- The founder of The Kathi Roll Company talks about her love for the Kolkata staple she grew up relishing, and surviving the pandemic.
From the gullis of Kolkata, West Bengal, the much-loved street-food, the sumptuous kathi roll, a chargrilled kebab wrapped in a paratha (flatbread), has crossed the ocean to reach the metropolis of New York and London, all thanks to entrepreneur Payal Saha.
Saha, who comes from a well-known music family that runs Hindusthan Records, which first opened its doors in Kolkata in 1932, has deviated from the family business. Her paternal grandfather founded the business after training in Germany. “He travelled through India looking for regional content from the brothels of Varanasi, recording recitals by baijis to Bade Ghulam Ali and Debabrata Biswas,” Saha says. Her maternal grandfather jumped ship on Staten Island as an illegal immigrant in New York City and went on to become a chemical engineer from New York University before returning to Kolkata to open a paint factory.
With business running through her veins, the New York-based Saha, a self-declared foodie, opened four stores serving up the ubiquitous kathi rolls in the city and one near Oxford Street in London. And a couple of weeks ago, she just opened her first “cloud kitchen” in London. “The cloud kitchen is a place you can order from but can’t physically go to,” says Saha, explaining this novel concept in ordering out.
She takes a walk down memory lane with American Kahani, retracing her footsteps, from her first restaurant to her most recent venture, and what’s in store for kathi lovers in the future.
How it All Started
“I got married in 2000, when I was just 22 and followed my husband, who was in advertising, to New York. I was on an L2 visa that didn’t allow me to work,” says Saha, who too worked in advertising, making ad films in India. The newly-wed missed home cooking and the street food of her hometown. “I come from Cal and that’s where they (kathi) are so famous. I was missing them so badly in New York.”
Speaking about how she went from advertising to entrepreneurship, Saha thought the hustle and bustle of New York City would be the perfect environment to introduce the mouth-watering delicacy to. “People are on the move constantly in this city, from point A to point B and the kathi is very portable,” she says. People have very little time to have a big break, especially during lunch. The kathi is a quick, grab-and-go food and it’s not fast food. It’s not a McDonalds. Here the ingredients are better, time has been spent on processes in making the food and it was also at a good point.”
With Indian casual restaurants popping up all over the country and people’s taste and knowledge of different kinds of Indian food expanding, the timing was perfect. “Therefore, I thought it would be a splendid idea to open a kathi business here,” Saha says. What I found I could do on my visa was open a business, and that is exactly what I did.” And the Kathi roll was something she “relished,” and she wanted “to reproduce that very feeling in New York.”
With a clear idea in mind of what she wanted to do, Saha was all ready to sign a lease on a property near the busy Wall Street financial district. “The night before I was to sign the lease, the agent called me and said that Mr. Pox, I’m amazed I still remember his name, had changed his mind. After all the negotiations, he didn’t want to risk leasing to a new business. Saha adds, “The strange thing is two days later the Twin Towers fell (referring to 9/11) and if I had opened in that area, my business would not have survived. I would not have had a business again as I just didn’t have the staying power to ride the downtown mess after the towers fell,” she says. “In a way, the universe kind of looked out for me.”
She hit the pause button on her idea for a while. Finally, not one to be disheartened by this set-back for long, Saha got back out there. A souvenir store came along in Greenwich Village. She jumped at it. “It would not be a lunchtime store, because it was in the Village,” she says, adding that at the time she was willing to do whatever, wherever to get the store opened. “And that’s what I did. My first store was a night time store – a completely different animal from what I had envisioned.”
Word caught on about the delicious fare and with the help of positive New York press and the loyalty of its South Asian and mainstream patrons, The Kati Roll Company was on its way to becoming the city’s epicurean staple. The rest, as they say is history.
