Curating Compelling Food Experiences

Pankaj Gupta, Founder, Flavour Pot Foods LLP gets candid with EE about his love for food and more


Pankaj Gupta, Founder, Flavour Pot Foods LLP,  the group behind hospitality brands like Taftoon (BKC, Powai); Oye Kake (Fort, Lower Parel, Santacruz and Ghatkopar) and CIRQA (Lower Parel), recently spoke to EE about his restaurant chain and how the brand is curating unique experiences for its customers.

What led you to pursue a career in the restaurant industry, and what is your background?

I lived in a chawl for around 16-17 years, and the best thing about it was how cosmopolitan it was. Food was the ultimate unifying factor. There was so much generosity, and it seemed like food was constantly flying from one room to another. Often, people would even put their differences aside and smile and share their lives over food. It's amazing how powerful food can be. It not only satisfies cravings and hunger but also brings people together in a unique way. That's where my fascination with the culinary world began.

Growing up, I was a good student, but I decided to be a "bad" student for fun. Education was more of a networking opportunity for me rather than a path to a specific career. I also worked with my dad in his business, dealing with food grains and edible oil for 8 years while pursuing studies. I learned a lot about food quality and how to determine the age and condition of grains and pulses. It was a good skill to have in this industry.

After finishing my MBA, I got a job with a renowned bank, but I gave it up just three days later. I realized I couldn't do a job like that.

 I remember, one day after giving up this job, I packed my bags and went straight to Amritsar because I had fallen in love with its food before. I spent three months there, exploring and eating everything. Amritsar is a place where most people from Mumbai wouldn't even spend two nights. My parents weren't thrilled about my decision to enter the restaurant industry. They wanted me to have a stable job and a decent life.

 I didn't want to come back from Amritsar empty-handed, so I spent my time eating and figuring things out. I figured that I wanted to do a restaurant that serves food similar to Amritsar, but it was challenging to find chefs from Amritsar who were willing to leave their den. 

Amritsar is usually quiet by 9:30-10 pm. After that, I used to go to the alleys to meet chefs around 11-11:30 pm because that was the only time they could come out and meet. They were afraid of being seen in front of their owners. Somehow, I managed to poach a few chefs and formed a small team of 4-5 people. I decided to bring them to Mumbai.

 Here, I found a property for a small stall, intending to sell chole kulche, lassi, and chaat – this was my initial idea too. It was just a 200 sq ft space below Sukh Sagar building in Fort. However, the landlord suddenly became greedy and demanded more money after I paid the deposit. So, I had two options: either send my team back to Amritsar and take some time to rethink or start looking for other properties immediately. I chose latter. 

I came across a narrow space in South Bombay, Fort area, where a restaurant called Madhura was running. The place seemed like it could collapse at any moment, but for some reason, I thought, "Let's take this! This is where I want my restaurant." It didn't require much investment since there were already 10-12 tables. We just needed to give it a quick makeover. And that's how Oye Kake happened. We still have that space. I spent only 15 lakhs at that time. Today, it costs 1.5 crore to open an Oye Kake restaurant. So, it was quite a bargain back then.

Also, being a 23-year-old, no one took me seriously. To appear more credible, I tried to adopt the Bombay slang and grow a beard.

Well, this was not the only challenge. The kitchen there was not well-equipped, so I improvised by bringing home-style appliances. I even arranged for water from Amritsar to make authentic kulchas, facing challenges and waking up early to retrieve it from the train station.

 Word spread about our restaurant, Oye Kake, bringing Amritsari water to Bombay. However, with limited resources and overwhelming demand, I decided to temporarily close the restaurant after a week of operation. Recognising the need for improvement, I sought guidance from an individual who later became a valuable team member. After reorganising, we reopened as a proper restaurant but I faced initial financial struggles for two years before finally turning a profit.

 So, I would say, the unity and culinary diversity I witnessed in the chawl community, particularly through my mother's assimilation and learning from neighbours of different backgrounds, inspired me. While I realised I wasn't cut out to be a chef in the traditional sense, my business-oriented mindset from working with my father motivated me to pursue the restaurant industry.

