Turning a Passion for Cooking Indian Food into a Business with NaanSense Owner, Hiran Patel

Dusty Weis:

Greetings innovators and welcome to Back of the Napkin, where we explore big journeys in the world of small business, with the personalities who make it happen.

Stephanie Davis:

This is where small business leaders can hear about unique ideas that have launched successful enterprises across America and meet entrepreneurs who aren't afraid to think differently. And it's brought to you by SurePayroll where small business is their business. I'm Stephanie Davis from the SurePayroll team.

Dusty Weis:

And I'm Dusty Weis, a small business owner from the Midwest. And I have been getting fired up day in and day out to do this episode. Steph, how do you feel about food?

Stephanie Davis:

Dusty, love it. I am one of those live-to-eat people, not eat-to-live. I'm always baffled by the people who say that they forgot to eat that day because I pretty much have the whole day planned by breakfast. What are your thoughts? Any favorite cuisines?

Dusty Weis:

Steph, are you familiar with the term gourmand? You know that one?

Stephanie Davis:

No.

Dusty Weis:

Webster's defines gourmand as a person who enjoys eating and often eats too much. And that's me, I'm the poster child. The older I get, the more that I realize that life is a buffet and I just want to try every dish that's on the table. And that's why today's episode is so cool because we're going to be talking to a restaurateur who serves a style of cuisine that a lot of people, including me until about five years ago, are not too familiar with.

Dusty Weis:

But before we dive into the episode, we would love it if you took a moment and subscribed to Back of the Napkin in your favorite podcast app. New episodes are coming out every couple of weeks or so, and so we want them to pop up in the top of your podcast feed, but you've got to hit that subscribe button to make it happen.

Stephanie Davis:

And if you enjoy the show, how about a five star rating or even leave us a review to tell us what you like and you might just be helping another entrepreneur like you find the bolt of inspiration they needed.

Stephanie Davis:

All right, go back to food.

Dusty Weis:

Oh my goodness, yes.

Stephanie Davis:

It's always fun to talk about a city that has a great restaurant scene. And I got to say that Chicago has a selection of amazing restaurants and it's where I really learned how wonderful brunch could be. I could dine along the Riverwalk every night. It was just great. Dusty, you're nearby in Milwaukee, do you have thoughts on the Chicago food scene?

Dusty Weis:

Well, Steph, you know that I grew up in a small town where if you wanted to eat out, you had three options, the supper club, the pizza place, or the Chinese buffet. And so living in Milwaukee and having spent a lot of time around Chicago, I'm going to say one of the great joys has been trying different cuisines from around the world and finding some that are just really a treat. But I'm assuming that even though you're back in New York right now, you keep bringing up the Chicago food scene.

Stephanie Davis:

You got it. Today's guest is part of the Chicago restaurant scene. Naansense, which by the way I'm obsessed with the name, is an Indian restaurant started by Hiran Patel. Hiran got his start in the Chicago restaurant industry several years ago and eventually decided he wanted his own space. Naansense opened up nearly eight years ago and is now seeing expansions with locations and consumer products. Hiran, thanks for joining us today.

Hiran Patel:

Yeah. Thanks for having me guys. I appreciate being on here today.

Stephanie Davis:

Of course.

Dusty Weis:

Absolutely, it's our pleasure. As we've been saying, Chicago, of course, known for having a pretty great restaurant scene, can you tell us a little bit more about how you first got your start in that world?

Hiran Patel:

Wow, yeah, so I started just over 10 years ago actually. And I had no idea that I was going to do this. It was even my 30th birthday, I was literally just having a few drinks and dinner with my father. And he goes on his fatherly talks with me and he brushes by, it's like, "You know, son, you've got the next 10 years of your life that are the most important years of your life." I'm like, "What do you mean? I'm young. I'm going to be young forever." And he's like, "No, what I mean by that is, you're probably going to get married, you're probably going to have children. You've got a job you're okay with right now, you're happy with. But in your thirties you've got to find happiness and make sure you find something you love to do, and just do it your best."

