Vijay (finance to restaurateur)
This interview is with Vijay Brihmadesam, founder and CEO of Tava Indian Kitchen, a new concept fast-casual restaurant, and was conducted and summarized by Andrew Chen. (Download the full audio recording of this interview here.)
Q. Tell us about your background.
A. Sure. I’m 27 years old, went to Duke University, graduated with a degree in biomedical engineering and public policy, with a minor in chemistry, and then worked at Bain & Company as an associate consultant for two years. I then worked at Huntsman Gay Global Capital as a private equity associate for two years, and just recently, about a year ago, transitioned to starting my own restaurant, Tava Indian Kitchen, with two friends from college who had also been colleagues of mine at Bain.
Q. How has your career path taken you to what you’re doing today, and what are the major thought processes you went through at critical decision moments along the way?
A. I think one of the more interesting parts of my career path is that, at no point when I started one position in my career, did I know what the next position was going to be.
When I went to Duke, I had no idea what consulting was. I found out about it when I was actually a senior applying to medical school, and one of my friends recommended that I try consulting because he didn’t think med school was a good fit.
When I went into consulting, I had no idea what private equity was until two or three months before I started applying to it. When I was in private equity, it was literally within eight months of getting that job that a couple of friends and I came up with this idea and we decided to pursue it.
So I think one of the key things for me is that I just wanted to excel in the career path I was in, and live in the moment a little bit, and not worry as much about having my life plan chartered out for me.
Q. Then how is it that you got up to speed quickly enough regarding the transitions you did make from college to consulting, consulting to finance, and finance to entrepreneurship, to prepare you to actually transition successfully?
A. The biggest thing is that, at the time I took any of those positions, I was very excited about what I was doing and I was ready to put in the hours to learn it.
It’s a combination of hard work and being excited about it, which drives you to pick up what the key characteristics are of that industry, and just learning as much as you can and talking to everyone about it.
It really needs to become your life. If it wasn’t your life’s aspiration, and there are other people who have been doing it for years, then you really have to make it a much bigger part of your life for that period when you’re trying to pick it up.
Q. Tell us how you made the transition from private equity investing, which is more like a traditional office job, to starting your own restaurant chain where you have to get out there and hustle every single day? What are the specific steps you took to help you transition successfully?
A. While it was interesting being an investor and learning the cursory levels of a business, one of the things that was really helpful was, through the breadth that you saw across different management teams and different CEOs, was how different people thought about their businesses and how they actually make their businesses more effective.
Taking that and translating it into one single vertical, and becoming much more deeply immersed in that vertical, I think, is what differentiates us as a management team for a restaurant. We’re bringing insights that we took from a call center company we had invested in and trying to apply that to restaurants, or insights we learned from technology companies and trying to apply that to restaurants.
I think that’s how the transition has helped. Moving from a desk job to a day-to-day, in the field hustle, it has been a much more creative experience, and that’s really been one of the major joys of this business.
In private equity, the field is so well-defined. Everyone knows how to build models. You can build models in templates now. Whereas here, no one’s really built this model, or built the model the way we want to build it.
And so it’s been great because every step of the way, you’re actually being really creative. So while it may be harder on your body, on the mind it’s even more enjoyable because you’re actually trying to create your own little baby, create your business, and create your model, and constantly evolving it by talking to people.
Q. From the time you first started having conversations with your co-founders to officially opening your doors for business, what were the key things you did to make your restaurant a reality?
A. I guess the story started when I hopped on a flight from Atlanta to Denver, and I didn’t know it but one of my really good friends from college was on the same flight, and another friend who I happened to sit next to alerted me to it, and we all switched seats and we sat next to each other for the flight.
And for the first 45 minutes, we were talking about how, as we graduated from college, and what we thought we’d be doing in the work force was never close to what we were doing.
We felt like we were just kind of running the race. Not necessarily creating a ton of value in our specific jobs, and we wanted to do something that was more creative and made people happy.
So we came up with this idea on the flight, myself and Jason. And after the flight, we called Hasnain and asked him to join us. A day later, we got a two-page long e-mail back from him about how excited he was to get going on this. That was in January 2011.
