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NRAI gives smaller players the necessary support as and when the need arises: Thomas Fenn

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Thomas Fenn, Co-Founder, Mahabelly

An Economics graduate from St Stephen’s College, he co-founded Mahabelly with Zachariah Jacob and Prem Kiran in March 2015, which is one of its kind authentic Kerala cuisine restaurant. Keeping the primary focus on food, Thomas Fenn, Co-Founder, Mahabelly shares his insights with NRAI.

 Where did do you draw inspiration from for setting up Mahabelly? Please tell us about your restaurant and it’s expansion plans.

My business partner Zachariah Jacob & I came to Delhi in 2006 to pursue our respective college degrees at St Stephen’s College. Delhi has been our home ever since. While there were numerous Kerala Cuisine offerings in areas like INA Market, Mayur Vihar etc, we couldn’t find a single sit down restaurant that we could take our friends/colleagues to. This baffled us especially since in our experience, almost everyone who had the chance to try Malayali food, loved it. There were of course restaurants serving South Indian food in general, but we wanted to go all guns blazing with Malayali food alone; the kind we grew up eating. It also helped that Delhi was going through a regional food renaissance of sorts with likes of Rustom’s, Potbelly Café, Carnatic Café & the Naga Kitchen. Mahabelly was thus born in March 2015.

Mahabelly is a speciality restaurant serving authentic Kerala cuisine. The menu features a plethora of delicacies with influences from the Syrian Christian, traditional Nair, the Malabar region’s Moplah & coastal cuisines along with exotic dishes from the toddy shops of Kerala that people have come to love. Drawing it’s inspiration from King Mahabali of the Onam festival lore, MahaBelly is the ultimate stop for all the culinary treasures that the State of Kerala has to offer.

Zachariah (lawyer) & I (management consultant) were complete newcomers to the restaurant industry when we started out with Mahabelly. Our initial months were spent learning the ropes of the business and making this little dream of ours a viable, sustainable business. We’ve come to realise that there is great value in small, tight operations: we’re able to offer a unique product, we can be nimble to adapt to market conditions much faster and it gives us more room to experiment. All of this translates to a well-rounded customer experience.

Two years down, we’re currently looking to expand in Tier 1 & Tier 2 cities in the same format and will be expanding our home delivery operations to Gurgaon in the next few months.

What is your strategy to keep Mahabelly apart and ahead from others in this segment?

Food, food & food! At Mahabelly, we try to go a long way to ensure that we serve the best Malayali food that a restaurant in Delhi can serve. It’s the little things like not cutting corners in sourcing good ingredients (we source ingredients integral to the recipes such as seafood, fresh from Kerala) and a razor sharp focus on consistency that keeps us in the game. While great service is a given these days for any restaurant worth its salt, a superb product is what brings customers back again & again.

That will never change and is what drives us.

Is it challenging to be a restaurateur? What are your major learnings?

Absolutely, there so many things happening behind the scenes at each and every restaurant! Starting a restaurant has vastly increased my appreciation and respect for each and every person working tirelessly in the restaurant industry. It is never only about the money (which is really spare at the moment by the way), each and every of the many restaurateurs that I have come across puts a solid chunk of their soul in their respective businesses.

I’ve come to learn that this is no place for an ego. Issues come up (and will continue to raise its ugly head) quite frequently and the best way solve them is to prioritise the needs of the customer, keep a cool head and tackle them head on.

Besides looking after your restaurant, what are the other things you like to do in your free time?

Trying new restaurants, reading, music and playing sport.

How is Mahabelly’s association with the NRAI working out? Any industry challenges you would like to address through the association?

 NRAI has been fantastic for Mahabelly. Information is everything these days and NRAI gives us smaller players the necessary support as and when the need arises. I encourage fellow restaurateurs to be part of this family.

One piece of advice you would like to offer to budding entrepreneurs eager to make a mark in this industry.

There is never too time spent learning the various aspects of your business. Understand your product, understand your customer. Everything else will follow.

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