would Choolaah look like? And the award winners have actually an extraordinary story to tell. They have history of being hugely successful in customer engagement, and sales growth, and, team member engagement.
It's almost another world. It's effortless and easy, and you're doing great things and that's essentially great processes, yielding great results. If you will. That's what the Malcolm Baldrige is about. So we got ourselves a coach, andI'll talk about coach more. In any any endeavor that I've found, coaching is a huge element of it. Learning from people who have walked the path before and know how to tweak what needs to be tweaked. So we were very lucky to have a coach who actually took several of these companies to win the Baldrige. And he's still our coach today. And we started on this journey in 2012.
And so Choolaah was built with that framework in mind. We also had an amazing team that we started assembling. My business partners, Randhir and Simran, Simran as the architect of the food, and Randhir is my co CEO. They moved with their two young daughters to India for two years to soak in what's current and also what was in the past, the history, historical, traditional, way of eating.
And they traveled all around the world. We all traveled to London and Asia. So with all of that, as a background, and then having test kitchens in India, test kitchens in the United States, that's how, um, Choolaah was born. It was a huge labor of love, figuring out what works, what doesn't, what's contemporary.
So having that kind of research behind it helped us figure out what the food should be. And we were so lucky that when we came here and we actually opened Choolaah in Cleveland. The one thing that I was most worried about is the food delivery system. Because when you do a new concept, that's what you worry about the most is everything coming together. Will the food show up the way it needs to be?
And that was a huge surprise. It fit right from day one. It was amazing. We tweaked it along the way, but it fit. That was not what was going to go down. The challenge was education, teaching people mainstream, what is all of this and how do you make it relatable? Right? So having that perfect storm of approachable, authentic, affordable, and that's essentially what was the biggest challenge for us.
Watson: I'm curious from that orientation around processes, how that gets perhaps more difficult with this menu? Because it is more substantial than the Five Guys menu. Five Guys, it's one or two patties, it's bacon or no bacon, it's cheese or no cheese and a couple of veggies. Do you want fries with that?
This is more complex, and even just the history of Indian cuisine involves a lot of different spices. So I'm curious, you spoke to their residency in India contributing to that education process. But, is there any other lessons or maybe philosophies that you carry when it comes to maintaining that culture of Indian food?
Sankar: So, for us, one of the things that we wanted was food that you would eat every day. That was very important to us, not the kind that you would just maybe go once a week or once a month, but food that is good for you and you can eat every day. So there's a lot of principles of healthy eating and traditional principles.
And, you know, that kind of baked into how we prepare the food. And then how do you get fresh, you know, tandoori food right in front of you made in front of you, right? So some of the challenges where supply chain, right? It's not necessarily that easy to get a clean supply chain, when you're especially importing products.
We have spices that come from India. So we worked very hard on the food safety aspect and making sure we have clean labels and clean ingredients. So we could replicate that over and over again. Our mango comes from a farm that is six generations old. And it's, you know, packed right at it's peak season. And that's how it comes to us. I wish I had some mango lassi to share with you today.
Watson: You keep making me hungrier! I can't handle it.
Sankar: So supply chain is when you, especially when you're getting importing food, especially spices. And then we also looked at spice mixes. It was really hard for us to trust the source, in the instance. So we make our own spice blends and we actually have our own production facility in Cleveland that actually makes our spice blends.
So that's the kind of level that we had to go to, to ensure that we would have the product that we could serve our guests.
Watson: It seems like there's also a challenge of this could potentially be making the in cuisine accessible to some people who otherwise haven't tried it. So there seems like there's also an education process of the customer in addition to the other education that you spoke of.
Sankar: Yes. And if you walk around our stores, you'll find Choolaah heads, those are paintings. We want Choolaah for everyone. We want it for people who have Ratatouille moments because they grew up on Indian food. And then we also want it for someone who said, 'Oh my God, I'd never tried it.' Or, 'what is it?'
There's a lot of inquisitiveness. And then there are people who say, well, it's too spicy. So I can't handle it. Well, that's not necessarily true. Indian food is about flavors. It's not about just fire. So that's a big element, a big differential. So we use 45 spices and we grind our own spice blends from those spices.
And it's about whole pallet richer flavors. And if you want really spicy, like as in heat Spicy. We have wonderful sauces that we have custom created that goes very well with our meals. So we learned all of those as we were building this as, how can we make it approachable? And when I eat every day, I want that to be something that is very flavorful and it's good for my stomach, right?
Sankar: It shouldn't necessarily just be burning you up or you feel like you couldn't sleep. But what if it was healthy for you and what if it was just delicious at the same time? And that's what we feel we have been able to achieve.
Watson: That's awesome. I'm sure you mix it up, but do you have like a go-to meal or like a favorite thing on the menu?
Sankar: So we have, based on what your preference is, if you're a vegan, vegetarian, or gluten-free, we have tons of options for special dietary preferences. Our main, most popular item is our chicken tikka masala bowl, which is very common. Right.
And we have biryani that people look at it and go, what is that? Because it looks like a pie, a pot pie. But it's actually a rice pie. We make a dum style, and it's typically served in India in, you know, many fine dining restaurants like that. It's covered with dough because it puts the steam inside, it pulls the steam inside and infuses rice and Curry with amazing flavors.
We've been able to personalize it for you. And, you know, offer that app. That's one of my favorite dishes.
Watson: Well, I am sufficiently hungry. And I have just a couple more questions. As it relates to, give an example of this show,I'm always fascinated by what people's metrics of success are.
So the kind of standard answer that you would give to the podcast is how many downloads is it getting? Because it's just kind of this raw number, the same way a business could be well, how much money are you making? But I sense with you that as much as maybe the numbers are a metric of success, you know, for me a time, an interview, someone I'm interviewing compliments, my questions.
