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Profile: Shamil Thakrar

Shamil Thakrar (1990, PPE)

Shamil Thakrar co-founded Dishoom, one of the UK’s most successful Indian restaurant groups, in 2010. He runs the business with his cousin Kavi Thakrar. Dishoom was ranked fourth in the “100 Best UK Companies To Work For” list in 2021, ranking first in hospitality and leisure. This interview took place at Dishoom Shoreditch in September 2021.

You’ve talked in the past about businesses needing to have a big heart. What does that mean?
I was new to the restaurant business when we started Dishoom, so I came to it quite fresh. My background was fairly commercial. Like many people out of Univ, I’d gone into consulting – most recently at Bain & Company. I had also been to Harvard Business School, and at Univ, I’d read PPE, so my whole inclination was to be very analytical about everything. As you approach a business, you probably have a template in your head about how to run it, which might include revenue, sales, cost, profit, the capital you spend and the return you generate. On one level that’s exactly how business runs, but a year or two in we had an insight that the best way to make the business work was not to focus just on profit but to also think about the awesome food and drink, great service and a happy team. If you control the costs at the same time, then the revenue and the profit that comes after that is like applause for doing a good job.

We developed a philosophy which we called Seva. Seva is the Hindi word for selfless service. At its heart, Seva is an act of generosity. We felt that all of us came into hospitality for a reason, which was that we like serving people. It’s part of human nature, we’re happiest when we’re giving of ourselves. At the same time, you’ve obviously also got to do it to the best of your ability. For me, those two have to come together. I think that businesses need to be big-hearted and look after people. We work extremely hard to make sure that we’re giving the best possible experience to our customers, and our team. If we do that properly, and sensibly, then I think we’re entitled to a good return on the bottom line.

We found that when we moved the focus onto big-heartedness and making people happy, the profitability and the revenues of the business changed significantly. Sales went up massively. It transformed our financial performance. It might sound naive to a hardened businessperson, but I think that the more generously you give in business, the more you try and create value for the people you’re trying to serve, the more successful your business will be.

You’ve talked a lot about being authentic; that you’ve got to believe in something and be passionate about it.
There’s a lovely quote from Joseph Conrad in Heart of Darkness – I think it’s Marlow who says that principles are not enough, they are like chaff in the wind – you need a deliberate faith. I think of Jony Ive, who was in charge of design at Apple with Steve Jobs, who gave a lecture about the MacBook. More than caring about its profitability, he cared about the design engineering that went into it, and how beautiful it was. I think it’s really good to believe in something to make a living out of it. There are many ways up the mountain though. Different people have different business recipes. I’m not claiming this is the only way, but I think ours is a nice way – and there’s perhaps better scenery!

What advice would you give to our Young Univ entrepreneurs?
I’d like to think that really great businesses start with a feeling of generosity, wanting to give or do something for the world. If you’re motivated beyond the financial, if you’re motivated to give the world something – whether to your customers or to the team that you build up around you, or to the community via a charity – then you’ll have enough passion to help you succeed. If you’ve got something else that is driving you, you’ll go that much further.

As an example, the way we work is that we write a narrative, a story for each restaurant we build. You’re probably not going to do something like that if you’re only motivated by the profit. For each restaurant, we create a kind of founding myth that guides every single detail of each space. In the story for this restaurant we’re sitting in now, in Shoreditch, we dreamt of an old Irani Café from Bombay that shuffles across the ocean and settles itself in a dirty corner of Shoreditch. By contrast, in the story of our Soho restaurant, we invented the character of an Irani from Bombay who comes to London in the 1960s. He comes to study something like accounting or law but because it’s the 1960s we find him becoming a songwriter, tripping at sunrise on Primrose Hill, or dancing at the Ad Lib with David Bailey and Jean Shrimpton. We find him with a telegram in his pocket, a sort of palm print of sadness on his chest, from his sister and mother asking him to come back to India because his father is dead. He goes back, and we imagine that our restaurant in Soho, on Kingly Street, is the one that he builds when he goes back.

As another example, when we launched our place in Kensington, we did it not just as a restaurant, but as an immersive theatre production. The story of the restaurant centres around a guy called Cyrus Irani, and it’s set in 1949. Cyrus is a cross between Rick from Casablanca and Carlito from Carlito’s Way, and so while he has a dubious past, he’s a good guy who cares. This guy has come out of prison, he’s got some money and he buys an old cinema called Liberty cinema. We spent time photographing every inch of the real Liberty cinema, and we’ve recreated that in the restaurant – down to the cornicing, the lights and the panelling. I guess I’m fortunate because I like film noir, I like jazz, I like Art Deco, and I got to bring together all of these varied interests.

In the book, there’s a theme of finding ways to make new places feel like home. When you first moved to Oxford, did you have any cosy corners that felt like home?
When you go to a new city, the things that make it work for you and feel familiar are the places of comfort, the places you retreat to. I think the Chapel at Univ is a place like that. I used to sneak into the Chapel every now and again for some peace and quiet. And to hear a service or Evensong on a Sunday night was brilliant. It was beautiful. Everyone else was in the beer cellar at that time of the day, so sneaking off to the chapel was something that was quite special.

It was a real dream, an aspiration to get to Oxford, so I was really happy to be there. I think I probably settled in reasonably quickly. However, I did find the pace of the first couple of terms quite difficult, and I didn’t find PPE all that easy, to begin with. But then you settle into the rhythm of essays twice a week, 16 essays a term. You learn quickly that if you turn up for a tutorial and you haven’t prepared, then you’re in deep trouble. You can’t hide. That process of having to crack a subject is enormously helpful because it gives you the tools and the training to be able to crack a subject, more or less on your own, with a bit of guidance. For me, that analytical discipline was enormously important.

