Now and again, every business enterprise needs a fresh mind and new ideas. Yuvraj Kohli, the young scion, is enhancing the seven-decade culinary legacy of Moti Mahal by opening the outlets of Moti Mahal Delux–Legendary Culinary in overseas locations. With this strategic offshoot, this third-generation business leader takes his brand across the Atlantic.
By Swarnendu Biswas
The first international venture that Yuvraj Kohli and his team thought of was a restaurant in London under the brand of Moti Mahal Delux–Legendary Culinary. “We had a very good start but after one year we noticed that there were management issues, so we had to terminate the project,” says Kohli.
Instead of being deterred, however, he went further. Four years ago, Moti Mahal Delux–Legendary Culinary opened its doors to guests on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean. “Our restaurant in New York received impressive footfalls from the beginning, and to this day — even with the pandemic still around us — the restaurant is generating good revenues,” says Kohli.
He willingly throws light on the business dynamics of the New York outlet. “The outlet is being run on partnership and close to 50 percent is our share. Here we offer the same authentic Moti Mahal dishes, with a fusion twist, a lighter spice level and with superb presentation to attract the eyes of the customers first.” One can say the New York venture represents a smart amalgamation of modernity with authenticity.
The savvy young restaurateur and Managing Director of Moti Mahal Delux- Legendary Culinary chain of restaurants, explains that the menu in the New York outlet has been planned in a way where the legendary Moti Mahal dishes were tailored to the spice specifications of Western patrons. At the same time, according to Kohli, “The outlet has been witnessing regular visits by Indians too, with many of them nostalgic about their gastronomic experience of Moti Mahal dishes in India.”
Yes, the gastronomic heritage of Moti Mahal can be traced through many momentous decades. The journey of the legendary Moti Mahal restaurant began immediately after India’s independence, in 1947, with an outlet in Daryaganj, in Old Delhi. It was founded by Kundan Lal Gujral, Thakur Dass and Kundan Lal Jaggi. All of them used to work in a small eatery in Peshawar, also called Moti Mahal, in the pre-Partition years. The Peshawar outlet was owned by a man named Mokha Singh.
To Kundan Lal Gujral goes the credit for inventing butter chicken, and Kundan Lal Gujral, Thakur Dass and Kundan Lal Jaggi get the credit for tandoori chicken. The two novel dishes eventually became hallmarks of the Moti Mahal restaurant in Daryaganj, as well as an integral part of popular Punjabi cuisine worldwide. Today, both dishes are favoured by aficionados of Indian food in the United States and United Kingdom.
Kundan Lal Gujral and Thakur Dass came up with tandoori chicken while working at the Peshawar outlet of pre-Partition undivided India, while butter chicken was introduced in the Daryaganj outlet. “Dal makhani was also invented by Kundan Lal Gujral to meet the demand of customers who required black dal, which is cooked for hours, to give a rich taste along with the butter chicken,” Kohli adds.
By the 1950s, Moti Mahal in Daryaganj was a prominent destination on the culinary map of India, with many Indian and foreign political dignitaries as well as luminaries from Bollywood becoming its patrons. Among them was India’s first prime minister and quintessential statesman Jawaharlal Nehru, and the great Indian filmmaker and actor Raj Kapoor. To Moti Mahal at Daryaganj also goes the credit of giving a fillip to restaurant culture in India. As the years rolled by, Moti Mahal became a brand and was ready for expansion.
“My grandfather Amrit Lal Kohli was a friend of Kundan Lal Gujral and often used to visit the Daryaganj outlet to give his best inputs as well as for giving the clientele a personal touch by mixing with them. Eventually my grandfather went into partnership with Kundan Lal Gujral for the Greater Kailash-I (an upmarket locality in South Delhi] outlet of Moti Mahal Delux, and my father being the second generation took on the project with full zeal,” says Kohli as we discuss the illustrious heritage of the brand, while enjoying Johnnie Walker Black Label whisky with tandoori chicken.
When Moti Mahal moved to South Delhi, that is, to GK-I, from Daryaganj in 1975, the new outlet took the brand name of Moti Mahal Delux. Not only the GK-I outlet, but all subsequent outlets of Moti Mahal which came after the GK-I outlet carry the tag Moti Mahal Delux. The outlet in Daryaganj is, however, still named simply Moti Mahal.
“After the GK-I outlet of Moti Mahal Delux came into being in 1975, it was decided that if the partners opened their own restaurants individually, they would be welcome to do so but under the Moti Mahal umbrella. We then came up with our own Moti Mahal Delux restaurant in South Extension-II (another well-heeled locality in Delhi) in 1976, where we run the show on our own,” explains Kohli.
The restaurants under the ambit of the Kohli family, whether under sole ownership, in partnership or as franchise operations, carry the brand name Moti Mahal Delux–Legendary Culinary.