Hiran Patel:

And I'm like, "I don't know what that is." And he's like, "You're doing it right now. You're cooking a dinner with me." And I'm like, "What do you mean? Go in the restaurant business?" He's like, "Yeah, why don't you go cook? I think you're going to find a lot of new areas and excitement and avenues that you can pursue. And it might bring you just exactly where you're looking for the rest of your life." I thought about it for a second. And then the next morning I woke up and I literally went on Craigslist and went into the job classified section. I went under hospitality and, believe it or not, the first restaurant that popped up was, "Modern Indian restaurant looking for a sous chef." I'm like, "Oh my God, I'm modern. I'm Indian. I don't know what a sous chef is. Okay."

Hiran Patel:

So I'm like, "This sounds good." My background was in sales business development before that. So I knew that going into it, sending an email or a resume to this restaurant owner, I had to make it sound compelling enough for them to even respond to me. So I made sure I wrote an email to this Angela Lee, who was the owner of Veerasway, where I got my start several years ago, an email talking about my passion more than anything. And she responded back to me saying, "I'd love to have you come in and meet you." And I was like, "Okay, wow, that wasn't that hard. Now what do I do?" So I walked in the interview and I guess, I'm starting to learn what the restaurant business is about a little bit. I researched a little bit.

Hiran Patel:

And one thing I didn't know was that there's a thing called stage in the restaurant business. And so she's like, we'll stage you for a couple of days to see how you do, seeing your knife skills, your cooking skills, your grilling skills. And I was like, "Great, for sure. When do I come in?"

Dusty Weis:

Real quick, just to back up on the definition here, a stage is essentially a trial run, right?

Hiran Patel:

Yes. Stage is simply, exactly like you said, a stage is this trial run. Restaurants really want to know that when you do come in, your qualifications are met. You're able to cook food to the right temperature. You're able to cut, keep yourself safe foremost because the kitchen end of the day is really a place that could cause some harm. I go into my day one stage, and she's like, "Go to the back room. You'll find some chef coats and come on out and then you'll get an apron and you'll get a station to go and prep your food." I'm in the backroom for like 15, 20 minutes not knowing what to do. I get this chef coat, I'm like, "How do you put this thing on? How do you put this thing on? The buttons are all over the place."

Hiran Patel:

And I walk out, walk back in the room and like, "I've got to redo this. I don't think this feels right." I just felt so uncomfortable. So then I get out and I finally figured out how to put the chef coat on. I get out, I get a station and I start cutting and cooking and grilling. And I finished my two day stages, and the owner of the restaurant calls me into her office. And she was like, "You know, Hiran, it's been a pleasure having you for a couple of days. And talking to the executive chef and some of the teams, they said that definitely your skills aren't the sharpest yet. But you have what it takes to get started in the restaurant business. And I'd like to invite you, and extend an offer to you, to come work for us."

Hiran Patel:

And I was like, "Oh my God, this is so awesome. This is so cool." And then she's like, "We'll start you off at $7 an hour." And I'm like, "Oh, okay." I'm like, "That's a little different than before." But that wasn't it. I mean, I knew going into it that I wasn't going to make what I wanted to make obviously, or going to be making what I was going to make in my previous career or anywhere close to that. This was more about reaching out and exploring new avenues and maybe learning something new that has maybe greater potential down the road. So I look at this new situation as an education, I'm actually getting paid to teach myself. It's something that I want to do, or not do. So that's how I got started in the restaurant business.

Dusty Weis:

That's really wild to me that you came in as an outsider because I think a lot of people that get into the culinary world, it's something that they've always wanted to do. It's always been on their radar, they went to culinary school, they apprenticed somewhere. And so for you coming in as an outsider and taking that $7 an hour job, I imagine that immediately there must have been a few things about it that you just absolutely loved that jumped out and grabbed you and held you in there. What was it that really hooked your attention?