Shamil drinking, looking pensivelyDid some of your creative interests develop at Univ?
I was working with someone a few years ago, and I was saying that I’m quite an analytical person who’s discovered creativity a bit later in life. And they said, you’re not, you’re a creative person who pushed themselves through an analytical training. I’m really grateful for that, because I think the analytical training is enormously helpful to be able to put things into practice and make them happen. At the same time, the application of creativity helps you enormously, and you can make things happen with all those analytical tools.

Are you still in touch with people from Univ?
Some of my most enduring friendships are from my Univ days. I’m in regular, daily touch with some of them, which is really nice. Univ was enormously bonding.

It’s interesting that the charities Dishoom supports are concerned with giving children food, and breakfast in particular. How did that come about?
Something else we really care about is bringing people together over food and breaking down barriers between different sorts of people. One year we were sitting around a table full of food, and asked our chef Naved, who is Muslim, what Ramadan was about, and he said that it was about depriving yourself, so you know what it is to have little, and it’s about the contributions you make. During Ramadan, you give a Zakat, which is your gift to somebody else. So, we decided to donate two meals that year, for every meal that we served in the restaurants for Ramadan, and then at Diwali that same year we made that permanent. For every breakfast, we donate a meal to Magic Breakfast, which provides healthy school breakfasts to children at risk of hunger in disadvantaged areas of the UK. For every dinner, we donate a meal to The Akshaya Patra Foundation, a non-profit organisation that tackles hunger and malnutrition among children in India and the UK. We’ve donated 11 million meals so far. I’m really very proud that we’re able to serve in that way.

In your book, you say, “When people break bread together, barriers break down.”
I think that when you break bread together, you’re less likely to hate each other. When Partition happened, and the British left India, there was considerable violence as a result of the redrawing of boundaries and the creation of Pakistan and India. In Delhi and Calcutta, there was enormous bloodshed. Bombay was much more peaceful. Part of that is geographical, but it’s also because of the cosmopolitan nature of Bombay, which is partly due to shared spaces like the Irani cafés. If you break bread together, you’re with each other shoulder to shoulder, and you’re less likely to be violent the next day.

We used to celebrate as a family a lot at Hindu festivals, and it struck me that it was really important to celebrate across other religions at Dishoom as well. So, we do big Muslim festivals and we have Christmas Carols. All of that was for me extremely important in bringing people together, which is what we love doing. The world needs that – for people to see each other as people, not as different tribes.

In your book, there’s a wonderful quote by your father, Rashmi Thakrar, that “for something to truly succeed it must have a little poetry at the heart of it.”
You’ve got to find something that moves you, that you really care about, that’s not just an opportunity to make a buck. If you’re an entrepreneur with a mission, then I think you’re much more likely to make something successful. Fundamentally I think we make decisions because while our head has rationalised it, our heart has taken us there. Even the most analytical decisions we take are on some level emotional or intuitive.

What you have to do is figure out where you are unique, or where you have a different view of the world, and then nurture that. You’ve got to find that way in which you perceive the world differently, where you can see the connections that other people might not be able to see.

How do you create a company people want to work for and attract and retain like-minded people?
Unless you really care about culture and looking after people because you think it’s important, you won’t prioritise it. If you’re just doing it because you think that will make you a better profit, then it’s pretty hard to do. I felt that it was important from the beginning. For many people here, this is their livelihood and this is where they’re spending their life, they have families, so suddenly it becomes a responsibility and you have to take it seriously. There are 1,200 people in the team now. And I try to spend a lot of time with our team and at least a good half day in one of the eight restaurants each week.

Over the past eighteen months, you’ve had to adapt, and I read on your blog that you hadn’t planned to be cycling people’s food to them.
We have twelve delivery kitchens – and deliver in London, Brighton and Cambridge. I didn’t want to do it at first because I felt that what we did was about the restaurant experience, but in a business sense, the delivery is working really well. We then managed to get to a point where we were very happy with the quality – we worked really hard on getting the dishes out of the menu that weren’t travelling well, and making sure that the dishes that are left are really good. We also have a meal kit business – you can make a Dishoom Bacon Naan Roll at home – and we cracked a way of getting you to make naan which puffs up under the grill. It’s something that came out of lockdown – it wasn’t something we were intending to do before.

Is there anything or anyone else you’d like to mention from your Univ days?
I’ve got to put a word in for Mrs Crawford, she was amazing. Some people might remember her as tough, but she has a heart of gold. And Bill Sykes was a massive influence: I did his reflections for three years – Friday mornings at 9am I think – with a friend of mine, Will. It was one of the most important parts of my College experience. It gave me a real grounding. Univ is a great education, our tutors were brilliant and PPE is a great discipline, but I think the pastoral and moral education was equally as important. Bill would challenge you and mould you gently. I think he was interested in Univ turning out fine young people who could contribute to the world – I have an enormous soft spot for him.

I’m really grateful for my Univ education. It was just brilliant. I’m grateful for the experiences of organising the Univ Ball, even the essay crises. A lot of the stuff that I learnt, it’s still very alive for me.

This feature was adapted from one first published in Issue 14 of The Martlet; read the full magazine here or explore our back catalogue of Martlets below:

Published: 14 March 2022

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