Curry evangelist Nisha Katona, Founder & MD of Mowgli Street Food shares her inspirational journey and approach to building and leading her fast-growing restaurant chain. After working as a child protection barrister for 20 years, Nisha pivoted into the hospitality industry with the sole purpose of enriching the lives in the cities Mowgli goes to, starting with the employees. In this episode, Nisha discusses her earliest memories of seeing her family tackle racism with Indian food, why picking a new site as emotional as buying a house, how she ensures Mowgli staff feel nourished, fulfilled and purposeful, Mowgli's House Charity Initiative and much, much more.
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Michael Tingsager: 0:44
Welcome to the Hospitality Mavericks Podcast, Nisha. It's a big pleasure to be here in Water Street, Liverpool, in one of your restaurants to have this conversation about Mowgli, and much, much more.
Nisha Katona: 0:56
It's good to have you here. Thanks for coming all the way up.
Michael Tingsager: 1:00
Oh, it's a pleasure. There were other reasons to be as well, but I'm very pleased that you had a little hour for us to talk about what's going on Mowgli. Just briefly, I think a lot of people know what Mowgli is. You've been around in the media recently and many good things are happening opening sites, but many people who don't know what Mowgli is can just give it a bit of a background story.
Nisha Katona: 1:19
Yeah, Mowgli is the way that Indians eat at home. That's it. So she's simply an Indian home kitchen. She's not the ultimate we're not everybody's cup of tea. If you come from a different area of India to me, you will hate me. You hate what she serves. So that all she been for 20 years I have been a child protection barrister, nothing to do with food, nothing to do with hospitality had no concept of business. In fact, I was raised to have nothing but disdain for business, which is dreadful, and would certainly never have thought of hospitality or restaurants or somewhere that I would want to be involved in as a woman. Because if you look at the way that hospitality is portrayed very often in the media, it is the psychopathic testosterone, slathered kitchens full of aggression, which is a real shame because what I've discovered is it's the most magnanimous graceful profession.
And I gave up a brilliant profession to come to this one. And my mission is to encourage others to join this profession. So how she started if you're an immigrant, you're obsessed with food very, very generally, that's the case. So I was born and raised in India and I was born in Ormskirk in the North West of England to parents who are doctors, we were always obsessed with food as we finish one meal, you think of what the next meal is. And also, it's one of those very few links that you still have to your heritage. So we've come to a completely English area, and my earliest memories were wherever the most horrendous racism, you know, bricks through windows, and like, that was my earliest memory, actually, and being firebombed and stoned on the way to school that that was just the way life was.
But we very typically used food to try and win people over. We just wanted people to like us as a family, and we would feed the neighbourhood. And that's how it started. And I saw not just how delicious this food is, but how absolutely addictive and how it won people over and then you grow up and you know, I was a barrister and I eat out a lot. It's what barristers do. We eat out a lot. In fact, part of our training is dining, you got to eat 40 dinners to be able to become a barrister. It's really interesting. And I saw that the way that Indian food was represented on the high street was something that was unrecognizable to me. It's lovely. And it has its place but it's unrecognizable very often in the Indian home kitchen. It's vegan, it's light, it's fresh in being all of those things. I think we as Indians are almost ashamed to bring it to the market because we look at you and we think you are the rich West.
What you want is you want big chunks of meat in a thick sauce, you don't want lentils and you know, spinach poached with potatoes. Exactly. And so that's why we kept it to ourselves. And Mowgli became this living idea. And I had a brilliant salary and a brilliant prospect at the bar to become a judge. And this living thing and this is the bane of many entrepreneurs, honestly used to keep me awake. And it was the last thing I wanted to do. But this thought came to me that I'm addicted to this food. And I feel so strongly that people should know about the way Indians eat at home because I also taught Indian food for about 15 years Indian cooking, then why not try and take it to the market? And that's how Mowgli started and that was just four and a half years ago.
Michael Tingsager: 4:12
It's going fast enough know how many sites today?
Nisha Katona: 4:15
Well, we just signed on the 9th site. So we'll be 12 at the end of the year, but I'm 8th now, eight sites trading now.
Michael Tingsager: 4:21
Where was the site you signed today?
Nisha Katona: 4:23
I just signed 20 minutes ago. I'm so glad you're here for that Bristol because I handpick every site I negotiate every single land deal every one of them honestly it's no to me emotionally less than buying a house these places become my home. These places become a home where I will house my children and you know my staff. It's the most important thing is so exciting and suddenly you're going into another city that you can make a difference in it's been a great morning.
Michael Tingsager: 4:51
You called it "She" that's very interesting. I've been here a couple of times. The first time I was here I came in and it was just out of business travel thought what is this around the corner what's happening here? And then I went in there was this guy grabbed me you need some food, don't do you. I said, "Yeah, yeah of course I do that". And then I could found out very quickly, that there's something special going on here. And then I started following you and I could really feel there was a different culture. Now you also talk about "She" will be quite interesting. What do you mean that she has a personality?
Nisha Katona: 5:21
It is like a living entity. And I think you will find this with lots of entrepreneurs when they have this idea. It becomes a living thing almost with a mind and a will of its own. It's crazy. And it's almost as you, it's begging you to give birth to it. So in my mind, it's always been this animated thing. I also think this thing Mowgli, I just, it's almost you know, you personify her is bigger than I could ever be better than I could ever be. She's doing more if she's clever in what she's doing for, you know, the cities that she goes to than I could ever be. It's really interesting. It's like an organic thing. You know, I only ever work in Mowgli, I don't sit in head office ever.
