In the heart of Greenwich Village, there is a unique Indian restaurant called The Kati Roll Company. It is a simple, unimposing place that doesn’t rely on promotions or attention-grabbing sales tactics to promote its food. Neither waiters nor over-the-top dècor greet you when you enter, just the rich aroma of quality, unique Indian food. www.thekatirollcompany.com
On a random afternoon back in 2011, my friends Dominick and Karen, who work on Madison and 42nd Street asked me to meet up for a quick lunch near Bryant Park. Sick of the standard salads or sandwiches we were used to grabbing, we went on the lookout for something a bit more unique. As we strolled down 39th Street, a long line and wonderful aromas beckoned us to investigate what the fuss was all about. As soon as we stepped through the doorway of The Kati Roll Company, we realized that we had stumbled onto something very special and authentic.
Since that 2011 afternoon, my friends and I have visited that Kati Roll location for many lunches – and even dinners – eaten at the coveted tables in the back or on the small tables in nearby Bryant Park. I’ve also taken a stroll up to the Kati Roll on 53rd Street to see if there is any difference and found nothing but the same delicious menu and the same long line!
When I was offered the chance to interview Payal Saha, founder of The Kati Roll Company, I jumped at the opportunity. Payal began by letting me know about her background. She attended college in India, where her focus had nothing to do with restaurants or the food service industry at all. In fact, she was sociology major and interned for a film-maker. However, growing up in Kolkata (aka Calcutta), India where street food is a way of life, Payal possessed a deep passion for food – constantly dreaming, planning and reading all about it.
After she graduated from college, Payal was married and soon after, packed up everything to move to New York for her husband’s new job. When her husband went out to work, Payal ventured out on her own into the streets of New York City, looking for the best location from which to run a restaurant or even a food cart – a childhood dream of hers.
By late summer of 2011, Payal had fallen in love with a wonderful space in the financial district. After weeks of negotiations, she decided to sign a lease and realize her dream. However, a few days before she was supposed to sign the lease, her broker called to say that the landlord had dropped the broker and the space was no longer available. Heartbroken, she now faced the prospect of finding another location that she loved as much all over again. Yet, some things happen for a reason. A couple of weeks after the restaurant space fell through, the towers came down on 9/11/01. Payal realized that if she had signed the lease and taken the space, that she would have been out of business before she even started.
After this tragic event, Payal was stalled for some time. She didn’t know what to make of the tragedy and how it related to her life. Was this a divine sign telling her to stop? After countless hours spent contemplating her next move, she made a definitive decision to keep going. She believed that her dream could become a reality because she had undying, unwavering love for the product – fresh, quality, authentic Indian food on the go. Back out into the streets Payal went. She observed truck after truck – selling nineteen different cuisines that were busy all day long and told herself that there isn’t any reason why she should not proceed. Payal says, “I’m the type of person that once I get something in my head, I have to do it. I could think or do nothing else!”
On June 7, 2002, Payal opened her first location on McDougal Street, with two employees – a cleaning lady and herself – and no reference point on how to do well. Almost immediately, she knew she needed to hire people to serve the increasing crowds. Noticing a food cart outside on West 4th Street, Payal went right up to the owner and asked him where to find good food service workers. He sent me my first four employees right away and we all learned together as we went along each day. On the day that Kati Roll made $1,000 in just one day, Payal couldn’t wait to call her father in India and tell him the great news. While she always knew she would start The Kati Roll Company somehow, someway – that day she realized that Kati Roll would be a success. Payal knows that in addition to her determination, that she was lucky since her husband had a job and she didn’t have to be the primary financial support system for her family.
Over the years, Payal has developed a set of simple steps that all employees need to follow in order to make Kati Rolls. She says that there are “no chef skills required at all. Just follow the steps and it works.” This playbook allowed Payal to grow to four locations (three in NYC, one in London) and manage all 65 of her current employees.
All in all, it has been a wonderful journey, even though at times it has been filled with stress. In closing, Payal shared terrific and practical advice to aspiring entrepreneurs in the food service industry, which can certainly be applied to any type of business:
• Find a great space
• Hire very able employees and managers
• Focus on quality control
• Don’t compromise on any ingredient
• Closely follow the recipe for success to leave little to no room for error
• Give back
• Inspire others through your own achievements
• IT IS POSSIBLE!!!