Hiran Patel:

I think the first thing that really stuck out to me the two days that I was staging was the comradery amongst the staff and the team. It really was like a Broadway show almost every day that you walk into, it becomes a disaster, things are all over the place. And next thing you know, you're reset for the next show the next day. And just being a part of that for a couple of days, I was really enamored by how well people work together. Especially coming from a sales background, it was more about like fending for yourself, and you're on your own, making the best. You got to finish top sales and finish these rankings off and making sure that you're noticed and recognized. But in the restaurant world, it wasn't like that, it was the complete opposite. It was about working together for the common goal and serving good food to the customer.

Stephanie Davis:

So for people who aren't familiar with Indian cuisine, set the table for us. What are some of the staples and why should someone go out of their way to try it?

Hiran Patel:

That's a good question, and it's a hard question too, but we can keep it simple. Yeah, so some of the staples that you'll find on an Indian table are going to be your staples that you find in many other cuisines. Like for example, we have our own breads that we call naan. You're going to get rice, we specifically use an Indian rice, which is a long grain rice called basmati. You're going to get a bunch of different spices and sauces and curries that have meat or vegetables simmering in the sauce as well as chutneys and pickles. So to set up an Indian table, I think those are the staple ingredients that you're going to find when you go down to an Indian restaurant.

Stephanie Davis:

What's your favorite dish to cook and to eat?

Hiran Patel:

Oh, wow. My favorite dish would probably have to be, so my favorite dish has to be, I would say, like a lamb rogan josh. It's a low and slow cook process that I use a lamb shank. So it's just one of those dishes that once it's simmering in a really nice bath of like spices, onions, ginger, garlic and it's just slow cooking that lamb shank to fall off the bone, melt in your mouth, is probably my go-to Indian dish.

Dusty Weis:

That sounds outstanding. We could go for a little bit of that right now.

Hiran Patel:

Yeah. It's rich and it's fiery-

Dusty Weis:

Do you guys deliver to Milwaukee?

Hiran Patel:

Not yet, but hopefully we'll be around the corner soon.

Dusty Weis:

I'd be remiss if I didn't also bring up the name of the restaurant, Naansense. I love a good pun. So first and foremost, my hat is off to you because naan, of course, is that non leavened, traditional Indian flatbread. And if you're just hearing the name, the pun is going to be lost on you, but how did you arrive at that name for the business?

Hiran Patel:

It was interesting. When I first got started off in the restaurant Veerasway where I first started off, after that job, I was lucky enough to work at a really well-known Indian restaurant in Chicago. And then slowly, a little after that, I was able to get some key jobs working in some other Indian restaurants. And then I consulted for a little bit. And then I was at this point, I think it was like year two, three, where I knew this is the industry I'm going to remain in. I was just in love with it, the people that I was meeting, all the different things that were being thrown to me. It seemed like a whole new life almost, a whole new career for that matter. I was like a sponge absorbing all these things.

Hiran Patel:

So between jobs, I was consulting. And I knew at that stage, I want to go into and pull that risk. And now I can use some of the things that I've learned the past several years and make them into use. And so I was working with a manager of mine, Chris Andres and I was like, "What do I do next?" And I was thinking of starting some food products or restaurant, and he blurted out the word, "Naansense." And I'm like, "Chris, you know I'm going to keep that and use that, right?" And that's where the whole Naansense brand evolved, I would say. And I knew it was catchy, it was playful and it was perfect for the concept that we wanted to build, which is a fast casual concept.

Stephanie Davis:

You spent a lot of time at restaurants all over Chicago. And so you got the experience to learn from a bunch of different people, working all kinds of different restaurants. Was there anything, even with all of that experience, that caught you off guard when it came to opening your own business?