By April, we had our first taste test in Atlanta. Jason and Hasnain were living in Atlanta at the time. We did a really lean taste test where we bought tortillas, we bought random ingredients, and we just rolled them together and said, “Hey, how does Indian food in a tortilla taste?”
One of our friends who happened to come to the event relatively inebriated was looking at the paper menu we put out, and he was like, “Guys, you can’t call these ‘roti wraps.’ You’ve got to call it burroti.” And the name stuck.
From there, we started examining the finances of major chains, talking to friends who had friends who were running their own personal restaurants, and trying to understand what the financials look like.
And in the end, for a restaurant in the fast-casual industry, it comes down to your return on capital. If you’re not doing this just as a side project or a hobby, you have to return money on your capital to keep building and keep growing.
So we started looking through what the major drivers of cost were and started refining our models so that we were spending money where it would matter for the customer, and not necessarily where it was just a nice bell and whistle for a really gourmet chef. And so we built a really lean box and started moving from there.
Somewhere along the process, we got pointed to Eric Ries’s “Lean Startup” book, and we started realizing we can constantly test and keep innovating on various aspects of our business very cheaply, and get really effective results that will point us in the right direction, and that’s how we’ve constantly chosen to refine our model.
I think one of the ways you see it is, if you look at our Yelp reviews, early on they really fluctuate, but lately they’ve really just flattened at a pretty high level. That’s exactly what we anticipated happening. We kept testing random things, and we were getting closer and closer to the mean, but we were never there — until now, where we make tests and it’s not causing a huge fluctuation in the way people view our product.
Q. What were some of the biggest insights you learned regarding the taste preferences of your customers?
A. Well, I think an easy one is the chicken. We initially had a recipe where we marinated yogurt. It was actually a very complicated process in the back. And then one day we switched out for a dry rub. It was a little bit less salty actually, even though it was a dry rub, and customers loved it. It was just this immediate test we did, and customers didn’t even notice we were doing it in the back.
Another one early on was we had a saag recipe we were trying to test out. We thought everyone would want a spinach-based recipe, but most people veered away from it. In a taste test of 40 people, maybe one or two people would pick the saag. Everyone else went to tikka and daal. And so we thought to ourselves, we should focus on making the two things the other 38 people are eating, and not worry about what the last two may want on a whim that day.
It’s being hyper-focused with a minimal viable product and building our concept around that product. When we opened, we didn’t even have mango lassis ready. We didn’t have naan chips ready. We didn’t have a lot of our side items ready when we opened. That was intentional. We didn’t want our staff to have to worry about things that we viewed as add-ons, and we wanted them to make sure they were executing on the core product extremely well.
Q. Eric Ries’s book was written certainly with a software developer’s audience in mind, but I think he would be proud that you applied a lot of the principles to a more traditional brick-and-mortar business.
A. It’s interesting. One of our investors was talking to me and he was said, “You’re kind of a non-traditional investment for me. But I say that and it’s kind of weird, because in reality, everyone thinks traditional investments are tech companies, but in reality most businesses that are started in the US are actually brick-and-mortar joints like yours, not tech startups.”
Q. Tava Indian Kitchen is doing really well currently. Tell us about your role as the founding CEO. What do you do on a day-to-day basis?
A. Everything from taking out the trash and doing dishes to negotiating new leases. For all the founders, we’re founders first, and then “CXO.” In reality, the role of founder is utility player. You’re out there doing everything, trying to learn everything, making sure you can do everything so that you can “learn it, do it, teach it.” And keep growing out of roles in your business in order to allow other people to take those over so you can start creating new roles and grow your company quickly.
Q. What is it like working with your founding team? How did you meet?
A. All three of us met at Duke. I met Hasnain in 2004 and Jason in 2005. We all graduated from Duke and we actually all worked at Bain together at the same Bain office. We were all TAs for the same class at Duke, the Introduction to Public Policy class. Then we all worked at Bain together, and then I left Bain a little bit early to go work in private equity, and then we all got the band back together.