So I work in a restaurant every single day, eating maybe twice a day, and just being here and watching my staff animate her because that's the bottom line, I come up with the idea, and I design it. And then the face and hands of this creature are my staff, they are the face, they are the hands, I'd have nothing without them. And you watch them and you watch the way that they interact. And you watch the clients come in and give her a new life. And then you get these other ideas about you know, suddenly it says that this thing speaks to you. So I sit in the corner of a restaurant every single day and something will come to my mind. I'll watch you know, a member of staff looking a bit sad or a bit sullen. And then you think, oh my gosh, this is an unhappy child. I've got it. What can I do? What can I do to make her life better? So I honestly think of it as this living thing, which is incredible. It's not inanimate in any way in my mind.
Michael Tingsager: 6:44
So it's going incredible fast from a restaurant opening point of view, you're done almost nine sites, then when you are in Bristol, what five and a half years?
Nisha Katona: 6:56
Yeah, we will be when we open Bristol, we will be five years.
Michael Tingsager: 6:59
So how's that journey been? And also you coming from a totally different trade as a barrister? How that entry into the hospitality being and then speeding up in that way and doing it that fast. There are many that will maybe be in the trade for 20 years and only open one site. How are doing this business?
Nisha Katona: 7:16
Very easy and very pleasurable and completely easy underfoot. And I think it's the way that you philosophize about these things. I don't believe in the world we live in just because I had a good idea. Well, you know what had an idea, you put it out there. And fortuitously Thank God, you know, three weeks in, and we have queues around the block. And that hasn't abated. I built this on the basis of social media. I do all the social media, every interaction that you have with Mowgli is actually me. So I start that at eight in the morning, I finished that at two in the morning, I respond to every single tweet, Instagram post every single comment. So what you feel is whether you're wanted or not, whether you're rubbish or not, because you get that instant feedback from your clients.
And when you know that actually, people do want you in Bristol. So the reason I only go to cities where people call for us is so, at the moment, there are lots of calls for Newcastle Leeds, and Glasgow. So those are the big ones that people are shouting really, you know, getting tweets every day about that. And that gives you a kind of confidence. So it's not hubris that you're growing with, it's not because of that. It's because we're actually being called to go there. And then we open and we trade the way that we need to trade so there's no anxiety on my part. In terms of how easy or not it's been Mowgli's interesting and I think we're different and probably inferior to most of the restaurants in that these are my dishes if you come to my house, I will cook the dishes that you have in Mowgli there's a handful of dishes on the menu. Well, it's a short menu relatively I have been addicted to this food as have my ancestors for hundreds of years. I've eaten this food day in and day out for 50 years I have not been tired of it.
And so I'm not going to change the menu and when you stop changing the menu the variables reduce everything is locked down. It just makes it very easy to grow and to scale it up because I tell my chefs you know when you create my house chicken curry, it's like creating paracetamol, there is a spec down to the microgram you do not mess with it. If somebody comes in and it doesn't taste exactly as it does in Oxford, they won't come back to us because you want that consistency. And when you have your team's understanding the really empirical nature of how you create the food, then scaling is very, very simple. You're not doing battles with egos in the kitchen, we have a document basically, that if you've never worked in a kitchen before you walk into Mowgli and it will say right take this spoon switch this light on stand in this position take this pan put this much oil in the bottom of the pan and this many seeds and that's what makes scaling quite a pleasure. Actually.
Michael Tingsager: 9:41
How are we gonna go back to the food because it's interesting when you said that there was no representation of the Indian cuisine on the high street. You can see there's definitely a wave of that happening. You have like Dishoom doing that, the Chilli Pickle brightener has two units now. Do you think there's now more openness to Indian food in general, do you think at least driven by the whole plant-based movement, the vegan movement as well? Indian kitchen is amazing when it comes to that.
Nisha Katona: 10:08
I think that's just I think we've done the gluten-free, gluten-free, and vegan. There are just incidental benefits to this cuisine. Do you know what the truth is? I think that Britain was always open to how Indians really eat. I think Indians is where the problem was with us is that we just thought we are not going to show you what we do with the Savoy cabbage. We'd rather give you the meat and the thick sauce that you want. It's that humility. Honestly, I know because what happens in an Indian home like my mother's when we had visitors over, we'd get meat. Otherwise, you wouldn't get meat and you would get potato curry cabbage, curry dal chip patties, you wouldn't even get rice and it was the most delicious food but as soon as somebody white walks in the door, she'd go to the freezer and get some chicken out and that English person would not want that they want dahl.
Do you know they want dal cabbage? I think England is a funny thing. I think Britain because of the history because of the Empire is possibly one of the most open-minded nations in the world when it comes to the way that the world eats. And it might be because of the Empire they were exposed to these flavours, it might be that there's no chip on the shoulder when it comes to English cuisine. They don't you know, we've made no headway Indian food in France, in America, across Europe, we are very, very underrepresented. But there is something about the British psyche that is uniquely open-minded. I think I think if it's happening in you know, in some village in Peru, I think the British are interested in it, actually.