Hiran Patel:

Yeah. All the legal things that go along with opening a business. There's so many things you got to file, your tax ID, your federal ID, and then you also start to incur expenses right off the bat. Things like accounting and all these other business services that go along with starting a business. So those are some of the things that threw me off a little bit from the several years of working under restaurant groups, then going into opening my own restaurant. What threw me off guard was the amount of money that's actually required to start a business successfully. Because there's many ways you can start a business just from not being funded properly, I would say, but having the right security financially will really allow you to take the right steps from the front onward, and meet some of the challenges that you're going to face down the road.

Dusty Weis:

Compared to the other people that you were working with in the kitchens where you worked, how was your background outside of the culinary world, positioning you in a spot where you could go and be an entrepreneur where maybe somebody else that just went to culinary school would not have had the technical chops and the know-how to jump through those legal hoops and do the accounting and actually get a business off the ground.

Hiran Patel:

Yeah, I think my background was beneficial and was a blessing in disguise from the beginning, from day one to being 10 years in now. I think some of the things that I picked up prior to the food business helped me pave the way because, like I said, I was in business development for several years. Talking to people, being face forward with people, engaging with people and making deals. Negotiating are all things that are probably really, really crucial tools to have in running a business, because it's all about negotiating the right prices to make the bottom line work for us in the business.

Dusty Weis:

Believe me, I feel that as a small business owner myself here, and that is certainly not my strong suit when it comes to running a business, but I fake it until I make it. We are going to continue this conversation with Hiran in just a minute. But first, we've got to take a break for the SurePayroll bulletin.

Stephanie Davis:

This is SurePayroll's Back of the Napkin podcast where entrepreneurs share the stories of their big journeys in small business. I'm Stephanie Davis.

Dusty Weis:

And I'm Dusty Weis. And we're talking to Hiran Patel, the owner of Naansense Indian cuisine in Chicago. And before we dive back into the nuts and bolts of the restaurant business, Hiran, we're going to do a little thing that, we like to call, the fast five, five quick questions to get to know you better. It's like the lightning round here. And the first one is, what is the first job that you ever had?

Hiran Patel:

It was at Best Buy.

Dusty Weis:

Oh, you were one of the blue polo people?

Hiran Patel:

I was a blue polo person working in the audio department, which I loved, it's still one of those things that I'm glad I worked there.

Dusty Weis:

I don't know if you can tell, but I'm a little bit of an audiophile myself. And so I'm a little jealous. I never got to work at the Best Buy. That sounds like fun though.

Stephanie Davis:

What has been one of your recent small wins?

Hiran Patel:

I wouldn't say so recently. I mean, because of the pandemic, we can say recently, the last year seems like a day ago. But right before the pandemic, my partner and I, we were able to secure a partnership with some really good industry professionals that are going to really help us lead the way for the future of Naansense.

Dusty Weis:

I've got to imagine that, especially in the restaurant business in the middle of a pandemic, getting those small wins has been especially important for you, but you are based in Chicago. And as Steph knows, I'd love me some Chicago deep dish pizza. So what's your favorite pizza spot?

Hiran Patel:

Luminati's.

Dusty Weis:

Yes.

Hiran Patel:

Yes.

Stephanie Davis:

Once the pandemic dies down and we can travel again without worry, what's the first plane ticket you're buying?

Hiran Patel:

I would say anywhere there's a resort. I mean, it just has to be where there's room for the kids, room for us. I don't want to drive around anywhere. I want to sit somewhere and just relax for hopefully a week or so.

Dusty Weis:

Here's a question that I've actually been doodling on because this has been a problem for me lately. What's an app that you downloaded to your phone, but you never use it. So you should probably just delete it, but you don't.