“Both the Moti Mahal Delux–Legendary Culinary outlets in GK-I and South Ex-II were a hit with the crowd since their early days, and are still garnering impressive footfalls. Along with ownership projects, we have worked very hard on franchising our brand, and we have about 15 outlets running under Moti Mahal Delux–Legendary Culinary name at present,” Kohli elaborates, with his charming smile.
Kohli has also played a crucial role in extending the brand presence of Moti Mahal Delux–Legendary Culinary across India. “As for India, we have a presence in Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Punjab and South India. We are trying to open another franchised Moti Mahal Delux–Legendary Culinary outlet in Mumbai, and the work is underway for this,” says Kohli the dynamic entrepreneur, as he urges me to try some more of the famed delicacies of his restaurant chain.
This young man doesn’t believe in resting on his laurels. He is already brimming with enthusiasm for the forthcoming Dubai outlet of Moti Mahal Delux–Legendary Culinary. “As for the Dubai outlet, we are finishing the legal formalities to register our trademark so that no one uses the same name. It is only after this process is complete that we will continue to run the project,” he says. He believes that once the Dubai outlet opens, it will draw a lot more Indian than foreign customers, “as a large chunk of the population of Dubai consists of Indians”.
Franchising, Guiding and Monitoring
One of the effective routes of growing Moti Mahal Delux–Legendary Culinary’s brand presence during recent years has been franchising. While franchising a highly renowned brand can be a lucrative business, the situation has its own potential perils. If the franchised operations can’t maintain the quality that long-time consumers have come to associate with a given brand, the brand’s image may suffer, and sometimes such image setbacks could have irreparable business effects, especially for a highly sensitive business like the restaurant business.
“We take exceptional care of our franchised outlets,” responds Kohli with a serious tone but cheerful expression. “We provide our franchisees with staff such as stewards, cashiers, managers and highly skilled chefs, to facilitate quality consistency. Most of the staff we send to the franchised outlets is trained under our supervision in our base kitchen,” he adds.
“Moreover, any time a franchised restaurant is not doing well, we intervene and help it take corrective steps to address the problem and clear any of their doubts. If need be, we send new chefs and staff. We are always involved in our day-to-day activities with our franchised outlets, as well as with the cashiers allotted by us in those outlets, so that we get the right figures for the gross sales per month,” Kohli elaborates.
Setbacks and Comeback
Like most restaurant businesses in India, Moti Mahal Delux–Legendary Culinary restaurant chain, too, has faced adverse situations during the COVID-19 lockdowns. The young MD is quite candid about this. “We as a brand faced a lot of difficulties when our restaurants initially shut down during the COVID-19 induced lockdowns. We resumed business in August 2020, after a few months of lockdown, when we began operations with takeaway orders,” Kohli says.
They were soon receiving a lot of takeaway orders. The entrepreneur modestly attributes this to the feeling that “People were tired of sitting at home and wanted to bring in some great food to distract their minds from staying home for so long.”
Soon after, the dine-in business for the restaurant chain began. The business momentum slowly began picking up. The business has picked up for Moti Mahal Delux–Legendary Culinary since August 2020, but still, says Kohli, there are miles to go. The second wave of COVID-19 has given another jolt to the recovery process.
However, Kohli believes in judiciously mixing optimism with pragmatism. “I think the restaurant business in India needs a little more time to get back to the level of pre-COVID-19 days. Restaurants should make their customers feel at ease in going to their outlets, so as to regain their confidence,” he advises, adding that he expects it to take another six months for India’s restaurant business to reach its pre-pandemic levels of revenue and growth.
I asked him about his future plans for Moti Mahal Delux–Legendary Culinary. The overseas success has given an extra impetus to Kohli’s business morale. “The plan for us, for the next three years, is to open several more franchised outlets, including at least 20 new ones as well as several owned restaurants.” He aims to have Moti Mahal Delux–Legendary Culinary restaurants in different parts of the USA as well as in Europe and Dubai, UAE.
“Also, within the next three years, I want to launch my spice mix packages, which would comprise different masalas made for different dishes such as butter chicken, dal makhani and even kebabs,” says the entrepreneur.
I query him on the business logic behind changing track from food service to this proposed food retail endeavour. “The person who makes a regular dish at home, such as home-style butter chicken, can add value to the dish by adding the correct spice mix into the right dish. There will be different masalas for different dishes in the spice mix packages I am thinking about. This will enable them to get a feel of the legendary Moti Mahal dishes while at home,” he explains.
That is not all. The passionate restaurateur also wants to come up with a book within the next six months which would talk about his life and journey before and after he entered the restaurant business. I ended our warm encounter by wishing him all the best.
(The writer is a senior journalist and author, presently working in a Delhi-based publication house. His interests are varied and so are the topics of his writings.)