You started Oye Kake, which was pure veg, why? Usually, Amritsari and Punjabi love their butter chicken

Honestly, when we started our vegetarian restaurant, Oye Kake, we faced setbacks because people didn't know the concept of Punjabi cuisine being primarily vegetarian in Amritsar due to the influence of the Golden Temple. To address this, I played a game with them, asking them to name five non-vegetarian and five vegetarian Punjabi dishes. During the game, people struggled to come up with non-vegetarian options beyond the popular ones like butter chicken, fish fry, chicken tikka masala, and Amritsari fry. However, they easily listed various vegetarian dishes such as kulcha, paratha, chole, rajma, dal makhani etc. This realisation reaffirmed my belief that I needed to showcase the authentic diversity of Punjabi cuisine and break the stereotype that it revolves solely around butter chicken.

Tell us about Taftoon, how it was born, and what does Taftoon mean?

The limited association of North Indian food with Punjabi cuisine bothered me, as it overlooked the rich culinary traditions of other regions like Kashmir, Awadh, Bihar, and Bengal. To address this, I collaborated with Milan Gupta, a chef and food historian, to create Taftoon, our restaurant.

 Milan proposed the idea of highlighting the Grand Trunk Road (GT Road), a historic route stretching from Kabul to Chittagong, which passes through the northern states. Despite not directly going through Kashmir, we decided to weave a story around the food. Milan also emphasised the significance of bread as a common element across this stretch. During our research, we discovered Taftaan, a Persian bread that had made its way through Afghanistan, Pakistan, and eventually reached India, particularly to Kashmir. Taftaan served as the inspiration for the name of our restaurant. Further exploration revealed that it is also referred to as "Taftoon."

 And thus, Taftoon came to life!

You are also planning a new venture CIRQA? What is the specialty of that restaurant?

We have been working on this game-changer for the past 18 months, and in just a couple of months, we will be ready to rock and roll. The target is to open in July 2023 in Lower Parel.

 CIRQA is unlike anything you have ever seen before. It's all about the bar and cocktails, with some seriously tasty tapas to go with it. CIRQA is a cocktail-forward bar, with a highly-curated selection of savoury companions, promising to be the city’s most exciting F&B experience this year. A confluence of culinary and cultural influences from around the world, CIRQA is emblematic of the true cosmopolitan spirit of Mumbai – a global city that adopts, adapts, and delivers its own unique adventure. At CIRQA the bar is the hero – slow drinking and conversations are encouraged, while you get to know your bartender over stunningly-crafted cocktails.

 Just curious to know, why is it spelt with a Q?

Our decision to spell our brand name as 'CIRQA' instead of the generic term 'circa' was driven by our goal to establish a unique identity in the market. We recognise the potential copyright and trademark issues, and being a term frequently used in art and historical references, we wanted to make a distinct difference, while being a bridge between the past and the present. Q is a hard, distinct, modern sound, with an edgy coolness to it.

We see a lot of culinary diversity in your restaurants, how will you explain that?

I have travelled extensively outside India, exploring the vibrant culinary scenes of France, Portugal, Spain, England, Berlin, and beyond. The amazing food experiences I had during my journeys inspired me to create something extraordinary. I didn't want to confine myself to a single concept because my concepts reflect my life's experiences. That’s why you’ll see so much diversity.

From the authenticity of Amritsari cuisine in Oye Kake to the innovative and unique dining experience that you'll see at CIRQA, my restaurants are an extension of my diverse journey, and all my restaurant concepts encapsulate the adventures I've lived so far. Each concept tells a story, showcasing the flavours, cultures, and inspirations that have shaped my culinary vision.

 Tell us about your expansion plans?

Exciting ones! We have been 100% bootstrapped from our inception, but are at an advanced stage of closing funding to open 10 Oye Kake outlets across four cities in the next three years. We are planning to open a Taftoon in South Mumbai by the end of this year, and are taking Oye Kake and Taftoon to Bengaluru by next year. Along with launching CIRQA in July, we are also working on an exciting concept for a new brand that should be ready to welcome guests by year-end! Lots on our plate, and I wouldn't have it any other way!

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