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.
I also hadn’t really spent time pricing the food items out. So if I sold $1,000, I’d realize I hadn’t made any money because $400 were food costs plus labour and overhead, so I wasn’t as smart as a businessman right off the bat. But I learned my way quickly, to be smarter and inch the prices just a little from $6 to $6.25 for chicken curry or from $7 to $7.50 for lamb.
The most important part was that people needed to taste my food. Once they tasted my food, they didn’t mind paying fifty cents extra. Then we had one very positive review by a food writer. That was a turning point in the sense that it brought people in. After that, it was my job to capture them. People started talking about the uniqueness of the cuisine and the dishes Meeru and I had created, because she had already come into the picture by then.
When did Meeru come in?
I opened the restaurant in September 1994 and Meeru and I got married in December. She’s of Indian descent, but brought up in the United States. Even though she had no culinary background, she picked it up with my help and put her own spin on things. She had that taste of what I was trying to do, that modern Indian style of cooking. She and I both felt the same way – that we needed to do something different and unique. All those things just fell into place.
How did you grow into a bigger success?
As the accolades came, we got a little busier. Then the landlord started giving me a hard time because the smells of my Indian food bothered him. I couldn’t do anything about it. Indian food does smell. When you roast ginger, onions and garlic, it has an aroma. So we found another location nearby – a licensed restaurant that had gone belly up – where I could have a proper hood and ventilation and moved there in 1996.
The relocation was going to cost me $50,000 so I kept the first one running almost until the last minute. I borrowed the money from the contractor, a nice guy who used to come in. He offered to build it and let me pay him back slowly. So I took the risk. We haven’t looked back since.
Why did you become a chef?
I wanted to be a chef ever since I was a child. My grandfather loved to drink a couple of scotches at night and I loved to eat, so he would joke with me that when I grew up, he and I should open up a restaurant together, because then I could cook and he could drink for free in the bar. So I wanted to be a chef to please my grandfather because I loved him dearly. It was always in the back of my mind to be a chef.
What was the biggest lesson from school in Austria?
It was just the fundamentals of cooking that I was learning. I still needed to go to a proper hotel or job to get my own experience. Yes, I knew how to make béchamel and the root stock sauces but the practicality of making them in a different kitchen was tough. After school was finished, you had to work three or four months in kitchens, and those practicums were very tough on a 20-year-old guy. You were basically slave labour for them. They could make you work so many hours. It beat you to the point where you’d just become resilient towards things. That was one of my biggest learning points. It was immersion into the real kitchen and teaching you that the life ahead of you is going to be hard.
What makes someone a good chef?
Passion for food and for being in the kitchen; not being afraid to try out different things. It’s somebody who believes in great flavours and is able to translate that. A home cook – a mother that makes delicious food – is as important a chef as an executive chef who works in the kitchen. It’s just a different scale. A good chef cooks from the heart.
What kind of leader are you in the kitchen?
I’m still a very passionate cook. I love putting something together in the kitchen. I’m not afraid to get my hands dirty. My biggest issue is that when I find someone in the kitchen who’s not as passionate, who’s just doing it as a job, I get frustrated. Cooking is very personal and sometimes I get too carried away. Then I get in big trouble from my wife. I have to learn to calm down if something isn’t perfect.
How do you deal with stress?
I do yoga four or five times a week, I go for long walks and listen to music. I love Indian music.
What’s your advice to young chefs?
Hone your skills in great kitchens. Work with chefs who have good reputations, go and learn from them. Don’t run after money or fame. Do what you’re passionate about. Even if you want to make French fries, make the best French fries that are out there.
What do you look for when you hire?
Their biggest motivation. Why does that person want to be here? Is he here because he or she just wants to work at Vij’s? Or because they want to do a great job of it? How much skill do they have?
The women in the kitchen in my restaurants are all [Indian] villagers. They are the best cooks but they’re not chefs. They haven’t gone to school for that. That’s something Meeru and I have managed to capture – to work with these women and hone their skills, even though the way they hold the onion or chop the cilantro is not as schooled as you’d expect it to be. But they have such good heart and passion; they’re so hard working and do such a good job that I don’t need to worry about it. That’s why I can go to Toronto for six weeks to do Chopped Canada.
How do you build that trust with your team?
By nurturing them, making sure that they’re fine. We don’t have an hierarchy in the kitchen. There’s no sous-chef or saucier...they all work on the team system. We all work on the team system that way.
How do the teams work?
If five women come in, I’d ask, “What are your strengths?” They might say, “Oh, I’m a great chopper or I can grill...” I’ll spend time with everybody to show them – this is how you should grill, this is how you should chop, or do this or that.
If you ever took my restaurants to a school of business as a case study, everybody would say he is absolutely nuts. He is wrong. How can he do this? It’s the worst way to do it. But we are most successful because we’ve done it totally opposite.
This method comes from the heart. For example, we don’t do any staff meals. Every staff is allowed to eat whatever they want, even if it’s a $29 entree. And they get a glass of wine. At the base of it, we treat our staff as human beings. It instills a huge amount of loyalty and trust. People want to do a good job for you. For me, the appreciation a human being is more important and not the cost. But at the end of the day, it’s actually the customers who are paying for the staff to eat, because the food cost is measured in there.
Does this come out of your own experience?
It’s a response to the way I wanted to be treated when I went to Austria and was working for a chef. What I’ve learned over the years is that I’d rather not follow what everybody else was doing. I said, these are the things I’m going to change when and if I ever open up my restaurant.
What did you want to change most?
This hierarchy system. This attitude of, “I’m so and so, I’m more powerful than you, I’m above you. I’m the boss or the GM of this place and can tell you what to do.” That is wrong – that ego transcended way of doing things.