Hiran Patel:

Yeah. Again, this goes back to a pandemic situation. I'm not sure if you're all familiar with, there was an app called House Party that was going around where you can invite up to however many friends to a room and there were games and things you can play. Mind you, I was bored of it after the first week, it seemed cool the first week having a few drinks and sharing a cocktail with a friend or two online. And this thing is still sitting under one of my folders. I'm like, "Should I get rid of it? Should I get rid of it?" And then this little thing in back in my head is like, "We're still in a pandemic, someone's going to use it." And I'm like, "When?" I don't know if it's one of those things that-

Dusty Weis:

That's the thing that kills me about it. It feels so final to delete an app from your phone. You can just download it again in five minutes. It's not like it's a big deal, but it's so hard to pull the trigger.

Stephanie Davis:

There are so many questions.

Hiran Patel:

Right. It's hard to deleting anything digital. It's like, "Aah," but you know you don't use it, but it's like, "Just press it. Just press it."

Dusty Weis:

Well, if the app doesn't bring you joy, you should delete it # 2021 problems. But as long as we are on the topic of the pandemic and COVID-19. COVID-19 impacted businesses across the country and restaurants took it especially hard on the chin. How have you gone about navigating all of that as a restaurateur?

Hiran Patel:

This was one of the toughest challenges that we've ever faced, or I think many of us have throughout this world. But specifically talking about us at Naansense, I'm not sure how familiar many people are going to be with the Loop of Chicago, but we were really severely devastated because we're in the financial Loop of Chicago where there's not really, a lot of-

Dusty Weis:

That's where everybody goes to work. And so if they're not going to the office, they're not coming to patronize your business, right?

Hiran Patel:

Exactly. So we lost every single customer within a night. We tried a bunch of things, we tried to do those meal kits, delivery orders, we tried many things for the first month, but we were just losing money. We weren't able to even generate a profit. It's because our customers come in the city and they leave the city. And no one in Chicago really knows of us because we're not at one of those community restaurants or part of like a neighborhood of Chicago. We're just a quick fix for a lot of these loop workers that come in and come out. But along the way, we did try new things. And like I said to you during the fast five round, was we were able to secure a really good partnership with some good industry veterans to help us grow this business.

Hiran Patel:

So they were obviously along the ride with us in handling all of these new challenges. And having a team of individuals that really have an intellectual perspective on how to navigate things, we decided that, "Hey, we've been talking about doing retail sauces and items for several years. Why don't we engage those areas again now as the restaurants are closed." So we did. We spent a lot of time developing new product lines, simmer sauces, naans. And we do see some things gaining movement for later this year to be in the marketplace.

Dusty Weis:

So these are actually going to be products that you can go to the grocery store and buy. And I imagine, for you, going out and brokering the partnerships needed to offer your products in stores is a whole other realm of expertise that you probably weren't familiar with. What have been the pain points that you've had to overcome in finding that new venue for your products?

Hiran Patel:

A lot of that comes in to just finding the right manufacturers and suppliers. One of the things, one of the core messages that we've always held true to it is, everything has to be clean. It has to be clean label, no preservatives. And those were some of the challenges that we faced along the way is making sure that as you start to make a recipe from, let's say, one gallon to now you're making a thousand gallon batches, there's got to be some areas of give and take. And there's a lot of shortcuts that you can take as well in terms of preservatives, flavors and things like that. But one area where we remained focused and adamant was that we have to find suppliers and manufacturers that can provide us clean labels and safe products for our customers, for our future customers.

Stephanie Davis:

That's all so exciting, a great way to expand the business. Right now, Naansense has two locations. Are there any plans on your radar to expand and open even more?

Hiran Patel:

Yeah, from the time we spoke, Stephanie, and now we did pick up one more location, so there will be three locations coming soon. I won't mention the location as it hasn't been finalized yet. I just don't want to put any bad omens out there until we have our signatures on there. But yeah, my goal with Naansense is to hopefully have a Naansense in every major metro market in America. I think that us Americans, we've really evolved a lot the past 10 years in terms of things that we seek, or want to try, or experience. And food is one of those things that I've seen so much change the past 10 years. And knowing that not only has Indian food, but Indian culture has also made us mainstream as well, the past several years.