Cravings of New Yorkers
Nineteen years since it opened, Saha’s first store is still standing proudly in the Village today, satisfying the cravings of all who enter. The success of that outlet, led to another. “A second and larger midtown location followed in 2005, a London location opened in 2007 and a fourth location was launched in March 2012 on the Manhattan east side,” she notes.
With no formal training in hospitality or even business, The Kati Roll Company – started as a way to satiate her own cravings for the food she had grown up eating and missed, has today become a whopping $14 million franchise. The creative menu sports unique items such as the aloo masala roll, the chana masala roll, the shrimp masala roll and even one with Nutella that share space with the popular chicken tikka kathi roll. For health conscious foodies, she offers chapati instead of paratha. She also started a line of flavored lassi with organic yogurt – mango lassi and mishti doi lassi made with the legendary patali gur among the top picks.
What seems to have worked for the daughter of a college professor and an entrepreneur, besides her inherent business acumen is the product itself. “Business influenced me in some way I’m sure growing up, because I knew someday I wanted to work for myself. But what worked was the versatility of the roll — one could have it as a snack, a meal, or just as a finger food. It’s a food that’s also inexpensive but filling at the same time,” she says.
Ready to Take on the World
Another important ingredient to her success, she adds is, “I don’t see fear because I do not know how to imagine it. At 22, when I started my business, I was ready to take on the world and that helped.” What also influenced Saha was her years of working in film production in India. Working with a “pretty famous filmmaker, who was pretty crazy,” Saha says she learned that “there’s no ‘no’ when it comes to production. Saying ‘you can’t get this or that’ is not an option when asked to procure something,” she says “This made me think outside the box and this really helped me when it came to starting my business.”
In the early days, Saha made everything on her own, with just one helper. “We would grind the spices, make the parathas and marinate the fillings. It was a lot of work.” Today, she depends more on her “capable managers” visiting each location regularly to make sure that the business runs smoothly.
With absolutely no experience in business, Saha talks about how she learnt everything on the job. “I didn’t know how to get vendors on-board when I started out or even an insurance agent,” she says adding, “I had no contacts. The few friends I had over here were not in the food service business.” This prompted her to go back to the drawing board and get creative. While she could go into a store and buy all the raw materials she needed, that would cost her the retail price. “I would park outside stores and wait for the wholesale trucks to come. I would then jot down their contact details and would reach out to them. This wasn’t a conventional way to do business, but it worked.”
Old habits die hard and Saha says she still catches herself jotting down vendor numbers on trucks to this day when on the road. “It’s become a habit,” she says. “It was all a learning experience for me, and looking back, I am glad I did all that I did.” Saha does point out that if she were to start the business today, it would probably be different and the risks that she took back then might not seem feasible today.
To be as authentic as possible and determined to make the kathi rolls taste like the best of the ones you get in Kolkata, if not better, Saha even flew to Mumbai and worked at a roll place called Chowringhee Lane run by a Bengali. “I had to gather as much knowledge as I could and come back to teach others who I employed.” A pragmatic Saha adds, “I don’t think not having a business degree hindered me. I don’t know if it could have helped me, but not having one didn’t hurt me.”
While the kathis are a testament to the loyal fan base that Saha has managed to cultivate over the years, the kitsch, colorful Bollywood posters from “Mother India” to “Shree 420” and Big B’s “Coolie” that adorn the walls of her outlets is a detail that will catch your eye and remind you of streets back home. Besides being a fad at the time she was opening her outlets, it was also cheap and cheery, she adds.
If 19-plus-years-ago one were to ask Saha to share her business plan, she would have probably asked you what that meant. She says, “I started my first outlet with my then cleaning lady. There was no grand opening of the outlet, all we did was pull the shutters up and started selling the kathi rolls. On day one we made $50 and that was such a moment of high.”
Within 18 months of opening she was able to recoup her initial investment that she took from family and friends to launch her first outlet. Slowly, outlet by outlet, the brand grew, with over a hundred employees working at the various outlets.