So I think it was always the case that Britain wants to know, you know, wanted to taste this kind of food, but it was we the Indians, it shackled ourselves. And now because I'm the second generation, you know, so I'm sort of a brown English person. I'm just like you, although you are Danish, it's true. And so I don't come with all of those anxieties about I just come with this really open mind about what actually do I like to eat? What would I like to see represented on Wall Street? And that's, I'm sure What does Dishoom do? I'm sure that's what Chilli Pickel does as well. And so it's simply that confidence that you have as for being a second generation.
Michael Tingsager: 12:01
I guess also that besides that the English food patterns just changed dramatically over the last 10 to 15 years with new things coming in is probably one of the most developed markets when it comes to restaurant, infrastructure point of view, compared to the rest of Europe, I guess that some countries that were struggling with they went to France and Spain, because there's a very specific way they want things in the way you want to eat. So coming back to opening because you probably get this question a lot about London. You thinking opening all the sites outside London and people thinking, why she's not in London, normally, everything great starts in London. So what is the story and approach to that? Is that conscious?
Nisha Katona: 12:42
London is for me, you know the food is the best city in the world. I love it. I lived there. I cut my teeth. In terms of food in London, I go to London just to eat. Because I like pretty, you know, weird stuff. And you know, I want pig's ears in a sauce. And I go to Bao Shan and SOHO and I have to I need that fix. It's crazy. But I do so London is the best city when it comes to food. I also think in terms of the restaurant fraternity, gosh to not be in London, it hurts me because all my mates are down there. You know, I love that. You know Cubby and Sharma look like my restaurant brothers. I love them. And they're down there. And I've never seen these people because I'm up here in Liverpool. That's where my heart and you are very good to come and do this podcast up in Liverpool.
But all my meetings need to be up here. If people want to meet and talk they need to come up to Liverpool. And it's interesting so you can feel real fear of missing out you can feel like you're out of the fraternity you also feel I tell you you feel a little bit embarrassed because people almost treat you as though you don't exist. If you don't exist in London, I remember going to a very important FT-100 party as you're walking on your own, because you're only allowed on your own. But you know, so these are all the big CEOs of all the big businesses and that cabinet in there. And I remember they'd say so well, what do you then mainly banking, you know, lots of lots of, you know, huge companies corporate and they say, What do you do? And then you'd say, well, I've got restaurants and suddenly sort of drop in their opinion a bit. And then they say, Oh, do you have any in London? And you'd say no, and it says, No, you dropped off the face of the earth. And it's as though you're not in London because you wouldn't hack it because you're not good enough. That's the subtext, I tell you in my own little tiny, paranoid mind. That's what you think people think. However, for the same site that I have in Liverpool or Preston or Leicester or Nottingham, I would pay possibly eight times the rent in London. And as much as I'd like to be there. If I open one site in London, that's two sites outside of London that I cannot build. That's 70 jobs that I cannot create outside of London.
And that's what I have to remember. Why am I not creating wealth? Why am I not creating jobs outside of London, because what would often happen is, you know, many restaurants do this they have a site in London that's being propped up by the rest of the state because it's so expensive, you know, for the rent in Soho, so I have to be sensible about actually commercially what works? If I found the right site in London at the right price. I would love to be there. I'd love to be there but I will never do that at the cost of you know two sites outside of London and creating that many jobs outside of London. And you know, it hasn't done any harm at all. I really want to be the voice of Indian food. Because I'm a curry evangelist. I want Britain to be able to cook curry as well as my relatives in Varanasi. So I've dedicated my life to writing books, I've got a YouTube channel, I do lots of TV shows now about Indian food and I think because I've got that sort of slightly, you know, that media profile that is national, you know, so I'm on the BBC a lot. It to an extent fills the void. You know, it's not as though we don't exist in people's minds in London, we just they can't eat our food, they'd have to go to Oxford to do that. Or now, Bristol.
Michael Tingsager: 15:34
I think it sounds very sensible. And I often think that some people think that all great things have started in London. But actually, sometimes it's better to have something again, profitability trumps everything. And you can have one side in London that kills the rest of your state. Because there are many troubles that come with besides site staffing, it's a different beast there and so on. And so I think it sounds very sensible. And I'm not surprised about the story you tell. I've heard it from other founders as well. When you're not in London, you feel a bit outside you do.
Nisha Katona: 16:03
Do you know what's really interesting though, when you look at as we've stared down the barrel of Brexit at the moment, what is a statistic in front of the house in London? Is it 80 to 90% is European here. In my entire estate, 22% is European, and the rest is British. So Brexit has absolutely no effect on our recruitment at all, which is an incredible thing. And I know that that would be quite different if I was in London because my European friends in London are growing up, but they're not sticking around. And what I would they. Well, there are many, many benefits. And I think I've just got to focus on that. And I think I've just not got to be hurt when people do sort of sneer at you because you're not here and level at you the fact that you're not in London, or the allegation that you're not in London, because you're not good enough because you couldn't stand the competition, etc. Life's too short to try and prove a point I'm not interested in rising to any challenges.
Michael Tingsager: 16:49
I guess you said your own standards. That was because you talked a bit about when you open the new sites, you will like it to be better than the previous site?
Nisha Katona: 16:57
The best. Every new Mowgli we open if it is not the best in the estate, then I should not be growing. So when I open a new Mowgli, it's got to be the one that you want to be in more than anything. And then I go back and I redo my older state and revamp it, you back off of the older state. So that's the criteria that I impose upon myself. And if I'm not doing that, then I shouldn't be growing at all. You know, I shouldn't have got another job that I could go back to. I'm not here just to smile at the High Street. As restaurateurs, we provide social capital to cities, it's really important. It's no small thing that I'm opening in Preston I used to do lots of court work in person as a barrister and you'd finish at lunchtime and there's nowhere to eat and Preston is a beautiful area around there, the rubble Valley it's a stunning place to live, I would have gone and live there if there were decent restaurant I will go and live the weather is decent food good to me. We really provide the high street put lights on in the High Street, we must never forget that. But a really, really important thing. We don't just take sites and continue the demise of the high street you take sites to make cities better.