Or a time that a listener compliments that, Hey, you've gotten better. I've been listening for however many episodes. That means the world to me. Is there a untraditional or a couple of untraditional metrics of success that you have your eye out for?
Sankar: Absolutely. So when it comes to guests listening we are technology geeks. Always have been.
And so we worked very hard on guests listening systems. We did a ton of benchmarking, which is part of what Baldrige taught us is you do a ton of benchmarking. People who have been successful with something before studying their patterns and then absorbing it. So we did a ton of benchmarking on guests listening, and we have put technology in place that allows us to get feedback on what are guests saying about us?
For example, if you were to come in, every receipt will have a survey. And we'll give you a little gift. If you fill it within 48 hours, the next time you come in a treat on us.
Watson: And how well did those work? Because I feel like I get a lot of those and I don't think I do a lot of them.
Sankar: In our case, I think there's two elements to it. One is how it is presented to you? First of all, right over there. And then how engaged were you with this whole experience that you want to actually talk about it? And usually you talk about it when something is really awful, most people do, right? And then there are people who've had a raving experience and they want to talk about it.
So what we get is about roughly 50 to 70 surveys a week per store. And that's just one element of it. And we capture key business drivers that we look for, like our accuracy scores, our delight scores, overall delight scores. We look at recommend, likely to recommend, likely to refer a friend and come back.
Those are things and then obviously quality and hospitality and speed of service. So we look at those metrics like a Hawk. We actually had some amazing stories, Aaron. When we first opened in Cleveland, we used to have this funky little barbecue presentation. We had this beautiful leaf underneath, and then we had these garnishes pickled onions and stuff like that.
And then we would have the barbecue, or we got creamed on our value scores. And we're like, what is going on? This food is so amazing. And why are they criminals on this particular format that we had the barbecue meal? And then we realized that, Oh, when we got the feedback through the surveys, it was like, just give us rice. We don't think garnish is food.
Sankar: We would spend more money on garnishes, and spend a lot of time creating them. So we put our beautiful basmati rice underneath. Guess what shot up? That's what people love. So what is the customer want? I guess that's the biggest thing. What is our guests want is something that we listened to very carefully.
We actually had a Choolaah 2.0 revision to our menu last year, which is hugely successful. That came from guest listening.
Watson: What were some of the changes associated with that?
Sankar: Yeah, so we actually amped up our baryani. It was always good. People loved it, but we wanted it to be 11 on 10. And so, we amped up and that just, you can tell by how well it was received.
We also added a few things. Like we created our own Choolaah salad. It has roasted cauliflower, our homemade Naan chips. It has the perfect balance of flavors. We actually added a street snack called Pav Bhaji. It's like a sloppy Joe for vegetarians, hugely popular. And what's fun is being able to introduce it to someone who has never had it before, and they get addicted. It's very cravable.
Watson: Awesome. Well, I think we're going to have to include like pictures of the menu or something so people can check it out. But, when does this location open?
Sankar: January 26th, 2018. We actually are just in the process of starting to interview, we will be hiring and then we'll be training. We can't wait for Pittsburgh to experience Choolaah.
Watson: Awesome. And where are the other destinations? Cause we have listeners outside of Pennsylvania.
So we have one in Cleveland, on the East side in Orange Village, Beachwood area. We have one in Fairfax,
Sankar: Virginia, one in Sterling, Virginia, and one in King of Prussia.
Watson: Awesome. Well, hope people check it out. If they want to follow along digitally, I'm sure you have some awesome pictures of the food out. Where can we point people to in the digital world?
Sankar: So Choolaah.com is a great place for people to go to. And if you're on Facebook, the handle Choolaah Yum is a great place to go to as well.
Watson: We're going to link that in the show notes, goingdeepwithaaron.com/podcast is the place to find it for this and every episode of the show. But as we do, Raji, at the end of each episode, I like to give my guests the mic one final time to issue an actionable personal challenge for the audience.
Sankar: So I would say if you really want something, get yourself, a coach in that area. I wanted to, when we looked at the Baldrige, we realized you can read a lot. But if you can figure out a way and the coach doesn't have to be an expensive coach, it could be somebody in your network, somebody who already does this really well. And that's one thing that we have used, whether it was for health, whether it was for the Baldrige situation or even for meditation. Those are things that I've found are very helpful.
Watson: I like that. I want to maybe just go a little bit deeper on that though, because I'm not sure if you're aware, but there is a phenomenon with millennials of life coaches that are like 23, 24, 25 years old, and they haven't necessarily experienced all the life yet.
So I would warn people of kind of that phenomenon, but I'm curious as you have gone about identifying the coach that you want to work with, what do you look for when identifying someone who could be a great mentor for you?
Sankar: So I look at what have they accomplished in the area that I'm looking to accomplish?
For example, when we were looking at The Baldrige. This gentleman has taken seven companies to win the Baldrige, including Ritz-Carlton twice. And the two restaurant companies that have ever won the Baldrige. So that made sense. Right. And then looking at his history and the work that he does.
And with anybody, you have to do some pilot sessions or test sessions before, you know this is the right thing for you. But I, what I love is the cheerleading that we get. And then when we fall off course. We are human beings. Yeah, right. Being disciplined all the time is not easy in anything that you do.
And so having someone say, 'Hey, what about if you tried that?' Because they have done 200 different things that they have seen so many things go wrong. And being able to be there to catch you and you need caught.
Watson: Well, fantastic. I hope that people will internalize that and use that framework when they're looking for their mentors and coaches.
Thank you so much for coming to my podcast.
Sankar: Thank you so much, Aaron. It's been a wonderful delight.
Watson: We just went deep, and I am hungry for some Choolaah. Hop everyone out there has a fantastic day.