For many of us cooped up in offices and working against punishing deadlines, the ultimate dream is of quitting the rat race to follow our passion and be one’s own boss. But, for most, it remains just that: a chimera that we hesitate to translate into action due to life’s practicalities. Fortunately, there are some – like Aniruddha Gharat, Vijay Kumar and Aparna Tomar – who left their comfort zones to plunge into the unknown.
Franchisees of Little Italy (managed by Shubham Foods – the company they created) the trio earlier worked in the Information Technology sector. Aniruddha says that it was IT that brought him to Bangalore but, after 15 years, he began to feel “Enough is enough”. Not that the industry was treating him badly. Far from it.
Having been with Infosys for a considerable period, he led a very comfortable life. But there was a restlessness that had him toying with the idea of setting up his own business. His wife – a dentist, supported him as he contemplated farming and hotel business. Avid foodies, they were naturally drawn to the latter.
In 2007 Aniruddha left Infosys and joined Satyam even as he evaluated possibilities in the food sector. Though bent on becoming an entrepreneur, he was concerned about having a safety net so his focus was on a franchise. “It was in the middle of this that we happened to be looking for a venue for our younger son’s birthday celebration,” recollects Aniruddha.
“Someone recommended Little Italy in Indiranagar (which closed down recently). I was impressed with the model. And it was a franchise! So I started doing homework on the brand.” Meanwhile, he talked to Vijay – former colleague, car pool partner, neighbour, long time friend and a foodie.
Like Aniruddha, Infosys had brought Vijay to the city. Equally keen to do something on his own, Vijay became part of the venture without hesitation. Together they met the Chief Managing Director (CMD) of Little Italy in Mumbai who showed them around the branches in that city and in Pune. He also introduced them to Aparna and her husband Navin, who were already interested in the franchise.
Aparna had earlier worked with IBM and TechMahindra in Bangalore. Realising that they were comfortable as a team, the three joined forces. In late January 2009 their business venture became operational in a two storied leased property in a quiet by lane of Koramangala. Serving the trademark vegetarian Italian and Mexican cuisines that Little Italy is known for, it became the 25th branch in the country.
With the capital being raised between the three and pooled into the venture, the financial stakes were high. They could not afford a failure. So in between the euphoria of finally flying on one’s own, there was also the apprehension of waiting to break even. “The restaurant started making profits four to five months down the line,” so it wasn’t too bad,” says Aniruddha.
“But we had to spend quite a bit on the bar license,” he adds. He admits that the challenge of tackling these kinds of issues is difficult for people who come from middle class families. “As a salaried person, you are shielded from the realities of the business sector. Besides, you are brought up with certain values like being ethical in your dealings. This was like going against our principles. However, you cannot let such things be a deterrent to your goal. You have to be mentally strong.”
You also must be passionate about your work and have complete family support. “On weekends, when most people take time off, we have to be around to deal with anything that crops up. And then there’s the minor issue of income,” points out Aniruddha, wryly. Since most of the profits are ploughed back into the business, the take home packet is rather small when compared to the fat salaries they once earned. “Earlier, we used to spend on anything we wanted. Now, we think before we spend,” he says.
For smoother operations, the three partners have divided tasks. Aniruddha interacts with guests and looks after customer service and communication aspects; Aparna handles HR and kitchen operations and Vijay manages the inventory and stores. But all three are hands on, with each one individually capable of handling day to day issues at the restaurant.
Close to a year since its inception, the restaurant has grown rather popular, largely through word of mouth publicity. Go on any day and you see a wide spectrum of people – families from the many residential complexes around, professionals from the IT industry seeking a fine dining option for a working lunch and youngsters from the nearby colleges and shopping mall. The weekday buffet, recently introduced, is a major draw for those looking for value for money.
The buffet, a difficult concept in Italian cuisine, is only followed in two Little Italy branches – in Hyderabad and here. “The advantage of being a franchisee of this brand is that we have creative freedom when it comes to the menu and décor, as well as the ability to price according to competition,” says Aniruddha. “At the same time, there is support from the main office such as a central staff pool from which we can draw if we have a problem. If you are a newcomer to this industry, it is better to go in for the franchise model since this kind of operational support is critical,” she adds.
For budding entrepreneurs who are worried about the capital investment, Aniruddha has this advice: “Banks give loans at attractive interest rates. But draw up a sound and convincing business plan and you could approach even venture capitalists for funding.”
So are these entrepreneurs thinking of an encore? “When we were researching for this venture, we had some other ideas like floriculture and organic farming. While the next logical step would be to do something in the food business, Vijay and I always talk of writing a book together,” says Aniruddha. “Who knows, someday we might give Chetan Bhagat a run for his money!” he ripostes with a grin. ⊕