Michael Tingsager: 17:56
And you're absolutely right that restaurants have now become such an integral part of society. They actually determined tourism as well. People don't travel around for location anymore. You go to places for restaurants, you just said I will go to London, people will travel to Copenhagen where I'm from, I went to this restaurant. And that's what it has become. It's like a very important part of the economy and it gives jobs and it builds young people's confidence. There are so many things that restaurants can do besides just running a restaurant and making a profit. We talk a bit about opening restaurants and growing and that's all good. But what is the bigger purpose of Mowgli? What is the set up to do? Do you have like a big hairy audacious goal for where she ends?
Nisha Katona: 18:37
Do you know this is really it's really important it's the most important question and it's a question that I think every founder has got to ask themselves at the threshold of doing something so I'm glad you do because not actually you know not many people would ever ask me that and it means everything? So why does Mowgli exist? Why is she here and she is here to do one thing and that is to enrich lives in the cities that she goes to she's not here just to give good curry that's a that if I don't do that I need to get off the high streets. Mowgli exists to enrich lives in the city. She goes to enrich primarily the lives of my staff. So if I post what I will do today about Bristol opening, what will happen is and this is the most charming thing parents will start to tag in their children saying go and work there. Instagram and Facebook parents will tag in nature. They don't talk to me. They talk to each other. That's the greatest accolade I could ever have that your parents would want their children to come and work in Mowgli. I'm an Indian. I want my daughters to be doctors now I want my daughters to work in Mowgli. That's the most incredible accolade that you could have. So one is to enrich the lives of my staff to rich enrich the lives of my clients by providing them with that, you know, place to go to make their city a better place. You know, give them decent food, decent price, make them feel healthy when they're finished eating.
Thirdly, this is becoming really very important to enrich the lives of my community. So every single Mowgli has a housing charity, a local house charity, and you know we've given over I think we're coming up towards 600,000 pounds in our short life to local charities you know that this is down to the staff as well. So I set up something called the Mowgli Trust. So I knew before I set up Mowgli, I knew that I wanted one of the pillars of business to be charitable giving, because how dare I take a place on the high street and not give something back as well. And also and this is becoming the most critical aspect of it. My aim for all Mowgli staff is that they feel nourished, fulfilled and purposeful they need to come to work and this is beyond them serving curry this is you know, they're having tough times at home with their parents with their boyfriends, whatever work needs to be a place of solace, I need them to come in and be outward-facing and to be fair to spiritually emotionally physically when you have a housing charity and we have a charity champion in each Mowgli that they are constantly thinking about ways to raise for, etc.
And they're constantly being taken round. So we very often we'll because I've got a real heart for cancer charities because the statistic in the northwest of England is one in two of us wanting to have us will have cancer, I expect my charities to co-parent with me. So they take my staff to the hospitals so they can see what they're raising for which, you know, is it wigs for you know, chemo treatment, is it an MRI machine or whatever. So they see that hospitals they are made a fuss of by you know, whichever charity it is, it's really important and that makes them walk taller when they come to work. So that's why we exist to enrich lives. And the way that we do that is by just my mantra and Mowgli everything we do every decision we make. Every human that we hire has to have three things, Grace, Intelligence, and Graft.
That's the way that we do grace, intelligence, and graft, every interaction has to be filled with those three things graphed. Because the busier we're busy, and we need people that become alive more as they're busy. Intelligence, because intrinsically it's complicated food, you know, the anthropology, the geography, the socio-economic history of this food is something that our clients want to know about. And our staff have to be able to relay that and grace for an important idea, a lot of domestic violence when I was I didn't do it, dealt with it. I'm not tall enough. So I have a zero-tolerance policy on any kind of aggression, any kind of that kind of one-upmanship lack of respect in Mowgli. And so there has to be that grace that flows in every direction, and it's safe, you know, it's a safe place for you to be very straight with us and tell us how you're feeling. And not everyone's perfect, everyone is flawed, everyone will have bad days, and everyone will have a deficit in the way that they work. And if we can compensate for that, and put you all together like a jigsaw that works beautifully, then we will do that.
Michael Tingsager: 18:37
This does lead very perfectly to my next question thinking about leadership because to bring this vision to life to implement this vision, in a restaurant setting must demand a very high standard of leadership. And you talked about something I don't hear often but like creating a circle of safety for this person so how do you do that in Mowgli, especially when you're growing? Because that's often getting the right people on board, you know, and right people on board and the wrong people off the bus?
Nisha Katona: 23:01
If you articulate what you feel, and you're passionate about it, and I am and I'm shameless. We don't have a PR department. We don't have marketing we don't have it, it's me, all of it is me. And I emote, always on social media, I will tell people what I'm feeling what I'm thinking, and I'll put it out and ask their opinion on it. I'll tell them when it's bad when it's good. When you do that you attract the right DNA anyway. So you attract the right people who are coming into your business. So we are like-minded in that way. But what's really important actually, recently, I've been talking to lots of CEOs. I've been meeting CEOs from hospitals and from hospices, NHS.
