by LAUREN CODLING
A LEADING Asian businessman has stressed the importance of mental health in the workplace, as he revealed the popular restaurant chain he runs “do what they can to treat employees as whole people”.
In an interview with Eastern Eye, the co-founder of Indian eatery Dishoom, Shamil Thakrar, stressed the importance of a happy working environment. If a business does not have happy people working for it, he said, then you won’t have happy customers.
“(Employees) don’t just check themselves in when they come to work and leave their personal life behind,” Thakrar said. “They are real people who come to work so we want to acknowledge that and say, ‘we really want people to be enjoying their work and prosper, and have it contribute to their lives’.”
Since launching in 2010, Dishoom has expanded to seven restaurants across three major cities. The restaurants are infamously busy – it is not unusual to see a long queue of eager customers waiting outside.
It is therefore inevitable that Dishoom is a fast-paced, hectic work environment. But Thakrar and his team try to ensure that every staff member feels valued in a friendly and positive setting.
“We are focused on creating a great place to work,” said Thakrar, who is due to speak at the GG2 Diversity Conference next month. The event is hosted by Eastern Eye publishers, the Asian Media Group. “If you don’t have people who are happy to work with you, then you won’t have happy customers.”
As proof, the restaurant was featured in The Sunday Time’s 2019 Best Companies to Work For. Perks for Dishoom staff are arguably hard to compete against. For one, the team organises an annual mela (gathering) for team members across the country.
Held in London, the ‘festival’ is typically set up in a big field and is filled with music, fairground rides, food stalls, areas for children and even a mini spa. According to Thakrar, this year’s mela – held usually in the summer – was “the best ever” despite the bad weather typical at the time.
What began as a small event has grown considerably as the level of workforce has increased. At the last count, more than 900 employees worked across the seven Dishoom restaurants in London, Edinburgh and Manchester.
“As it has got bigger, it’s got really expensive, and it’s a lot of work, but we still do it,” Thakrar said. “It is one of those things we committed to early on.”
Staff well-being is not the only central focus for the Dishoom brand. The business holds regular events – such as celebrations for Holi, Diwali, Ramadan and Christmas – with the aim of bringing together those from diverse cultures and backgrounds.
“More than 1,000 people turned up for our Eid festival, and half were not Muslim,” Thakrar recalled. At an event to mark the decriminalisation of homosexuality in India last September, Dishoom teamed up with cultural consultancy group The Unmistakables and pressure group Gayasians to throw a #377 Scrapped Party, referring to the Article in question.
Bringing communities together became more significant after Thakrar and his team received hate mail from an angry customer some years ago. They were sent an email by an individual who had wanted to book a table but later decided against it – because a photograph on Dishoom’s website showed Muslim children observing Ramadan.
As Hindus, it was disloyal for them to celebrate Eid with Muslims, the sender of the email said. Referring to the Dishoom team as “backstabbing traitors”, the email also included some “colourful” insults directed at their wives and sisters.
Thakrar recalled how the team was taken aback by the contents of the email.
“It was so nasty that it triggered something within us, and we knew it was the opposite of what we stood for,” he said. “For me, that was a point to say, we have to celebrate each other’s cultures and we can’t go back on this.”
Although he stressed that he felt no ill will against the person who sent the message, Thakrar is resolute that the prejudices raised in that email were “completely wrong”.
“When we celebrate together, we see each other for our quirks and our differences, and I think we need much more of that in society – we need to see each and realise that we are quite quirky and different, and we may as well all get to know each other and enjoy it.
“If we can play that part in society in a small way, then I am delighted.”
With Dishoom’s success has come growth. Earlier this year, it was announced that it would expand its Covent Garden restaurant into the former Jamie’s Italian restaurant next door, after the chef’s eponymous restaurant empire collapsed.
Thakrar is adamant, however, that Dishoom’s expansion will be a slow one. It takes time to produce a top-quality restaurant and developing at a quick rate is not in Thakrar’s future plans, something he had previously stressed to Eastern Eye in 2017.
“You can see how much work it takes to do something, (especially as) we are very detailed,” he said. “In a way if that means we are slow at growing then so be it. We don’t have any aggressive plans to roll out.”
Undoubtedly, Dishoom has become a major success story since its inception. Inspired by old Irani cafes which were popular in 19th century Bombay, it is notable for its intricate detail and design concept in each restaurant space, as they are all specially designed with their own backstory.
The King’s Cross spot in London resembles a western railway office from the 1920s, for instance, while the Kensington branch is inspired by a 1940s cinema space in Bombay.
Has Dishoom’s popularity surprised Thakrar? “Yes, it has,” he laughed. “You just go along and do stuff, and hopefully, people will like it, and you have to go with that. You have to be focused on the work that you have to do and do right by the team, and you’ll receive some measure of success.”
Dishoom by Shamil Thakrar, Kavi Thakrar & Naved Nasir (Bloomsbury, £26) is out now