It's nearing noon on a sunny Friday in November. Most Dubai residents are slowly rising and the typically congested Karama district is lazily calm. However, there's a flurry of intense activity on an inner street, where young Nepali men are ferrying packed food from a small cafeteria to a green Toyota. The man behind the wheel, a mustachioed Indian, smiles and says he'll return to be interviewed after delivering his last order for the morning. "Or you could come with me and we'll chat in the car," he says after lowering his window.
Settling in the passenger seat next to Pankaj Pathak, it's impossible to ignore the aroma of freshly cooked parathas - round, stuffed Indian flatbreads - that wafts through his car. "It all started with a family recipe," he says, repeating the tagline of his hugely successful cafeteria, Paratha King. Traditionally, parathas are stuffed with potato, radish, cauliflower or fenugreek leaves. Mr Pathak offers numerous variations on the traditional food and throws in some global experimentations, such as parathas filled with Chinese noodles, or zaatar. Each of Mr Pathak's parathas is about 25cm in diameter, and they range in price from Dh6 (US$1.63) to Dh10, depending on the stuffing. One paratha could easily make a meal.
Previously a salaried IT professional, Mr Pathak had worked in a company - which he prefers not to name - for 10 years on a monthly salary of Dh4,000. "I always believed that the world had more to offer and was forever investigating ways of creating a sustainable business," he replies, when asked of the origins of his entrepreneurial itch. After initial attempts to create a social networking site for Gulf expatriate Indians in 2004, the 45-year-old Mr Pathak abandoned the idea after he discovered that the virtual endeavour required a heavy commitment, and subsequently shifted his attention to the real world.
He describes his foray into food as purely accidental. "I was looking for ideas that would allow me to stay on in my job and join the business when the time was right. A simple food idea seemed workable," he recalls. Mr Pathak is candid about the originality - or lack of, as he says - of his food debut. "In India there was a place called 'Only Parathas' that had already launched the concept of many types of stuffing for the paratha. So they had the idea, but it didn't take off too well because their parathas didn't taste good enough," he says. Parking his car in front of the customer's location, Mr Pathak instructs his delivery boy to carefully carry the order of 30 alu parathas (flatbread stuffed with potato), 20 kokis (flatbread stuffed with onion) and extra yoghurt.
Having ambitiously launched Paratha King in early 2006, albeit within the tiny space of 28 square metres, Mr Pathak promised his potential clientele a pure vegetarian experience with a choice of more than 100 stuffed parathas - all this while still holding down a full-time job. "In 2004 and 2005 it was still possible to avail a high loan despite a low salary," he says. "So with a Dh150,000 personal loan I set up Paratha King. After sorting out rent, fitting out the kitchen and premises, paying the Dh25,000 annual municipality licences and four visas of Dh10,000, which include health insurance and medical coverage, I had run through the entire amount."
Strapped for funds and still short-staffed, Mr Pathak says he was "saved by the timely assistance of Mr Naren Gurnani", a friend who lent him an additional Dh100,000. As goes the fundamental rule for most start-ups, the first six months were tough. For Mr Pathak, however, the problem wasn't attracting diners, because if there's one thing that sells, and sells well in Karama, it's food. "We spent a good bit of 2006 getting our paratha right," he says on the drive back to the cafeteria. "We had the variety, but we weren't quite there with the taste."
His current five-step, two-minute procedure of creating the perfect paratha was finalised after he poached his star chef from the tiny alleys of Bur Dubai last year. Shortly after the new recruit was in place, Mr Pathak left his previous employer, sent his wife and two daughters to India to reduce expenses, and channelled all his energy towards Paratha King. The magic combination of glowing word-of-mouth reviews and good press set his cash register on fire, and the cafeteria has been churning out its full capacity of 700 parathas a day ever since.
Despite three price rises - from the minimum price per paratha of Dh3 in 2006 to the present minimum of Dh6 - the customers, well, they just keep calling. With an 11-man team working 11-hour split shifts daily, Mr Pathak, who eats his breakfast, lunch and dinner at Paratha King, was justifiably encouraged and promptly began looking for his next venture. When a property next door became available, he invested and set up Go Bananas, a cosy neighbourhood pizzeria, which, unlike Paratha King, has a restaurant licence and more dine-in seating options. "I moved on to toppings from stuffing," he says with a loud laugh.
"A pizzeria can run smoothly on its own, after it has been set up," he says. "Paratha King is extremely labour intensive. "There are more stuffing options in Paratha King requiring different preparations. For pizzas, we can depend on machines, but to prepare a paratha the majority of the procedure, from the stuffing and rolling out, is done by hand, not machine. With major orders we can't undertake them on bicycle, and I have to personally deliver, as I'm the only one with a driver's licence. But I've had a wonderful experience with both food outlets and am looking to expand more."
Mr Pathak is ready to franchise the Paratha King model across Dubai, especially in districts that are concentrated with Indian residents. At the time of the interview, he indicated that space had already been identified in Deira. But it is not only Indians who crave the creations of Mr Pathak. Ever since Time Out Dubai reviewed Paratha King earlier this year, the number of his non-Indian customers has been steadily increasing.
"My model of franchising is that I will invest everything - the capital, the know-how, the experience. The franchisee will take home the profits after paying me a small fee. I think it's a win-win," he says. Mr Pathak, originally from Mumbai and tracing his roots to the western Indian state of Gujarat, says that parathas are not a staple feature of his community's cuisine. "My mother made them, as most Indian mothers do, but the paratha capital is Delhi. I do score points for reinventing it in Dubai I suppose," he says as he locks up the cafeteria for Friday afternoon and gets set to ring up his wife and daughters in Mumbai.
"Why are we successful? I think it's because our ingredients are honest," he explains. "We don't adopt shortcuts such as mixing baking soda in the dough to cook the paratha faster and save on fuel. Also, we only use whole-wheat flour. Our raw vegetables are from the best vendors. We're a simple recipe with a simple attitude and simple philosophy. It can only work well." Mr Pathak also insists on staying true to his core clientele of vegetarians. Tempting as it is to introduce meat stuffing into his parathas, Mr Pathak says it would drive away his steadfast customers. "I would lose more than I would gain," he says.
Paratha King's future looks bright. Its door's signage is welcoming, and the menu on its interior glazed wall is neatly designed. It's due for an upgrade from a cafeteria licence to a restaurant, which will allow it to shift into larger premises and accommodate more than one table. As for the affable Mr Pathak, he doesn't reveal his profits, but says it's much, much more than his previous salary. He also admits there are serious enquiries from investors in New York, London and Singapore to take the recipes global. With fingers crossed and a quick wink, he says, "Now if we went international, oh yes, then I would certainly consider myself a true Paratha King."