And the reason I've been doing that is that I want to know how they motivate their staff, the NHS staff and nurses of terminally ill children in the charities that we support, how you keep them content and motivated is the most astonishing thing as a CEO, I realized that it is your primary focus your culture and keeping that alive and keeping it pruned, and relevant and accessible and understandable is your absolute priority. And it's not just being able to articulate it. So my theory is if my Lithuanian KP in Oxford if you interviewed him for a job, and he couldn't tell you what the movie culture is, it's no use my culture has no use. So it's very simple in my culture that we want to enrich lives. It's as simple as that. And we do it with grace, intelligence, and graft. That's enough for them to learn. But it's not enough for me just to think that they've learned that what I need to do is also need to know how every single member of my staff feels about me, CEO need to know that.
So I have round tables meetings, in all sites every week, and I have my HR team tell me who the stars are on each site and who the people that are struggling a bit on each site. If there's someone with a particular ambition, it doesn't take long even if I get to 40 sites what's that going to take? It's going to take 40 minutes it's worth it isn't it once a week I get to know that you know Lucas in Birmingham wants you to know, as KP really wants to be a head chef one day, it takes no time at all, but what I have to have is a good HR and operational infrastructure that goes out and gathers that information.
So we have things called contentment assessments, where GMs are tasked every month to sit down with every single member of staff and they have a 10-minute meeting with three questions. Are you happy? If you're not happy? Why are you not happy? And where do you want to be? And how can we get you there? That's what every single member of staff so I have got KPs that have now become Head chefs, most of my GMs started a service and they are earning more than junior doctors. This is a place to come and work and stay. So my GM is tasked with that to report to HR report to me and HR are then once a quarter doing the same exercise so that I can check that my GM is about the same taste as I have, but they're doing their job properly. The most important part of my infrastructure is those contentment assessments. So I know what every human is thinking and some of them might hate Mowgli and I need to know what they might have somebody that's bullying them, they may feel that you know, like a head office, we're not communicating with them. And if they don't hear from us enough, that's really important. That must never be the case. My other big job is to make sure there is zero distance between head office and my sights as they appear around the country zero distance the fires gonna burn very bright.
Michael Tingsager: 26:02
I know that being in a restaurant for many years, that's the biggest challenge in Austin, getting into that situation as a head office and under restaurants. That's the biggest challenge every restaurant chain and CEO sees over time.
Nisha Katona: 26:13
You know, it's an interesting thing because what I'm against is this sort of slightly inverse snobbery. It's really interesting because, you know, somebody in the head office said, We shouldn't really call me a head office, should we call ourselves Tiffin towers, do you know, this is something that I'm teaching my own children, everyone has got a boss, I was a barrister, your judges, your boss, the judges have the government is that everyone has a boss. There is no indictment in that at all this craving for absolute in terms of nomenclature, equality, it's nonsense. Everyone's got so I've got a ball, I might I've got a chair that I'm accountable to me, I've got a board that I'm accountable to.
And it's right that we're humble enough to know that so actually, I'm really quite adamant that you know, there's not a problem with it being called Head Office, what is the problem is our attitude if our attitude is not filled with love, and that is the word that I use, love has got to flow in every direction of motion, it's got to start in head office. So we are there as vehicles to make their lives brilliant to make their lives enrich, nourish, and purposeful. That's what we're there for and head office and there will be people and there are that shouldn't be Mowgli because they get knackered when they grabbed, they don't want to you know, be on their feet all day, then we need you to go find somewhere where you actually are going to have a more sedentary life. So we always packed company well, but just the title head office in that there is absolutely nothing pejorative. And I think people need to learn this business about you know, I'm not You're not the boss of me, that's got to stop that humility is really important.
Michael Tingsager: 27:36
It's important to know the boss, but it needs to be the right relationship with the boss needs to be respected and trusted.
Nisha Katona: 27:43
Trust is everything. The reason that people want to work for, companies, or for people is because they trust them. And therefore we have to be worthy of trust, I have to be worthy of trust. And if somebody doesn't trust me, they need to go for their own dignity sake, they need to go and find someone that they do trust. But I therefore every morning and every night have to find slice my emotions and my intentions and my motivations and make sure that they are trustworthy, that they're conscionable and that they are trustworthy, you know, and being surrounded by people that are not in business by not being obsessed with the bottom right, my I have really strong faith, I just if I'm doing the right thing with the right intentions, you know, with love at the heart of it, then the bottom line will come and if there comes a point where I'm not supposed to be doing Mowgli any more, she will be taken away from me.
And I will start a Donkey Sanctuary or whatever and I will be content. I don't grip onto her mercilessly, I have to just know that every morning I'm filled with joy at the prospect of working here. And what fills me with joy honestly, is you love humans. And I think that's the most important thing in hospitality is I you know, my old job that's what I did is I did humans and I dealt with humans at the lowest point of their life and you are counselling them and you are negotiating and through the mud, you know they're having their children removed or you're removing their children, it doesn't get any worse than that you have to at the heart of everything you are love humans. And that's the DNA of Mowgli. And as long as we do that, then the head office is an entirely fine title. And as being bosses is a good thing because I'm going to bring people up to come and be bosses alongside me people with the same DNA.
