I love Chipotle. It is my single favorite fast food chain. I eat there at least once a week. I always come back impressed with their quality, consistency in preparation and taste and speed of service. They provide plenty of value for the dollar and while a tad more salty than I’d like, their food is good nutrition and taste for the time spent waiting and the money spent on the food.
They are growing fast and are up to 1400 locations in North America now. They have survived the tough economic times of the last five years and have forced cheaper, less-healthy alternatives like Taco Bell to rethink their menus (Cantina menu anyone?). They have also challenged corporations and restauranteurs dabbling in other cuisines to come up with similar niche chains that combine speed of service, $5-$8 price per entrée and relatively healthy menus. CHOP’t is the only chain that seems to have scaled in a manner remotely close to Chipotle. Matthew Yglesias has written some great posts about the success of Chipotle and its implication for food over the next ten years in posts like this and this.
Based on all this and the growing Indian population and the popularity of Indian food in the big American cities (a Yelp search of Indian food within 5 miles of San Francisco reveals 120 restaurants), it is not surprising that there are several efforts underway to creat a Chipotle-like model for Indian food. This piece on two entrepreneurs planning to create a Dosa-based Chipotle in the US this year caught my eye.
While I wish them nothing but the very best and hope for successful scaling of the restaurant they have in mind, I have serious doubts that the dosa is the right vehicle for a South Indian Chipotle. Here below are four thoughts on what I think a successful south Indian Chipotle would look like –
a) Tortillas used in Chipotle burritos do not translate to Dosas. The tortillas get warmed in 5-7 seconds allowing for the lines at the restaurant to move quickly. A pre-prepared Dosa cannot be warmed into action in a similar way. It doesn’t taste or look the same. It does not resonate with how Dosas are meant to be consumed. A dosa can also not be prepared in 5-7 seconds. There is risk of tearing, uncooked batter and lastly inconsistency in quality and taste. Hence I am not sure Dosas are the ideal vehicles to drive this effort with. Can a place where there is a line of 10-20 people (like I see in Chipotle at all times) really get by with 30 second Dosa preparations with risks that one in five or one in ten would tear and have to be redone? Also, the Dosa is the one Indian food item that needs to be eaten right away. Unlike the curries from up North or the Sambar and Rasam from Tamil Nadu, the Dosa cannot get better with time:). This makes the to-go option moot.
b) South Indian food is rich with rice, lentils and vegetables. People like their distinctive flavor and preparation. If this fact can be translated to 1) dishes that can be prepared easily and consistently 2) served fresh thru the day and 3) can carry well for a few hours in a cardboard/paper to-go container the majority of the battle is won. That would be my starting point. Dosas, Idlies, wet curries, Avial, Sambar, Curd and Rasam all fail to check one or all of these boxes. So I would eliminate all of them as vehicles for scaling a fast food South Indian restaurant.
c) One of the great things about Chipotle is that the food is never too dry or too wet. With the choices of Salsas the food is also never too mild or too hot. The customer controls the moisture level of the food with the amount of Guacamole, Tofu and beans he or she is comfortable with. The customer controls the spice level with one of three different salsas. This is very hard tp translate to most cuisines but possible with South Indian food. South Indian cuisine especially Tamil Nadu cuisine is full of chutneys and thogayals that can be add-ins to control the spice levels of most entrees. Kootu is a popular dish in most South Indian homes which has the unique semi-liquid property that lends itself perfectly to being the add-on that controls the moisture level of the customer’s food.
The ingredients to make the right Kootu, Thogayal in the US and maintain profit margins while scaling make it a hard problem. But not one that is unsolvable.
d) So my dream South Indian Chipotle would have 2-3 mixed rice dishes which can be prepared in large quantities thru the day, 2 Kootus or kootu-like preparations(both with lentils for proteins but one vegetarian and one meaty), a dry curry (Okra or Potato), 2-3 thogayals of varying spice level and a very Indian beverage like Chai or tender coconut water. Coconut rice, Lemon rice and Tomato rice are hugely popular among Indians and will scale very easily. Having been a vegetarian all my life, I am not sure what the meat based rice dish could be but again it doesn’t strike me as being an impossible problem to solve.
Will a restaurant like this scale like a Chipotle did? Very likely, not. But I think it can do very well in big coastal cities with large Indian diasporas. A portable entree with flavor that is made fresh and available in a 30 second walk thru a line at the restaurant will be very popular. The food will be non-messy unlike most Indian foods and consistency will be very achievable. It will also offer a very distinct taste to anything out there for the American and international crowds. I am positive taste and flavors can be adjusted as the restaurant evolves.
Here’s hoping the Dosa venture of former bankers Jawahar Chirimar and Sam Subramaniam is successful and I get to eat their food soon. Also, here’s hoping someone else with the time, money and passion to create a South Indian Chipotle for the U.S finds these tips helpful and gives me the opportunity to eat Lemon rice with pudina thogayal, kootu and okra curry some time soon.
What would your South Indian Chipotle look like?