What' A Sandwich, started in Pune by Hussain Lokhandwala with an investment of Rs 1.5 lakh, today makes a revenue of several crore selling sandwiches.
By definition, a sandwich is two slices of bread with a filling between them. So the trick to making a good sandwich lies in assembling the sauces, cheese, and filling. Hussain Juzer Lokhandwala (33), the founder of ‘What’ A Sandwich’, based in Pune, realised this in 2013 when he started his first outlet in Pune’s Magarpatta.
“Making good sandwiches available at a reasonable price is the idea that I started out with,” he tells The Better India. Begun with an initial investment of Rs 1.5 lakh, the company has grown to make a revenue of several crore a year.
“In a market filled with pizzas, burgers, rolls and biryani, I wanted to bring something different by having a desi equivalent of an international giant in the submarine sandwich space,” he adds.
Fire in the belly
“I come from a privileged background. Born and brought up in Pune, I never grew up wanting anything. My father was involved in a business which was established and doing well. The assumption was that I would complete my education and join the business. That was something I did not want to do,” he says.
The desire to build ‘something’ of his own drove him. “I did not want to be a middle-aged man who would not have made it without the support and backing of the family business. I wanted to do it on my merit,” he says. While he acknowledges this desire, he also says that he had no idea what that ‘something’ would be when he started his MBA programme.
This decision was not easy. Hussain recalls moments of tussle and arguments with his father, who wanted him to join the family business and lead a comfortable life. On the other hand, Hussain was raring to go and explore the world. “It was a professor during my MBA days who suggested I take up advertising. So I did that, much to my father’s annoyance, who did not see why I had to work for a salary when the family business was waiting for me,” he says.
Despite all the pressure from his family, Hussain decided to follow his own path. “I wasn’t afraid of failing and never gave up. Living alone, managing expenses, running the house gave me a chance to understand what I was truly capable of,” he says. It was also about proving to everyone back home that he could make it. Hussain took it up as a challenge. “While I made the enthusiastic decision to move to Mumbai, I had to endure everything that came my way to ensure there was no loss of face,” he says.
From advertising to entrepreneurship
In 2013, when Hussain started ‘What’ A Sandwich’ he had about Rs 1.5 lakh and two options before him.
“I was very keen on a backpacking trip across Europe. The money that I had was what I saved for that. However, I chose to invest in my first outlet and decided to wait a while to go on that Europe trip.” In hindsight, he says it was the best decision ever.
Starting this line of work came to him during all his visits to Subway in Mumbai. “I was a regular customer there and would eat there at least a few times every week. The price point of the subs only allowed me to eat the sub of the day, though,” he recalls. So the idea that Hussain started off with was to provide an Indian equivalent to Subway, with good quality, taste and affordable pricing. Keeping this in mind, one can get a sandwich for as less as Rs 29.
Hussain describes month one as an entrepreneur, an experience ‘filled with chaos.’
“Being in the food business was new to me. I was juggling being an advertising consultant while running the restaurant. It was nothing short of madness. I was overworked, underfed and almost always sleep-deprived. I would take the morning train, come to Pune from Mumbai, work through the day, schedule meetings in Mumbai in the evenings and repeat the next day,” he says.
When the time to pick between the two came, Hussain felt that continuing with the restaurant business was right. He prides himself on being a zero-debt company and says that he would like to continue down this path for the foreseeable future.
Ebbs and flows
When he started, he did all the work at the restaurant himself, which meant cleaning, prepping, buying ingredients and vegetables, assembling the sandwich and managing finances. “There is no part of this business that I do not know. Having done it all myself, I know exactly where the pain points are. It hasn’t been all smooth sailing. There were moments of despair when I almost shut shop and decided to move back. However, I kept telling myself to give it one last chance, which helped,” he says.
There was a time when he had to choose between paying rent or his salary. Given that they needed the space to operate, he decided to rent over his salary and continued to do all the work at the restaurant. “This continued for close to three months, and we finally broke even. We then managed to hire one employee who was solely in charge of deliveries,” he says.
Sandwiches include combinations like the ‘Veg Crispy’, ‘Paneer Tikka’, and ‘Chicken Crackling’.
‘What’ A Sandwich’ started operating as a cloud kitchen even before the concept was popular. In the pandemic year of 2020, when many restaurants shut, the business grew exponentially in the cloud kitchen space. 2021 was another milestone year when they breached state boundaries and became a national player with as many as 50+ delivery kitchens.
In 2022, they hope to take the count to 100 kitchens and break into international markets.
Every cloud kitchen that opens up creates job opportunities and an income-earning opportunity for the franchisee. Every cloud kitchen has an eco-system of its own. Shruti Kumar, one of the franchise owners, says, “I had taken the franchise opportunity in 2020 in Delhi because I loved the idea of being able to generate an income opportunity right from my home.”
She continues, “ Since I am a housewife, my priority is managing my home and family. This opportunity is great because without leaving my priorities, I have been able to work and earn income on my own time and convenience. The training provided by the company allows me to operate on my own without any chef or labour requirement. This has truly helped me to create a second income source, without any heavy investment or working capital expense.”
There are close to 25 housewives who are associated with the company and work from the convenience of their own homes.
Besides the submarine sandwiches, a crowd puller, they also serve burgers, tortillas, salads, fries, and pav burgers, an Indian version of sliders. “We have a menu designed for every kind of customer. Starting from Rs 29, the cost of a meal can go up to Rs 399. Having said that, our average meal ticket size is Rs 300,” he adds.
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(Edited by Vinayak Hegde)