Michael Tingsager: 29:16
So we talked a bit about the people the leadership, so how do you ensure as we talked about this before we started the podcast how to ensure that culture lifts with how does he lift in every side and the way she did it? Number one, because this is something that's discussed across the industry. In every event you go to we talk about, oh, we have to put people the first time you need to write that there's nothing new in that. My mom did that back in the 70s and 80s. People have always been devoted to human relationships and you just said the humility around that. But how do you do that? Because a lot of people think that that's difficult, you know, we can scale recipes, scale property, we can scale you know, signs and logos. But we the people did this where they have hit the wall where things go really wrong.
Nisha Katona: 30:02
Really interesting. And this is why things like this podcast are really important. It isn't just like guys do we as CEOs and setters of culture have to talk about it, we have to learn to articulate it. And we have to work so lyrically about it, and you never take your eye off the ball for a minute. So first of all, you've got to get the culture to flow, right the way through operations. You know, chaotic culture is not something that exists as some adjunct to the HR department, it's got to flow through operations. So my directive to my operations managers is that every interaction, every interaction that you have, any member of staff at any point has got to be a reflection of our culture, which is this enriching this life, am I exhibiting Grace, intelligence and Graft in this so as their demonstrated, you know, we don't just come in and bark at people, we don't just come in and without, you know, looking in somebody's eyes, and just go and check the paperwork. It's, it's about the humans.
So they are seeing it demonstrated, but it is no small thing I met, you know, I met the head of HR for the NHS, for the region, really, really interesting, fantastic people, because that's a very, very tricky job. She was describing the culture and she said, there are seven words that we use there, and she started to list them. And by number four, she sort of run out, she'd forgotten what the rest of them were. And I realised that unless you can have them in the fingertips, and unless you can wear them on your skull when English is your third language, and you're working in the dishwashing section of a Mowgli culture is no use.
And that's why it's really important that you break your culture down into very simple words, to enrich lives. And they can learn that. And so at least when they're standing there, and it's tough, they remember that what Mowgli is doing is enriching lives, we're not just there to wash pots and provide food. So one thing is that slight sort of education, they've just got to have that in their neural pathways. But it's also you know when you're doing contentment assessments when your main interaction with your bosses is one where they're actually saying to you, we want to grow you how can we grow you? Are you happy? Are you sad? Why are you sad? Where's your culture? You know, that's this business about how can we make your life better.
Michael Tingsager: 31:53
I think think it also suggests that you feel your boss is interested that I guess that eight out of ten would never get that question for their boss because there's this I'm your boss manager relation. But actually, we talked a bit about it earlier, but the relationship is everything you don't leave the company, leave your boss, your relationship you didn't trust and respect.
Nisha Katona: 32:12
You know, that's absolutely right. And what an indictment if somebody leaves us people tend to leave us because they're going to go to university to study something. I'm going to poach the hell of them. But we've got people that go off to do teaching or microbiology and I want them back in Mowgli. So but if somebody left us because they thought were unconscionable by God, that would stop me in my tracks. That would be the ultimate dignity for me. I was watching a documentary about Fortnum and Mason last night and you know, they were describing the way that this guy from Canada company came in and when he came into the floor, everyone would be terrified.
And he was known for ruling with this rod of iron you know, that ruling with fits a Game of Thrones things at the moment, isn't it. When you start opting for fear to be the thing that brings people in line, it is doomed. It's doomed because you turn your back because it's in you know, it's instigating the most dreadful you know, emotions in humans, it's what you've got to do is nurture them so that they naturally come into work, and they are at their happiest. And that's when beautiful things happen. That's when they put their arm around you and say, You look like you're hungry. When you walk in or you know, you're served by somebody yesterday that you know, cared. It's because that girl is happy when she can't you know, or happen to be happy on that damage. Because I just need that to be every time all the time. And that's like raising children.
Michael Tingsager: 33:23
The same thing with Camilla, they serve me and Sean yesterday was that she was going to an exam this morning. And it was her last exam. Wow, that's quite a nude work today. Yeah. Because like that makes me ready for tomorrow's your loves. So that's like amazing. So see if you use this opportunity to go to work equity to be ready, for example.
Nisha Katona: 33:40
Yeah, that's an o'clock random.
Michael Tingsager: 33:41
She was doing a mission. And that's typical hospitality. That's the grafter..
Nisha Katona: 33:45
Yeah, you need to feed off humans. You know, there are two types of people who aren't there. They're the introverts and extroverts and the extroverts are the people actually feed off contact with other humans, you need it. I mean, I'm needy, I love humans, I need to talk to humans. And it's hiring people like that you actually get your energy from social situations. And it's just making sure that we spot when we've got the wrong people. And there are people that don't really want to do eye contact. You know, sometimes you have people at work behind the bar that will do everything they can to avoid looking at that door when it opens because that's not their responsibility. I want Labradors. You know, I want people who asked what I'm like, you know, you're constantly fetching sticks to make people happier. And the minute that door goes, that's why I work in the movie every time that door goes, you just think I cannot believe somebody's come in to eat my food. I cook at home and they're going to drop their hard-earned cash rate. That's an incredible thing. And I need my staff to feel that same kind of Labrador dog-like thrill every time somebody walks through the door. It's interesting.
