London Taxi’s incubator programme a beacon of hope

London Taxi will support five entrepreneurs through its incubator programme to launch their food brands in Mumbai. First up, is Chef Rahul Desai’s Vanakkam, which gives a modern twist to traditional South Indian vegetarian cuisine.

As the pandemic has ravaged the restaurants industry across the country, most have struggled to stay afloat through multiple lockdowns across states. But even in this scenario, there are some who have made a mark not just with innovative ways to continue business but have evolved and even extended a helping hand to those in dire straits. London Taxi, based in Mumbai’s Lower Parel, led by Dhaval Udeshi and Pawan Shahri, has developed an incubator programme for aspiring food entrepreneurs.  

Dhawal udeshi and pawan shahri london
Pawan Shahri (left) and Dhaval Udeshi, founders of London Taxi, started the incubator programme as a way to give back to the hospitality industry and foster a spirit of entrepreneurship. The first entrepreneur has already been launched while the second is in final stages of closing the deal. Three more will follow soon after.

The move in itself is quite a revolutionary one, especially given the current circumstances where nearly every restaurant is stretched thin, trying to balance high operating costs with low footfalls. But at London Taxi, the mood is quite different. We caught up with one of the founders, Dhaval Udeshi and the first incubator entrepreneur, Chef Rahul Desai, whose brand Vanakkam has now found space in London Taxi’s kitchens.

Says Dhaval Udeshi, “We wanted to make it possible for aspiring entrepreneurs to realise their dreams. When we approach an aspirant, we check not just for the kind of cuisine or concept but most importantly, how passionate and involved the entrepreneur is. The idea is for them to learn as much as possible about the industry through this exercise. We provide them with an entire support system, from kitchen infrastructure to purchasing, vendors, suppliers, marketing, everything. So, that involvement is extremely important. At the end of the day, we can run a cloud kitchen brand or QSR brand on our own. But we want to involve entrepreneurs and help them move forward.”

With operating hours changing drastically, London Taxi has had to make significant changes to its menu to cater to day-time food, a major shift from focus on the bar, which is the highlight here.

When it comes to the support system, London Taxi has left no stone unturned. “We have a team in place in the kitchen, which we add on to, depending on the kind of traction the brand garners. Sometimes, if the entrepreneur has a member they need as part of their team, we integrate them too.”

As for the menu that comes in, there are several considerations. “It’s a cloud kitchen, so the area we are serving is key. We have outlets across the city, so we know what works where, what the demand is in each area, what the price points should be or what can be better. We look at the concepts that are brought in and fine tune them to suit the requirements. At times, we might have common elements between the London Taxi menu and the incubator menu. In those cases, we merge the ingredients, balancing out the cost factor.”

Having a brick and mortar establishment is a huge advantage over cloud kitchens when it comes to customer relations. And this is something London Taxi is looking to capitalise on. “Once we have our five entrepreneurs in place, alongside being available for delivery, we will also have a special incubator menu at London Taxi. It’s the best way to get direct feedback and that’s invaluable in this business.”

The incubator programme is not just a one-off concept for London Taxi, it’s a permanent move to involve more of the culinary community and expand overall reach, continues Dhaval. “We have multiple kitchens in the city, and as these incubator brands take off, they will run parallelly. We all want to grow together. Once we see that the concepts are working, we are going to expand. We have Chef Rahul Desai’s Vanakkam already on board and are also close to sealing the deal with another entrepreneur who will bring in vegan cuisine and mock meat. Then, three more entrepreneurs will follow soon after.”

Speaking of the entrepreneurs, Chef Rahul Desai, the first on the incubator programme, tells us about the difference it has made to his brand Vanakkam. “I had started my brand in heydays before the pandemic. Then, once lockdowns started, I faced the usual issues that most have across the last year, with uncompromising landlords and unsustainable costs, forcing me to shut my outlet. With Pawan and Dhaval, given our common connect to the hospitality and F&B industries, we hit it off from day one. The programme has been great so far. They have experience in the industry, as do I and when people in the same boat get together, it makes a huge difference. This initiative is unique and one that affords great opportunities.”

Vanakkam’s menu, which puts a modern twist to traditional South Indian recipes, although quite different from London Taxi’s fits in just right, feels the chef. “I used to do a lot of pop-ups and events earlier with Vanakkam and one thing that struck me was the high demand for South Indian vegetarian cuisine in places such as South Mumbai. So, the menu for this location works absolutely great. As far as offerings are concerned, since Vanakkam is a brand that already was established, there are fan favourites which I don’t want to change. But working in the programme, where I have access to such a large kitchen and a multi-cuisine set-up, I’ve had a lot more ingredients to play with. Chefs are always thinking in terms of innovating and creating. So, naturally, we have also come up with a lot of new and exciting dishes, using the many resources at hand.”

With lockdowns and disruptions, menus need to be constantly refreshed. And this is something the chef is taking up as a challenge. His idea is to revolutionise the South Indian cuisine scene in Mumbai, and with the support of the incubator programme, it’s a goal he is confident of working steadily towards.  

Just because the incubator programme is a unique move doesn’t mean the past year has been easy for London Taxi. They have had to accommodate several changes to the dine-in menu, especially given that hours of operation are now entirely focused on the day, and for establishments that have popular bar sections and menus geared to cater to diners looking for those experiences, the shift is quite significant. “We’ve had to innovate quite a bit to keep up with the ever-changing regulations. Although our bar was previously the focus, now, we have a very strong lunch menu, because we can’t operate dine-in beyond 4pm. We’ve added coffee machines to our venues, added sandwiches, lunch boxes, things that are entirely new on the menu,” says Dhaval.

The other crucial focus area has been the delivery system. With aggregators locked in a perpetual struggle with restaurants over margins, direct delivery is something more and more restaurants are focusing on, and London Taxi is moving in a similar direction. While they are looking to strike a balance between aggregators and direct delivery platforms, naturally, there are upcoming programmes that will make direct delivery increasingly more attractive for the diner.

In a time of closures, layoffs and other devastating industry trends, London Taxi’s incubator programme is a beacon of hope. Difficult times call for difficult decisions but with this move, London Taxi has indeed proved that where there’s innovation and involvement, there’s always a way.

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