Former bankers Jawahar Chirimar and Sam Subramaniam have decided to reinvent the dosa for a global audience with the launch of Soho Tiffin, a chain of quick-service restaurants in the U.S. They tell Shonali Muthalaly about their new venture

This must be what it feels like to be hit by a tornado. Jawahar Chirimar and Sam Subramaniam charge in, fuelled by energy, enthusiasm and possibly, too much caffeine. Sam puts down his coffee cup to juggle three ringing phones (“Groan. They never stop!”). Jawahar charges into the kitchen to make a dosa. (“Apron! Cap! Ladle!”).Sam chats about their high-powered careers, pausing only to send me helpful e-mails (“Check your phone now. Now? Now?”). Jawahar arrives balancing three steamy dosas, and sits down to deconstruct them (Oats? Wild rice? Wheat?). All the while, they talk. And talk. Sentences run into each other: “New York-Tokyo-Mumbai.” “Finance-profits-markets.” “Dosas-dosas-dosas.”

We’re at restaurateur M. Mahadevan’s ‘Marina’, where the first floor has been converted into a test lab for Jawahar and Sam’s big idea: re-inventing the dosa for a global audience. In Chennai to develop the concept with the help of Mahadevan and his chefs, before taking it to America, the two former bankers discuss their big dream.

Jawahar has a PhD from the University of Pennsylvania, after which he worked in various financial institutions, from Lehman Brothers to Citibank. He’s spent the past few years buying and selling companies. Sam graduated from IIT Madras, after which he got an MBA from the University of Chicago, and then worked with the likes of Goldman Sachs and American Express in New York.

Serial entrepreneurs

“We met in 2004 in Manhattan,” says Sam, adding with a laugh, “We were swimming in the same waters… We are serial entrepreneurs.” They dabbled in real estate for a while, before coming up with the idea of a mass-market dosa chain. “Personally this has been a long quest,” says Jawahar. “As an Indian living in the U.S., he says it’s frustrating to see that Indian food has never really gone mainstream. You see Mexican restaurant chains like Chipotle. But Indian food is always targeted at the Diaspora. And even they can’t eat it everyday because it’s so rich, creamy and spicy.”

They suddenly realised there was a market nobody had noticed before. “Saravana Bhavan is successful abroad, but 90 per cent of its clientele are Indian. However, something like Manhattan’s ‘Hampton Chutney’ (which offers dosas filled with everything from arugula to butternut squash) has a 90 per cent non-Indian clientele.” Jawahar adds, “The market is ready. The timing is right. Ethnic food isn’t necessarily niche anymore. America is at a stage when people want to experiment… You just have to design it right.”

The product, they decided, had to be fresh, healthy and tasty. But also portable, quick and convenient. Jawahar says, “And all this at the right price. Around seven and a half dollars.” So they created a dosa for Americans. The new company ‘Soho Tiffin,’ which will launch in New York by October with its first restaurant, has been designed so it can expand into a chain of smart quick-service restaurants offering fresh customisable food. “Each restaurant should be able to do 12 to 15,000 of these dosas with a team of 6-8 people. Although we will have a central kitchen, the food will be fresh. Cooked to serve, not pre-cooked. Meats will be grilled and dosas made on site,” says Sam.

Customisable dosa

The concept is creating a customisable dosa, in the style of a burrito or sandwich, thus taking an unfamiliar food but serving it in a familiar setting. “We see this expanding the market,” says Jawahar. Sam nods. “We’re creating the category.”

Their first Soho Tiffin will be in Soho (of course!), after which they intend to open five Manhattan locations. And that’s just the beginning. Sam says, “We dream big, given our background. This is not on the nickel and the dime. We’re investing this much energy and money for a reason. It wouldn’t be worth it for just five restaurants.” Jawahar adds, “We couldn’t sell at seven and a half dollars with just five restaurants.”

“We’re building the foundation for something substantial,” Sam says. “How big? Well, Chipotle started in 2000. Today they have more than 1,400 restaurants. There’s no reason why we won’t do the same. Even better… We see this expanding to Australia, Europe, Japan…”

He adds with a laugh, “My father’s less excited though. Yesterday he called me and said, “After IIT and all those years in financial services, you’re making dosas?”