Michael Tingsager: 34:40
You say there are different personality types. So I worked on my career and loved MBTI to understand what was the best manager for a site. So how do you put the best team who put it back in the house you put in front of the house, that she could be an introvert, you'll be brilliant in the back and you will do that, you know, following the recipe you're talking about for an operational consistency to the dot because you can link get your head down but you would not be good in a customer-facing role because you're just on your uncomfortable place all the time. So it's about finding out where can you boost people's energy in the most performance boost and most in the roles that's super interesting. Yeah thinking about that as well. What about operational because it takes a bit of a machine, operation to run this you know consistency you're talking about? How besides doing recipes and training just yesterday what else do you do to put in consistency.
Nisha Katona: 35:32
There are many things so for instance, in terms of human contentment, we've got the contentment assessments and close relationships we have a GM summit once a month where all the gems come together they are tasked more and more with owning operations to really and that's important certain elements of operations because they need you to know if we need them to be more conscious of a certain part of the business to give them responsibility for it and up their responsibility for it does that naturally so there is that a table Indian food and there hasn't really been a national chain for Indian food and the reason is that the food is really complex Hibbett to Indian restaurants have been dependent on Indian chefs.
And therein lies the weakness really so I on principle, take curry virgins and always have and the reason for that is because what happens is I'm from the Bengali and we cook a certain way and as a result, I will never eat an Indian restaurant because there are very few Bengali restaurants so if I go to a Punjabi restaurant there dahl does not taste like my grandmother's dahl and so I do not like it. That's how small-minded we are. And similarly, you know, some people from certain areas of India come to and we always want a dal is big, the big barometer they'll come in if it doesn't taste like their mothers handle the grandmother's hand it just doesn't sit well. Chefs are the same. If I went to work in an Indian restaurant, I would tamper with the dishes until they tasted like my heritage. So taking curry virgins means you get complete consistency because I train them, train them in the specs, train them in the philosophy. What I also have is an army of super tasters in Mowgli we test them. So we do lots of blind testing with food. And there are certain nuanced flavours that I need to know that they can get the other super tasters that people have grown up in my head, my home was a bit of a commune of grown up with my food and super tasters go and do random, massive food tastings in each site and score each dish out of x.
And you know, I get a full report as and when they're doing that with photographs of every dish. So we have this army of super tasters to make sure that everything has been cooked and presented absolutely suspect so you have that kind of you know, layer in relation to the product in relation to place our restaurants I have some called Mowgli aesthetics police because it's a big part. So we've got people product and place. We've got super tasters place, we've got map there are four map officers but each site will also have their own map member of staff and that could be a server that's just going to good eye for aesthetics, each movie as you walk in. When you open a Mowgli restaurant up as a GM you will have a catalogue and it will have a photo of every wall and how it's meant to look and the Map comes and checks again and does random checks on all of those things? Is the grout clean in the bathrooms is there dust on top of the awnings are the ropes getting dusty are the swings getting low, et cetera? And they come in with that clean. So there are all these diagnostic tools that I have.
And then what happens is Matt produces a report and so things that GM has got to fix you know if there's a light bulb I mean, I really don't tolerate light bulbs out there's laid back but don't do that to me. Yeah, the same thing with like, Oh, yeah. Yeah, well, we have people come in proposing Mowgli and they have their birthday parties and if you spending your money to come and do that special thing in my restaurant, how dare I not clean the toilet and hand down my light bulb? Yeah, about half of your table that shows that I love you does it. So that produces a document that allocates these jobs to certain people. So it's this is the really important thing, it's that that being able to completely categorically read every one of those pillars of your business people product place and audit it and do something about it within two weeks of you spotting a problem, that's my timescale. So Matt spot something within two weeks I need somebody to come in and repainted that wall etc.
Michael Tingsager: 39:04
This is quite interesting because as an Ex McDonald this is the way McDonald's builds a lot of their systems as well there's an audit trail behind an end when we just talked about the other side of the business the more emotional bits so this is how you bring it to the life you actually make sure there's a system in place and consequences when she's not actually shouldn't be accepted religion so that's very interesting because many forget that bits. They think they design systems but actually don't have a follow-up process. How do you deal with that? Because I guess performance goes up and down.
Nisha Katona: 39:34
You know, people want to do a job they're not coming here to frustrate me. That's when you need to be very clear about timescales. So for instance with map, the timescale is two weeks and if it's not two weeks, tell me why and that's fine, but give me a deadline. I am a CEO obsessed with deadlines, not punitive deadlines. But so for instance, I got a photo yesterday and we've just launched a new rap and I get a photo tweeted it.
Michael Tingsager: 39:54
The ruby wrap?
Nisha Katona: 39:55
The ruby wrap. Did you how was it?
Michael Tingsager: 39:57
It was delicious. I really enjoy it.
Nisha Katona: 39:59
That's very nice. the idea, but I got a photo of one and it had. So instead of the red onions being sliced in half, and then sliced, they were sliced into holes. So it was a full circle, a full circle revenue that you're going to have to cut through the membrane. And I don't want you to have to deal with a membrane of an onion. So I send a WhatsApp message to my operations chef and say, I need you to go back across the entire estate, retrain them on the chopping of onions for the ruby wrap, and make sure they all know it's half and then sliced. And I want you to confirm that you have done this within saying eight days and give him a date. So it's never a case of just I want you to go and sort this out and have a date, I then diarized that date. So I know on the 24th of May, I'm gonna text Andy and make sure he's everyone's been retrained. Ideally, I want Andy to text me by then and say everyone's been retrained.
