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Ones to Watch | By Sabrina Davis

Menu item from Rasoee

With interest in healthy ingredients and exotic flavors on the rise, it’s no surprise that the popularity of Indian food is growing in North America. The surprise for Nipun Sharma, president of Rasoee, a contemporary, fast-casual Indian restaurant chain based in Toronto, is that it has taken so long for North America to embrace one of the world’s favorite cuisines.

“Indian food is the No. 1 cuisine in England,” Sharma says. “It’s not considered ethnic cuisine there; it’s part of the regular diet—it’s in every restaurant and grocery store.” The Brits’ love of Indian food dates back almost 150 years to the British Indian Empire. Sharma, who was based in London as an investment banker before joining the family business in 2002, says Indian food is almost better in the U.K. than it is in India.

One of the reasons Indian food has been slow to catch on in North America, Sharma believes, is because the region’s diet is influenced by restaurant trends—particularly the scalable, fast-food and fast-casual concepts.

“Indian food is one of the most difficult cuisines to prepare,” Sharma says. “It’s dependent on key skills. There are 20 to 30 different spices added at different times during the cooking, and the shelf life of the food is short. That’s why you don’t see Indian chains. You’re either fine dining or a mom and pop.”

Sharma’s family has been in the Indian food business for four generations, originally in India. His father opened the first Indian restaurant in Toronto in 1994 to fantastic success. Then five years ago Sharma joined his father to design a plan for growth.

“I’m not a chef, so I looked at our restaurant from a business standpoint,” Sharma says. “The biggest challenge in the food industry is staffing, and in ethnic food the No. 1 problem is food consistency and food safety. I looked for ways to remove these.”

First the Rasoee team tried creating a small production facility to supply its three restaurants. The team still encountered problems with spoilage and consistency, plus the expense of the production operation.

Before turning to outside producers, team members redesigned recipes and ingredient preparation to simplify the cooking process, yet instill the same flavors. Partner food producers now prepare and package the food, which has a shelf life of 30 days, 28 days more than before.

“My dad was skeptical of having the food produced somewhere else,” Sharma says. “We sat down with a plate of food that came out of a bag and his plate that he cooked. He couldn’t tell the difference.”

The top-seller is the Butter Chicken (marinated, baked boneless chicken in creamy Tandoori sauce). Most meals are in the $6.50 to $7 range (Canadian). Combo platters are more.

With consistent flavors and food safety taken care of, the Rasoee team has been able to focus on growth. The Sharmas hired Mike Craig, formerly Manchu Wok’s CEO, as CEO to manage franchise growth and branding. Rasoee now has a new Web site and a restaurant atmosphere with soothing sophistication based on Vastu principles. The restaurant name, which means “kitchen” in Hindi, seems ironic now because there really is no kitchen.

“We’ve created the illusion of an open kitchen, but everything is hidden under stainless steel, where our food is just being rewarmed,” Sharma says. “The operation is so simple that just a couple of kids with little experience can run our restaurants.

“When we were ready to franchise, FranNet met with us as a courtesy, because they don’t typically work with restaurants or startups,” Sharma says. “But they took us on because they said this was one of the most franchisable concepts they had ever seen.”

CEO: Mike Craig
HQ: Toronto, Canada
Year Started: 1994
Annual Sales: Not Disclosed
Total Units: 6
Franchise Units: 3

Sharma joined his family’s business to grow Rasoee into an international brand. He’s turned the challenges that inhibited the growth of Indian food into Rasoee’s strengths. Offsite production ensures a consistent, safe, and relatively economic product. Sharma’s team is looking into overseas production to reduce production prices, but overall his concept is prepared for expansive growth.

There are six locations serving 50 percent of their food to take-out customers, especially during the lunch hour, which can see 200 to 300 customers. “Our goal with this restaurant was to create an environment where first-time customers would come in unescorted and try Indian food,” Sharma says. “I’d say we’ve done that. We have locations right next to Subway and Quiznos, and we are more packed and serve our food faster.”

Sharma plans to have 20 locations open in the U.S. and Canada by the end of 2008. International queries are coming from France, England, Oman, and United Arab Emirates. He believes the chain will become a major player worldwide.

“It took Taco Bell to take Mexican food mainstream. It will take Rasoee to take Indian food mainstream,” Sharma says.