Even as the idea of blending Mexican ‘wrap’ food with Indian cuisine was simmering in his mind, Mahesh Raikar had cooked up the ultimate vision: to become the best-loved burrito company in the world.
Less than a year-and-a-half after opening his first eat-in or take-out food outlet, in Birmingham city centre, he can already taste the possibility of realising that big dream.
Since Wrapchic (‘rap chick’ is Bollywood slang for “sexy”) opened its doors in July 2012, Raikar’s Indian Burrito Company has expanded faster than a food critic’s girth. Along with seven franchises – with more in the pipeline – this autumn saw the launch of an eatery in the heart of London’s trendy Soho.
The only chain of its kind in the world, its rapid success has a lot to do with its cleverly quirky – and, it has to be said, extremely tasty – takes on regional Indian food served up with Mexican panache. A multi-national company is now interested in getting on board and 39-year-old Raikar is already in talks that could lead to Wrapchic going international.
The business may have taken off beyond even Raikar’s wildest dreams, but he took a gamble in deciding to quit his well-paid job with a Fortune 500 company in the middle of a recession to invest his savings into the venture. It didn’t help, either, that almost everyone told him he was crazy. He isn’t the sort to say “I told you so,” but there’s no disguising his delight in having confounded his critics.
Born in Mumbai, Raikar grew up surrounded by the smells and sounds of aromatic food being cooked in the family home. “My mum was the best cook; her speciality was Goan cuisine,” he recalls. “She would grind her own spices, which I enjoyed seeing her do. I’m a real foodie; I’ve always had a passion for food, in particular for the very different kinds of food you get in the different regions of India.
“I’ve always loved Mexican food, too: in fact, I was one of the first people to bring Mexican food to Mumbai. In 1999, I ran a small eatery, within an entertainments centre, selling tacos and burritos.”
India was just beginning to take off as a global business player, and as multi-nationals moved in, Raikar decided it was time he moved out. “I knew that my knowledge of food and catering and my qualifications weren’t enough, so I came to the UK to do a post-graduate qualification in hospitality management at Thames Valley University (now the University of West London) in Ealing.”
While studying, Raikar took a part-time job as a cashier with Compass Group, a global company that provides food and other support services to businesses, hospitals and academic institutions. It operates in more than 50 countries and employs nearly half a million people.
By the time he’d finished his course, Raikar had impressed Compass sufficiently to be given a place on its management training programme. He went on to win an award
and to be named Trainee of the Year.
However, in 2003, Raikar decided to return to Mumbai. “I’d done what I came to the UK to do, which was to gain more qualifications and knowledge.” Soon afterwards, Raikar married his long-term girlfriend, Vrushali, an architect.
“She wanted to do a Masters degree, so I said: ‘I know what it’s like in the UK, and I might be able to get a job, so why don’t you do your Masters there’?” So, only a year after returning to his homeland, Raikar was once again in the UK.
This time, however, he moved to Birmingham – where he’s lived ever since – so that Vrushali could study at what is now Birmingham City University (BCU). By coincidence, Compass Group had just won the catering contract for the university and re-employed Raikar – as catering manager for BCU.
Over the next few years, he took on a series of increasingly senior, central roles within Compass, ending up as brand manager for the company’s internal brands in the UK.
“One of the great things about my Compass career was that I tasted the best food, experienced the best restaurants and met people with a strong knowledge of the catering sector.”
It was one such encounter that set Raikar on the road towards setting up Wrapchic. “One day I came across a Mexican burrito chain, and the seed was sown,” he recalls. “All this while, I’d been frustrated by how Indian food was catered for.
“If you think about Indian eateries in the UK, they are predominantly focused on the evening and weekend markets; they are formal, sit-down restaurants costing £20-a-head or more. There is no lunchtime alternative to a sit-down curry.
“I already knew about and loved Mexican-style food, and when I came across this burrito chain of restaurants, it was one of those light bulb moments. Burritos and tacos are modern, grab-and-go foods, and I started to think about pairing the Mexican style with Indian flavours.”
Raikar spent 18 months carefully researching the market before he felt confident enough to quit his job, plough £150,000 of his own and friends’ and family’s money into getting the venture off the ground. “I visited every burrito chain and pretty much all the outlets in the UK,” he says. “After a year-and-a-half, I knew there was a market – and not just a London market – for Indian flavours with a Mexican/Subway experience.
“That was when I handed in my notice with Compass. But I got a lot of stick from a lot of people. We were in a recession and everyone said I was stupid to give up a good job. But I believed in the idea and was confident I now had the skills, qualifications and experience
to make it work. I had this vision – and it was the first thing I wrote on my business plan – to become the world’s best-loved burrito company.
“Right from the start, I felt there was enough mileage in the concept for it to go worldwide. Right across Europe and America, people are now used to spicy food, so there are no restrictions on where we can take this. I knew, therefore, that if the first outlet succeeded, I could roll it out anywhere.”
For even the first outlet to succeed, however, Raikar knew the food had to sing. And – for what it is – it does. Using only British chicken and free-range eggs, eschewing frying for the healthier grilling and grinding its own spices, Wrapchic produces stylish fast food, from different regions of India, that packs a spicy punch when it comes to taste.
From burritos and bowls of curry-and-rice to tacos and Wrapchos, there is plenty of choice on offer. Mutton (cooked slowly for six hours) is on the menu and so are vegetarian options. A highlight – in my opinion – is the paneer Wraposa – a toasted bread version of the traditional samosa.
It isn’t an idle boast when Raikar says: “I don’t have to sell myself when people have tried the food.” But his understanding of good food is patently matched by his business acumen. Already Raikar is in talks with a multi-national company (he won’t say any more at this stage), is negotiating with a 40-restaurant chain in Saudi Arabia to turn some of the eateries into Wrapchic franchises and is working on setting up a spin-off chain of Indian coffee shops – to be called Tapri from Wrapchic – in the style of Costa and Starbucks.
Meanwhile, he is looking for further locations in Birmingham in which to open, as well as seeking more franchisees. Turnover for next year is expected to be £1.5m and the company is on track to have opened its projected 50 units by 2015 and to be in America by 2017.
“Everything looks nice and rosy at this point, but it was hard to start with,” admits Raikar.
Had I not believed in the concept and had the vision and determination, I would have succumbed to the pressure and done something else. But I’m very glad I didn’t. I still have sleepless nights and work 18 hours a day, seven days a week, but my wife supports me a lot and I’m just delighted that the vision I had is becoming a reality.”