Hiran Patel:

So in seeing all of these things happen, I really, it's one of my goals, I want to see Naansense in Austin. I want to see a Naansense in Orlando. I want to see a Naansense in Atlanta. For me, it's also a good escape to travel and see new places. One of my passions is flying. I wanted to be a pilot before all of this. And now seeing that I have a career that can allow me to go see and experience new places, this is the perfect marriage of both worlds.

Dusty Weis:

You had mentioned that your decision to get into the restaurant business was one that was deeply personal for you when your dad pulled you aside and told you to find your calling. But I imagine that being able to tie that calling to your cultural roots as a person of Indian descent is something that's been really gratifying for you as well.

Hiran Patel:

Yeah, it has, and it's also one of the things that... you know, I was brought up being really culturally Indian, and also being very American at the same time. And I think that Naansense is going to really allow us to, or allow me to, really showcase that whole American Indian diaspora of my background. Because there are ways that I eat specifically because I'm an American, there's certain ways that I was raised, and also, I see certain ways how us Americans like to eat food.

Hiran Patel:

And this is, I would call Naansense flavors super authentic, but the way we present things are a little different than culturally how they'd be presented in India. Because we want to demystify some of the things that many people have heard or felt for the past so many decades of Indian food, of being spicy, I don't like it, and this is all just things that are things that come to mind before you ever even tried it. So being in this position of wanting to open as many locations as we can, I'm looking forward to showing some of those really close American Indian flavor profiles that will fit really well with our palette in this country as well.

Dusty Weis:

Well, it sounds like the business is primed to explode and you're in an exciting place, both from the branding standpoint, but also from the expansion standpoint. And so we appreciate your taking the time to share your story with us and fill us in on some of the details there. And as we start to come out of this pandemic and the economy picks back up, we wish you nothing but success in growing the business going forward here. I think that it really sounds like you've got a great concept and the sky is the limit at this point.

Dusty Weis:

But Hiran, we got to thank you as well for joining us on this episode of Back of the Napkin. It's been so great chatting with you.

Hiran Patel:

Oh no, thank you guys, as well. I was really excited to do this. It's just one of the things for the past year, one thing I love the business I'm in is by seeing people and talking to people. And this is one of the things I miss the most the past year, is not seeing customers' faces, talking to people. So thank you guys for allowing me to be on here and having a good time with you guys.

Stephanie Davis:

I always enjoy talking about food, but it's also nice to combine it with a great business story too. I'm ready to hop back on a plane to Chicago and check out Naansense, pop in on Pequod's and just go on the best food tour ever.

Dusty Weis:

You better make sure that you swing up to Milwaukee then, Steph, while you're at it. Don't forget. We've got everything that Chicago's got just half the price and easier parking.

Stephanie Davis:

And you have cheese and I'm always there for that too.

Dusty Weis:

We'll get you out for a good fish fry, some deep fried cheese curds, a little bit of Lakefront beer, and you'll be all set. That's the way we do things in the Brew City. But that much said, that is all that we have for this episode of Back of the Napkin where we explore big journeys in the world of small business with the personalities who make it happen.

Stephanie Davis:

Please make sure that you're subscribed on your favorite podcast app. And if you enjoyed the show, leave us a five-star rating or even a review. We would love to hear from you about any ideas that you have for small business owners who we should be featuring on this show.

Dusty Weis:

Back of the Napkin is brought to you by SurePayroll from easy online payroll to 401k support and award-winning customer service, SurePayroll has been serving the payroll and business needs of small businesses for more than 20 years.

Stephanie Davis:

Here on Back of the Napkin, I am the executive producer. Co producers are Dave Pappa and Carey Straetz and our production partners, our Podcamp Media.

Dusty Weis:

Where we provide branded podcast production services for businesses, our editor and producer is Larry Kilgore III. So thanks for tuning in to Back of the Napkin. I'm Dusty Weis.

Stephanie Davis:

And I'm Stephanie Davis.