The kati roll, a chargrilled kebab wrapped in a paratha or flatbread, a rather famous street-food originating in Kolkata, West Bengal has now reached the bustling streets of New York and London.
With no formal training in hospitality or even business, Payal Saha, a girl from Kolkata, decided to start her own food business in the US and called her company – The Kati Roll Company. What started out as a way to satiate her own cravings for the food she had grown up eating became a $14 million franchise, with four outlets across New York and London.
Having decided to marry at 22, Payal found herself in New York where her husband was working. Speaking to The Better India, she says, “I moved to New York in 2000 and like so many others, I discovered that I could not work given the visa restrictions. What I could do, however, was open a business, and that is exactly what I did.”
New York, she says, is a place where everyone is on the move.
“To have the option of just picking up a roll and going about their work seemed like a very feasible idea for New Yorkers,” she says. What also worked for Payal was the versatility of the roll — one could have it as a snack, a meal, or just as a finger food. “It’s a food that’s also inexpensive but filling at the same time,” she adds.
The first outlet that Payal opened was one that catered to students and the late-night, after-party crowds in 2002. She says, “A second and larger midtown location followed in 2005, a London location opened in 2007 and a fourth location was launched in March 2012 on the Manhattan east side.” When asked where she got their entrepreneurial bug from, she says, “I don’t see fear because I do not know how to imagine it. At 22, when I started my business, I was ready to take on the world and that helped.”
Business plan? What’s that?
If 18-years-ago one were to ask Payal to share her business plan, she would have probably asked you what that meant. She says, “I started my first outlet with my then cleaning lady. There was no grand opening of the outlet, all we did was pull the shutters up and started selling the kati rolls. On day one we made $50 and that was such a moment of high.”
Slowly, outlet by outlet, the brand grew, with 116 employees working at the various outlets today.
The initial investment of about $150,000 was what Payal took from friends and family to launch the first outlet and she also adds that they were able to recover their full investment within 18 months of opening. Speaking about her love for rolls, she says that in then Calcutta, every nook and corner had a roll place that she frequented. “It was always something that I relished and I wanted to reproduce that very feeling in New York,” she says. With absolutely no experience in business, Payal speaks about how she learnt everything on the job.
Just ‘roll’ with it
“I didn’t know how to get vendors on-board when I started out,” she says. While she could go into a store and buy all the raw materials she needed, that would cost her the retail price and so she says, “I would park outside stores and wait for the wholesale trucks to come. I would then jot down their contact details and would reach out to them.” She mentions here that she would have liked it if the Indian business community was more forthcoming and helpful with sharing information.
“It was all a learning experience for me, and looking back, I am glad I did all that I did,” she says. What Payal had on her side was her age, and she says that if she were to start the business today, it would probably be different and the risks that she took back then might not seem feasible today.
Hands on experience from the Motherland
To be as authentic as possible, Payal flew to Mumbai and worked at a rolls place called Chowringhee Lane. She says, “I had to gather as much knowledge as I could and come back to teach others who I employed.” She was determined to make the kati rolls taste like the best of “Calcutta rolls”, if not better.
While the rolls are a delicious testament to which is the loyal fan base that Payal has managed to cultivate over the years, the kitsch Bollywood posters is yet another attraction that will catch your attention in all the outlets. “Besides being a fad at the time I was opening my outlets, it was also cheap and cheery,” she says. In doing this, Payal also wanted to recreate Kolkata streets.
We did a big poster for Sreedevi when she died and then as a homage to Vinod Khanna, there’s a Burning Train poster.
While the core menu continues to be the authentic kati rolls, for those who are looking for a healthy eating option, Payal offers chapati instead of paratha. One can also choose from a line of flavoured lassi, which includes Mango Lassi and Mishti Doi Lassi made with patali gur. Some of the bestsellers include the chicken egg roll, and for the vegetarians — it’s the paneer roll.
While the COVID-19 pandemic did dampen expansion plans, Payal has been quick to find new ways of getting her product out in the market. “We are experimenting with a frozen food line and have been selling via some grocery stores in New York. I also wish to open outlets in more college towns, where I know my product will do very well,” she says.
A meal, which consists of two rolls and a drink costs about $15 and it’s this attractive price point that has people coming back often.
In fact Payal’s customer base is so strong that she has even couriered the kati rolls to places like Japan. Payal believes in the authenticity of kati rolls so much that she states “Bengal should apply for a GI tag for it soon”.
(Edited by Yoshita Rao)