Nine Subways and a clutch of upmarket F&B outlets… to restaurateur Vipin Sachdev, business is about change and consistency

We’re in the kitchen. In the restaurant. On the road. In another restaurant. In another kitchen. On the road again. Vipin Sachdev is exhausting to keep up with.

We finally settle down at Tuscana Pizzeria at Wallace Garden, a stone’s throw away from his most successful Subway restaurant. “They sell about 600 sandwiches a day.” Vipin runs nine of Chennai’s Subways, and will be opening the 10th at MRC Nagar soon. Along with Chef Willi Wilson he also runs five more F&B outlets: Tuscana Pizzeria, Tuscana on Chamiers by Willi, Kryptos by Willi, Burgundy and the B-Bar. In three months, they will be opening a new Chinese restaurant called Jade Wok, at Somerset Greenways in MRC Nagar.

Between the Subways and the restaurants, Vipin’s outlets serve roughly 3,000 people a day. A born restaurateur? Not really. For 25 years he worked in the printing industry. “It was a family-run business, and we were known to be among the premium printers in the city… I studied printing technology in Chennai and then in Germany for six months. This was in 1983, and I studied in both West and East Germany.”

He adds, “By 2005 I was tired. It had become monotonous. Then one day the fuse blew. I decided from this day forward I’m moving out of printing… So I stayed home. Told my wife, ‘From now onwards I won’t work’. At first she thought I was unwell. Then slowly realised I was serious. I just sat at home day after day doing nothing.”

Two years earlier, his wife Somna had started the city’s first Subway. “We always loved Subway. You couldn’t get it in India earlier, so when we travelled, from Bangkok, Singapore or London, we would order ten sandwiches en route to the airport. We’d bring them back in our hand luggage and put them in the fridge. Then eat them over the next week.” When Subway finally opened in Delhi, Somna started packing sandwiches from there every time she visited the city, “A six inch tuna sub cost about Rs. 450 then. Everything was imported from the bread to the tuna…. She ended up paying bills of Rs. 3,000. Then her brother said, “Why don’t you just open one?” That was the spark. She went to the U.S., trained there and came back to open Chennai’s first Subway at Spencer’s Plaza.

After Vipin quit, Somna fell ill and he decided to help out at Subway. “The money was small, unlike the printing business, but it was satisfying. I liked meeting people. When I realised how happy one Subway made me I decided to open a second, the third.” Between 2005 and 2007, he ended up opening seven Subways. “I had no money. I took a loan from a friend. It was not easy.”

The toughest part, he said was managing people. He now considers mentorship his most important role in the company. “Boys come from small towns to work as waiters and cooks. They get tempted by ways to make easy money. They have had tough upbringing, and their parents worked very hard to get them educated. So they get lost… jump jobs.” Vipin adds, “My philosophy is to be a mentor, but be tough. If you love them, they love your business. But my love is not my weakness. There are no second chances here. You get caught stealing, you’re fired.”

After the Subways, he met Chef Willi and decided to start working on independent restaurants. “Life had become monotonous again. When I met Willi, we realised we both think alike, which is essential for a successful partnership.”

They began with the Tuscana we’re sitting in for this interview. “This used to be the Levi’s store. We were told the vaastu was not good. But we liked it. If a store is not successful, something is wrong with the operation or the product.” It became so popular they quickly regretted not having taken over the first floor of the building too.

“Before opening we did so many tastings! After 45 days of tasting Chef Willi asked me to come and try two pizzas, and decide which was better. They looked and tasted the same to me. The difference? One had 10 grams of salt, the other had 12. This is why we were successful. We were meticulous in everything.” They’ve also been quick to respond to feedback and health trends, starting with wheat-based pizzas, and more recently, a range of gluten-free pizzas.

“The biggest challenge is consistency,” says Vipin. “We do have problems, of course. But there’s no way we will allow the restaurant to deteriorate because of them.” Vipin’s way of ensuring consistency is by monitoring customer feedback. “My day starts at 6 a.m. I’m on Facebook and e-mail till 8 a.m.,” he says.

“But now I’m slowly stepping back…. Ask me why,” he says, looking up expectantly. “Ok. Why?” He grins. “I don’t know yet. But as of now I’ve decided that by 2015, I’ll be doing something new.”