In 1994, Vikram Vij opened his first restaurant in Vancouver – the original 16-seat Vij’s, named to honour his grandfather – with $10,000 of savings and $23,000 in cash that his father carried from India in a brown paper bag.
In a classic Canadian success story, 20 years later Mr. Vij and wife Meeru Dhalwala own five restaurants under the Vij’s Group of Companies umbrella, including Vij’s, Rangoli, Vij’s Railway Express, Shanik [in Seattle] and My Shanti, opening soon in Surrey. There’s also Vij’s at Home, a retail line of frozen foods produced at their 28,000-square-foot B.C. plant and available in over 300 specialty and grocery stores across Canada, accounting for around 12 per cent of their combined annual revenue of nearly $6-million. The couple have also authored two award-winning cookbooks: Vij’s: Elegant and Inspired Indian Cuisine and Vij’s at Home: Relax, Honey.
Born in Amritsar in the Punjab, Mr. Vij left India at age 19 to study hotel management in Salzburg, Austria. He came to Canada in 1989, poached from the Austrian Post hotel, where he was a chef, by the general manager of the Banff Springs hotel who mailed him an one-way air ticket and six-month visa. He later moved on to work for Vancouver chef John Bishop before going on his own. Mr. Vij’s vision was to introduce people to a modern style of Indian cuisine far beyond the common dishes Canadians knew as Indian food. Called “among the finest Indian restaurants in the world” by New York Times food critic Mark Bittman, the lineups at Vij’s are legendary, in accordance with their ‘no reservations’ policy – however people are treated to chai and hors d’oeuvres while they wait.
Well known on Canadian television as a judge on CBC’s Recipe to Riches and the Food Network’s Top Chef Canada and Chopped Canada, Mr. Vij recently joined the cast of CBC’s Dragon’s Den. He was also the 2011 Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year for the Pacific Region in the Hospitality/Tourism category.
Why did you become a Dragon?
It takes me back 20 years. I feel I could give somebody an insight of how they can do it, and help them the way my father gave me a helping hand when I was starting out.
Did you receive any kind of mentoring on the business side?
No. That’s been a tall order to learn because it’s not like I was a CEO or went to school for this. I managed restaurants beforehand but I was always working with somebody else’s money. Taking the risk with your own money is a totally different ballgame. At the end of the day, you have to pay your bills. It’s expensive. When you work for somebody else, you don’t really see a lot of behind the scenes – what the bottom line is and whether you’re going to make money or not.
How do you juggle everything you’re doing?
If Obama can run a country at the age of 50, I’m sure I can run a small organization at 49. You need to build a really solid team and I’ve done that. We have 146 people. I have Meeru who does an awesome job with the menus, my two front managers, a CFO, a COO, and a great sales marketing woman. It gives me the time to go out and do what I want to do.
We’ve grown but the vision hasn’t left. The aim of the restaurants and the production of the food to take home has always been to bring awareness of Indian cuisine. That’s still the same. I would never become an entrepreneur more than a visionary. I want to be the visionary person first.
What were the challenges in that first restaurant?
The toughest part when we opened was that we weren’t busy because everyone was expecting chicken tikka masala. That really bothered me. And cash flow was tight. I almost closed the place down because I couldn’t pay rent. The business had cost $32,000 so I only had $1,000 to get the ball rolling. At that point my breakaway point was $100. If I sold $100 a day, I was going to survive. Some days I would do $98 and I’d go to the cash register and ring in a two dollar order of naan just so I could feel good with $100 in the till.