So every ed that you send out has to have a deadline. And they need to know that these are not anodyne deadlines. As a CEO, the most important thing and most fatal thing for me, somebody forced somebody is if I have to check that they've done something, you know, there comes a point in a nascent new business where you've got to do that a little bit to train them that, in fact, that's something they should never have to do, it should never be the case that I have to check that you've done that and it's not been done, I have no problem. If you haven't done it, that's not an issue, just come back to me with a date that you will have done it by so that I know but and it could be six months hence.
And if you keep coming back within six months, hence, then you're going to be working somewhere else very quickly. But you know, give me a reasonable date. I'm not I'm not a tyrant in that. But the point that you make is really very critical is it's all very well having these ideas and these passions and these operational targets, but unless they are achieved in less than the people that you're passing them to are trustworthy harbingers of them, they are useless. And it's all to do with timing. It's all to do with somebody saying to me, yes, we can get that done by x,
Michael Tingsager: 41:42
I guess that I always say that you set to standard, though, if you don't set the standard, you can't really expect the rest of your organization to do that. And that's why in my world timelines, I'm very focused on timelines because that's what you trained on McDonald's if you've worked on timescales all the time because that's where you do the incremental improvements. But of course, there has to be, you know, measurable, specific and achievable and realistic and all that. And then, of course, you need to be patient as well, because I guess that one of the biggest challenges I found was well to be patient because you are that step ahead all the time, I guess, with Mowgli, and you're bringing the people on that journey. Where did you get all your inspiration from because you inspire a lot of people? So where was your hero? And how do you get like energy and where do you go and seek new inspiration.
Nisha Katona: 42:28
Different facets of inspiration. So in terms of food, I literally travel the world I work so that I can earn enough money and I always have so that I can eat across the world. So for instance, I've just come back from six days in Cambodia where literally I went to learn how they eat at home. That's my obsession. So I've been you know, to wherever, you know, Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia, obviously India, you know, all across Europe, Poland, Italy, Spain to learn how people cook in their homes. So I love it. It's my obsession that restaurants now in the herbs I'm interested in restaurants don't interest me in they interest me. I'll tell you what's really interesting is that in countries like Cambodia and Vietnam, it's very hard to if you are a foreigner they will take you to a foreign restaurant. It's like India about 40 years ago, the only place you could go to restaurants were in hotels, they didn't have restaurants still my Indian family call my restaurant a hotel that wasn't you never you're never exposed to how it's in Cambodia.
Honestly, it was so hard to get into a home and find out how people are eating which was really, really important. So that's what I do for food inspiration in relation to leadership styles. You know, somebody that had a big impact on me only met him a couple of times was Tim bacon, you may not know new ventures but he was someone that was overtly affectionate with his staff. And I'm not talking about Harvey Weinstein getting away I'm talking about he truly spoke in a loving way to his staff, but he was also known for knowing what he wants and getting it done. And he built living benches, you know, as part with Jeremy Roberts, living benches, but I saw that you can because when you're not us, you're not part of the business world. You know, your image of businessman or Jr Ewing, you've got to be this psychopathic ballbreaker.
And to see CEOs demonstrate care and love for me as a human that I am, that's what I want to see, you know. So that was somebody that was a great inspiration. For me. The interesting thing is, and this partly comes from the fact that I'm in Liverpool, building it my own way is I've just got to build it my own way. But remember, I'm nearly 50 now. And I think the job that I did, it was all about humans, it was about bringing out the best of those humans, they're about to give evidence in a case where literally, they can barely breathe because they're so broken. It's all about bringing out the best in humans. And so it's what I did in my last job, I think that's inspired me to try and run this business in the same kind of way.
Michael Tingsager: 44:38
On the other end of the podcast, we always asked the people if they had liked if they could give advice to leaders in the industry on how they could improve themselves or become a better version of themselves. What would your advice be to them? First of all, you come from the outside you have a very different view on how hospitality should be done, but also leadership won't be your one advice. You probably have many.
Nisha Katona: 45:02
Well, honestly because I'm not, I'm new to it. And really, you can only really have one guiding star, you can only have one guiding star and everything else will come. So I have faith that if I do what is best for my staff, the bottom line will come if I have happy staff, content fulfilled, and purposeful staff and the bottom line will come. And that is my focus as the CEO and it's an It's a strange focus, isn't it? I remember speaking to the CEO of one of the charities we support and he said, You know, we've got no shortage of passion in this business. But if I take my eye off culture for five minutes and go to fundraising, when I come back, the nurse's needs are above the finance department above the HR department above estates, etc. You have to keep your eye as your CEO on culture, never forget that. And the culture is the way your humans on the floor feel because they are the face and hands of your business. You're only as good as that last service. You're only as good as that last dish. You got a happy chef and a joyful front of the house, then people will just come back and come back and your business will float into the future.
Michael Tingsager: 46:01
Absolutely amazing advice. I couldn't agree more people first and boost your business in general, what we talked about is all about, you know, people, the love for people, food, and guests. You're invited to your home or restaurant. Yeah. Then you have a successful business.
Nisha Katona: 46:17
That's exactly and that's the word, isn't it? Is that for me? You know, it's just a home it's an Indian home kitchen. But every decision I make is as though I'm doing it for my home. I design every movie and choose every Mowgli. And then you want to populate it with family, don't you?
Michael Tingsager: 46:28
Thank you very much for coming to Hospitality Mavericks Podcast. It's a pleasure. Hopefully, see you in the near future again on the podcast.
Nisha Katona: 46:35
You'll be bored with what I say. But can she possibly talk for an hour? Thank you very much.