Updated: June 1, 2021 4:12:00 pm
In another world, Munaf Kapadia’s entrepreneurial story would be a coming of age film — a boy quits a high-flying job to start a homegrown business. The duress of convincing his parents would constitute the emotional core and approval from strangers, the clinching parting shot. But life begins where films end.
Growing up, Munaf’s religious identity was rooted in eating Bohra thaal at home. Food was the access and vestige of his community. While still at Google, he worked on expanding his roots, acquainting people with Bohri food. The business began at home. He sent a WhatsApp invitation to everyone he knew. Most responded asking not to spam. But come Sunday, and the first batch of strangers arrived at his Colaba house. They sat together and ate Bohri food out of a thaal. Believing they had guests, Munaf’s parents were thrilled. His mother Nafisa was the star. The subterfuge business worked and word of mouth travelled.
This was in 2016. Since then, the journey constitutes of expanding into delivery chains, renting bigger places, celebrities calling for home visits, closing down operations, and finally going back to where they had started — a small kitchen in Worli.
It is an incredible story, scripted better by life than any cinematic embellishments could. In How I Quit Google to Sell Samosas — an immensely readable book that doubles up as personal expedition of his mother– Munaf and his wife Zahabia Rajkotwala map The Bohri Kitchen’s (TBK) journey using humour as the chosen language.
Over a phone and video conversation with indianexpress.com, Munaf speaks about his relationship with food, why he wants TBK to be more than a startup that survived the pandemic, and that contrary to popular belief, his mother saved him.
Your book reads like part memoir and part self-help. The fact that it doesn’t take itself seriously contributes to the lucidity of the writing. Was that the plan from the outset?
The book has gone through a lot of evolutions. The first time publications showed interest, they wanted a recipe book. It made sense given there exists a ready market for that. But my vision was to narrate my journey and write something that people can read in a couple of hours and feel happy. The common perception of a successful entrepreneur is one who raises a lot of money. But in my case, the journey has been phenomenal and I wanted to share that. That can be a victory as well.
Can you take us through the process of pitching and writing the book?
For me, The Bohri Kitchen was always a story to tell. In the past whenever I created a social media page, I narrated the story as a social experiment to see how people would respond. Once I did that for 4-5 years, I kept thinking of ways to expand it. Around that time a friend convinced me to write a book. My research started with looking up on the Internet how to write a book. It was then that I stumbled onto Kanishka Gupta (literary agent). I sent him a rough draft and he said it was rubbish. The thing is, the idea of the book was in my head but I lack the skills of long-form writing, My wife, Zahabia is a phenomenal reader and writer. She stepped in and when we met Kanishka in 2019 he liked the idea. He did a great job in pitching it to various publishing houses. HarperCollins liked it and Sonal Nerurkar (the editor) handheld us through the entire process.
Was writing during lockdown therapeutic, given professionally things had taken a dismal turn?
The writing was both therapeutic and stressful. All of 2020 we were writing the book. Even though I had a clear idea of the index — a blueprint of milestones — it was overwhelming. What was comforting was remembering how far we had come. Zahabia did a great job in packaging the book, closing the loops. She also wrote a couple of chapters.
When lockdown happened, we had the structure of the book but then my business when through a crazy ride. I didn’t know how to end the book. Even when I was writing the final draft, I was contemplating shutting down TBK. But I ended on an open note and luckily it worked out.
How has the reception been?
In terms of business, it is not good. I had tremendous expectations in my head but the pandemic has meant no bookstore is opened. That is the bad part. The good part is the feedback. It has been shockingly good. We know we are first-time writers, we don’t even end on a success note. The fact that people are liking the book is a big surprise
Even though How I Quit Google to Sell Samosas maps your journey, it is, in equal parts, your mother’s story. Your idea of opening The Bohri Kitchen made a businesswoman out of her. Was that gratifying?
The interesting thing is everyone thinks I am that cool son who got his mother out of the kitchen. In reality, it is the other way around. I didn’t save her, my parents saved me. When I was in Google — the best company in the world — I was bored out of my mind. I had several ideas in my mind, one of them was starting The Bohri Kitchen. My mom just well along. They had no financial interest in the project but for four years they sacrificed their personal space and time on weekends for me.
We never appreciated my mom’s cooking skills the way we do now. When guests arrived the first time, they finished eating the meal and hugged my mother. And suddenly, Shilpa Shetty was giving an award to her. The funny thing is in all of this, she has not changed a bit. She is still the identical person she was — sincere and genuine. If there was an article about us in the paper, my father would buy 10 copies. Now they are like, ‘So, what else is happening?’ They are the reason why I could do this.
Did the Bohri Kitchen change your relationship with your mother?
I am sure it has but I must have not recognised it. One of the reasons behind starting TBK was my guilt. Being the youngest of four siblings I was convinced that my mother had to sacrifice a lot for us. She never told me this but I assumed. So I kept pushing her to monetise her hobbies, be a businesswoman. But what I realise today is she doesn’t want to be that. She wants to do things at her own pace and scale. She is phenomenally talented and is capable of running a company if she wants to but she doesn’t, and at this stage in her life who am I to decide for her?
I remember there was one stressful period where I desperately looked for someone to oversee the productions. I kept telling mom to do it. She said, ‘no, I am not interested in going to that dirty kitchen of yours and replicate my food. I am ready to extreme myself here.’ She never saw it as a business. She saw it as 30 people coming at home and she would happily feed them her food.
It took me two years to come to terms with it. Ultimately the lesson I learned is that I need to be that person. So I learnt how to make my mom’s biryani to supervise the boys. Once I got funding, I hired someone to standardise my mother’s recipe. I wanted her to be who I wanted her to be but in the end, I came closer to who she is.
What is the situation now?
My mom is my head chef. Every few days my parents run the taste of TBK. They have a very low threshold if something is not nice. Everything operationally happens in the kitchen in Worli. In a way, life has come full circle. In 2017 I raised funds, opened a bigger kitchen. By 2020 everything was shut down and somehow we have managed to get back on our feet and restart operations from the first kitchen. We are making profits for the first time.
We have a completely different business model now, where we are chasing values instead of numbers. The idea is to move to a better kitchen, and be more than some business which survived during a pandemic.
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