So we know each other really well. We work really well together. We’re brutally honest with each other. And I think it makes debates a lot more lively, interesting, and fun. We get each other’s insights very quickly. There’s very little explanation that has to be done around each other’s insights. It’s more like, is your lens the right lens to view the world through or not, and are you right in the way that you’re doing it?
Q. What do you find most exciting about your current role and what do you most wish you could change?
A. I think the most exciting part is that this is the most creative job I’ve had since graduating college, and that’s definitely where most of my energy comes from — the way you attack the problem. And the solutions to problems are very different than just analyzing data or thinking about an investment.
I think the biggest thing is, if you get a bad review when you work in a desk job, you just feel a little bit down about it. You feel like, “Oh, well, I didn’t do a good job. I should be doing better in my class.” It’s like a race and very comparative.
But here, when you mess up something, you don’t feel bad about it. The next thought on your mind is, how do I fix it, and let me run at this really hard real quickly to get it done. Or if somebody else messes up, like if I mess something up, Hasnain is running just as hard as me to go get my mistake fixed. He’s not upset with me. We constantly drop balls and we’re constantly catching each other balls.
It’s that attitude of let’s just keep getting better, as opposed to necessarily worrying about what happened in the past or how we got here. We’re dealing with this moment, we’re going to get better, and we’re going to do that by listening to our customers and making sure they have a great customer experience, making sure our employees are happy and know what they’re doing, and delivering quality food.
Q. What do you most wish you could change?
A. Probably my income. It’s infinitely less than what I was making before. But it’s not really a concern. It’ll work out. I’m not too worried about it. But I think that’s the only thing that’s different but was more positive about what I was doing before.
Q. What do you most wish you knew starting out that you know now?
A. I don’t think I could have gotten to this point without taking that path. There’s a lot of things I’ve learned, a lot of people I’ve met. I don’t know that I’ll look back and think my path should have been different to get to this point. I’m not one of those people who would have done well if I just left college and started a company — and I know that.
Bain was extraordinarily informative. Huntsman was pretty eye-opening, and also the contacts I made were pretty incredible – great friends, and a good set of my investors were due to Huntsman.
So I don’t know if there was anything in particular. I mean, maybe it would be great if I had known more about private equity when I started at Bain, or something l like that, but in reality I think that led to me enjoying that experience and not necessarily using it as a means to move on to the next step.
Q. Or maybe phrased differently, what do you feel have been your biggest learnings over the past year?
A. I think the biggest learning I’ve had is that it’s a lot harder to run a business than what I thought it was when I was an investor. As an investor, you look at the models, you look at the financials. Or as a consultant, you say, “Oh, this looks off. You should change it.”
And in reality, changing it is a lot more painful for the operator than you would ever imagine. There are so many small things in the business to getting it right, and it always feels like it’s kind of on the brink of falling apart.
And so it’s like, you may need to go change this one major item, but you have like fifty small things you’re trying to deal with right now. And at times, those analytical insights are very helpful. But at times, they’re just like, okay well, you just don’t understand my business at this moment.
When somebody tells you something simple like, you need to have bigger bread, it just takes time to go find it and source it, and it takes even more time to get it done because you have all these other things you need to square away before you can go away for two or three days and hang out at a bakery to figure out the right bread.
Q. Where do you ideally want to go in the future, and how do you think what you’re doing today will help you toward that goal?
A. I have never been a life planner and I haven’t started. So I’m not really sure where it will take me. At the moment, I’m just enjoying creating a restaurant and trying to expand it, and creating a lot of jobs and making great food for folks. That’s awesome. I haven’t really figured out how that fits into the life plan yet.
Q. What advice do you have for people who might be interested in transitioning, either into a role you have done before, like consulting or investing, or who might have aspirations to start their own business someday?
A. Just work hard at it. Work hard at whatever you’re doing now. Don’t ever leave on a bad note. By the same token, don’t be intimidated by the next step. You can pick it up and just work hard. As long as it’s something you’re passionate and excited about at that moment, you’ll be fine.