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What a father advised his son

Mar 26, 2023 Strategy, Success, Sunday Nation

Have you watched Street Food Asia on Netflix? If you’re interested in the human being at work, this series is worth a peep. It’s only ostensibly about food; more about the human hustling to eke out a living—and about what it takes to survive and thrive in very difficult environments.

One episode, set in Delhi, India, caught my eye for a particular piece of advice imparted by a father. Dalchand runs a food stall in the busy city, in competition against a multitude of other vendors. He tells us that the stall was started by his grandfather, and that Dalchand’s father learnt the art of making the delicious street snack known as chaat—a mix of ingredients in a spicy melange—by watching his own father. That expertise was then passed on to Dalchand.

Here’s dad’s key piece of advice: focus on the taste. Worry about the money later; first make sure the taste of the food is outstanding. If you can serve very distinctively tasty food, the rest will take care of itself. People will return for the taste. The stall’s reputation will grow. Profit will be made. Growth will be funded.

Such simple advice—and yet so brilliant.

Let’s take a closer look at what focusing on the taste actually means for Dalchand. First, he only looks for the best ingredients in the market every day—no compromises. He chooses personally. If a particular vegetable does not please him at a particular vendor, he keeps looking until he finds the right quality.

He also knows that a chaat depends on several spices for its zesty taste. He can brook no compromise on that front. He chooses the spices himself, and gets them ground freshly every day. This makes a big difference to the taste. So does preparing the dish slowly, without haste.

And so, there’s a consequence: input costs are high per dish. If competition is also high, the person focused on achieving the best taste every day will have to take a lower profit margin. Which is why most will not follow this approach. Most will try to get away with cheaper, less fresh ingredients; packeted spices; speeded-up cooking times; and many other shortcuts. So that more dishes can be sold per day, at higher margins.

Dalchand will lose out, right? Except he didn’t. Even if his process is slower, customers are queueing up to partake in his particular offering, not the alternative ones all over the street. Why? Because he’s nailed the taste. When customers love something very particular about your product, they keep coming back. They shun alternatives; they give you an assured revenue stream; and eventually are willing to pay more for your demonstrably better offering.

This goes beyond food. What Dalchand’s father drummed into him is something I covered in my book, The Bigger Deal. Every business has one thing it must get right, above others. In the restaurant trade, that one thing is taste. Food must first and foremost taste good! That’s the core of the offering. The other attributes—friendly, engaging service, ambience, convenience—are layers you add to the core. They’re good to have, but they’re not the most important. The core is the taste. Without that strong core, your offering is hollow.

In another episode in Netflix’s series, we meet Jay Fai in Bangkok the lady whose crab omelettes won her an actual Michelin star—from a street stall! Taste won, again.

Once you’ve nailed your one thing down, the trick is to know what to do next. Many will see dollar signs flashing, and eye rapid growth. “Scale” will be the magic word uttered in every meeting. How do we grow this business, how do we expand our footprint, how many more outlets can we open, and how fast? If more shareholders come on board, especially of the private-equity variety, such pressures will become intense and immediate.

The Dalchands and Jay Fais of this world then have to decide whether to let their businesses grow far beyond them. Can they do this, and still protect the thing that made their name—the taste of their food? Sometimes yes; but many times, no. Meticulous personal attention is very difficult to replicate and scale. Can the taste-producing process be codified and automated and taken to new locations? If yes, scaling up is possible, and lucrative. But in many cases, the original savour and relish is lost, and the bigger business starts hollowing out over time.

What Dalchand demonstrates is something I wish many more would pay attention to: that growing and scaling are not unquestionable dictums of business. It is possible to stay small and deep, and still make a handsome living while getting a non-monetary return—a quiet self-satisfaction in producing something exceptional. Success is not always counted in balance sheets and bank accounts and club memberships. We should also value the accomplishments of being the best in your craft, and of earning a decent living while retaining peace of mind.

Street food is a bigger, more interesting phenomenon, though, and tells us a lot about personal endeavour and societal uplift. I’ll return to the topic next week.

(Sunday Nation, 26 March 2023)

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