Goli Vadapav founder Venkatesh Iyer tells his story of turning Mumbai’s humble street food into a national brand
It was in 2003 when investment banker Venkatesh Iyer brainstormed a business idea over a glass of chai and Vadapav in hand. With 15 years of experience in the corporate world, he set out to corporatise Mumbai’s famous street food – the Vadapav! “Though I was born and brought up in the Maximum City, I never really paid attention to the poor man selling Vadapav by the roadside. But for the first time, I started to observe keenly and was fascinated by the fact that 50 vadas bobbed out of the big kadai in five minutes.
Customers of vadapav are anyone from a college-goer to a labourer or the rich who drive in luxury cars. “The idea of repackaging the vadapav into a branded product hit me and I wanted it to stand tall amidst burgers, pizzas and fries,” explains Venkatesh Iyer. The shrewd businessman brought in operations, supply chain, franchise and funding into the thela and India’s biggest fast food chain was born.
With an initial investment of Rs.One crore, he started hole-in-the-wall take-away outlets in Mumbai. Today Goli Vadapav has 300-plus stores across 100 cities and 20 states in India. The vadas are made in a centralised factory in Mumbai, from where they are put in trucks to various locations. “Our vadas are manufactured in hands-free high-end technology by the same American companies that make McDonald’s patties. When I sold my imagination and shared my ideas, corporates were impressed and I roped them in as partners. The result is hygienic, affordable and avant garde vadas that retain the desi touch and spicy taste,” says Iyer.
The idea behind Goli was to make an earthy Indian street food into a saleable appealing fast food, says Iyer. “Though the approach is global, I wanted to keep the local flavour intact. That’s why I gave the name Goli, a typical Bombaiyya slang that means ‘ranting or chatting over something’. It’s a street-culture in Mumbai to have gup-shup over vadapav. Also, the un-fried version of the vada is called ‘goli’ since it’s round.” He adds, “Some of friends suggested I should have an English name. But brand identification is crucial. For instance, Nalli saris can’t become Julie Saries and Murugan Idli can’t be called Peter’s Idli. Likewise, Vadapav is something typical of Mumbai and through ‘Goli’ we have carried the spirit and flavour of the city all along.”
“Our stores are not more than 100 sq.feet joints as the concept is to offer speedy service. As cities grow big and lives become busier, people are on the look out for quick grabs and leisure dine-ins are reserved for occasions. Vadapav is a meal in itself and can fit into your diet at any time of the day,” observes Iyer, who has introduced region-specific flavours in the menu. An eclectic mix of vadapavs (below Rs.50), vada rolls (below Rs.75) and curry pavs (below Rs.100) are offered at Goli stores. “Keeping in line with customer suggestions, we introduced corn and spinach vada in Bangalore, Samosa masala vada in UP, paneer in Punjab and Sabudana vada at stores in Maharashtra.”
Goli’s important objective is to encourage entrepreneurship and business spirit. “Our model is to rope in small businessmen with nominal investment. That’s how we grew the width of the business. We have over 50 stores in UP alone. Small towns have a huge potential as big cities become saturated. We are now exploring the depth of the business, trying to establish a sustained customer experience,” says Iyer. “Our product is sustainable as we have a strong backup. Now, we have started an app for franchisees, which is like a digital academy where we train personnels on customer service and brand uniformity. On the app, we have designed syllabus for man, money and product management.”
My mantra to success has been ‘plan, do and check’, says Iyer., who has written a book ‘My journey with Vadapav’, that’s part of curriculum in many business schools. “Building and rebuilding is a continuous process in any business. Apart from keeping a keen eye on the graph of the turnover, I also take time to travel thrice a month to various cities, meet people and share my story.” Business institutions like Indian School of Business, International Institute for Management Development, Switzerland, Harvard and CNBC have done case studies on Goli, which has also bagged the Golden Spoon Award-Most Admired Food Chain of Indian Origin,by Coca Cola.
Venkatesh Iyer was in Madurai to deliver talks to members of Young Indians and Women Entrepreneurs.