However, with the recent pandemic, and its impact on the restaurant business, The Kathi Roll Company, despite its loyal fan base has, like many in the food and hospitality business, been adversely affected. Her employees are down to around 60, and revenue down by almost 80 percent.
“There are weeks, we stay open and lose money,” she says. But her customers mean everything to her, and knowing how hard the pandemic was for people, Saha says: “After the early months of lockdown, we as a company decided to open and remain open, however hard it may be financially. I really believe now kathi roll is much bigger than me. It’s got a life of its own now. It’s got a story of its own.” Adding that she feels her company is a part of the “fiber of the city,” she feels “it’s important for us to be open and around at a time when people are looking for familiarity, comfort and security.
Creating Work-Life Balance
Saha loves nothing better than to be in the kitchen at home when not at work. When not coming up with new kathi recipes, she can be found grilling that perfect steak or a pork chop. “I can eat almost anything,” says Saha. “I love food. I live for it.” She admits that she is happiest planning her meals of the day and can easily be found planning elaborate lunch and dinner menus right after a hearty breakfast. “Both my husband and I cook….not sure how good we are, but we are both very interested in food.”
Saha definitely takes food seriously, growing up with a Bengali father and a Mangalorean mother. “Good food was the staple on both sides. On the Mangalorean side, at my grandparents, there was lots of seafood and my Bengali side, saw a lot of everything – meat, fish etc. I come from two very big food communities and food was always big for us in our family.”
A mother to almost 6-year-old Rafay, Saha talks about straddling both the demands of her career and motherhood. “I pop pills!” she says jokingly, adding: “It’s a constant juggle, fortunately, he goes to school now till 3 pm and I do work stuff that I can do before he returns home.” Saha says the family has a “fantastic nanny,” whom she could not do without. “And when I can’t be with him, I am rest assured that he is being looked after well by her.”
Saha’s husband Anil Bathwal has given up his advertising career to join forces with his wife. She says they both remind their son often that they have to work “to bring home the bacon,” a term, her son has grown to be familiar with. “I always tell him that if I don’t do what I have to do during the week, I’ll have to work on the weekend. It’s constant bargaining and negotiating. And a good thing is that I can bring him to work, which I do often.”
Expansion and Diversification
As to what’s next for the intrepid businesswoman, Saha says: “Covid made me realize how vulnerable this industry is. When there’s a shutdown, we can’t open and people don’t eat out.” Wondering how many “Covid-like situations” there could be in the future, Saha has thought of diversifying, and looking to expand into the frozen food market in grocery stores. “It’s a whole different industry – the frozen food world and the grocery store. The only commonality is it deals with food,” she says.
To enter this new territory, Saha and her husband are learning the ropes of the grocery and the frozen food business and they hope to stock their product in the market in a few months. Currently, the owners of Fairway and ShopRite have given them 11 stores to stock their rolls in. “I know it’s a little like putting the cart before the horse, but we are glad we could secure the stores,” she says.
With a tried and tested product, Saha is confident the rolls will succeed in the frozen food market as well. Planning to start small in New York and New Jersey and not across states lines as yet, to avoid FDA involvement, the couple however, do have grand plans to go national and ultimately conquer the frozen sections of the likes of Sam’s Club and Costco. “We have started the process of FDA involvement since we plan to cross state lines and we deal with meat.”
But till then, one will have to trek to NYC to partake of the delicious kathi roll.
Anu Ghosh immigrated to the U.S. from India in 1999. Back in India she was a journalist for the Times of India in Pune for 8 years and a graduate from the Symbiosis Institute of Journalism and Communication. In the U.S., she obtained her Masters and PhD. in Communications from The Ohio State University. Go Buckeyes! She has been involved in education for the last 15 years, as a professor at Oglethorpe University and then Georgia State University. She currently teaches Special Education at Oak Grove Elementary. She is also a mom to two precocious girls ages 11 and 6.