Ex-City lawyer making "Moolis"
Mathew Chandy studied law in India before being recruited by Linkaters to do a training contract in London. After an in-house move to UBS, and at around 6yrs PQE, he decided to set up a business with a friend and the result is “Mooli’s”, a restaurant in Soho serving delicious Indian “moveable feasts”. We spoke to him at the end of 2009 about his career change and life as a new restaurateur.
mtl: Hi, please can you tell us about your legal career first?
Mathew: I studied law in Bangalore (at the National Law School of India) and came to London to do a training contract in 2001 after being recruited by Linklaters. I qualified into capital markets, where I specialised in derivatives and structured finance and had the pleasure of working with some very talented and commercially minded lawyers.
After spending time working in Brazil and Hong Kong, a secondment at Citigroup made me realise that I really wanted to be a commercial in-house lawyer. After six years at Linklaters, with my legal skills fairly well developed, I felt that I could go in-house confidently and I moved to UBS in July 2007. My two years there were fascinating, particularly because I worked through several of the disastrous consequences of the credit crunch affecting the City, including the Lehman Brothers insolvency.
Born into a family of entrepreneurs, I have always had a keen interest in business, but was seduced by the glamour of Perry Mason, LA Law, Linklaters and the National law School of India. However as time went by I began to think that I would be happier creating and running my own business. Going in-house was therefore a step towards a more commercially oriented job.
mtl: How did your career change come about?
Mathew: I studied law with Sam, my current business partner and we have been friends for 14 years. After university we went our separate ways. Sam went to Oxford as a Rhodes scholar and later became a management consultant with BCG. He came up with the idea a couple of years ago that there was a gap in market for good quality fresh Indian food. In London there is a huge demand for food that you can eat quickly on the go. He started planning the concept a year before I joined him.
Law, National Laws School of Indian University, Bangalore
Training contract, Linklaters, London
Capital markets assistant, Linklaters
Started working on the Mooli’s concept with a friend
Left UBS to work on Mooli’s full-time
Mooli’s opened in Soho
Having investigated the market, we saw incredible potential and were inspired to produce a young, fun brand that produced inexpensive good food in a clean environment and with integrity in terms of the ingredients used. We felt that there was no accessible Indian food brand as the options were either too heavy or involved a sit-down meal. I was happy to take the risk of leaving my legal career as the idea of building a business from scratch was really exciting. Chipotle, a phenomenally successful Mexican on-the-go brand in the US is our inspiration.
Sam had already recruited our chef (Raju Rawat, previously at Benares and Bombay Bicycle Club) so we had a core team from the start and they have been great to work with. Initially while still at UBS I worked with Sam and Raju in the evenings and during my lunch breaks. I left UBS to work full-time on the project in May 2009 as it was no longer possible to continue with my day job - Mooli’s needed more of my time and energy!
mtl: Tell us about setting up the restaurant…
Mathew: Opening in November 2009 was the culmination of raising equity and debt finance, finding the perfect site, testing names, getting recipes ready, fitting out the site, deciding on the branding, running a weekend stall at a market on Brick Lane and finding the machine to make the bread, among many other things! When I left UBS we had done a fairly advanced business plan but the two most difficult aspects hadn’t been covered i.e. arranging debt finance (which could have been a problem given the economy in 2009) and finding a site.
We spent a year looking at different locations but once we committed to an area (i.e. four streets within Soho), we found our site quickly. Our weakness was that we had no track record, so we sought out investors with industry experience and put together a properly researched business plan including projections and competitor analysis. When we met landlords we had done our homework on what they were looking for and they could see that the concept was very well researched.
Our investors came from different routes. Some we spoke to for advice through contacts and introductions and we then invited them on board, and some came to us after having tried and tested the product with us on a weekly basis. We were at an unusual stage in the economy where people didn’t want to invest in property or the stock market so much and saw Mooli’s as an exciting proposition. Our investors have a range of complementary skills – restarauteurs, entrepreneurs, PR experts, financiers, etc. It felt very constructive to be setting up a new business during all of the doom and gloom in the City…
So far it has been as exciting as I had hoped. Of course the process has been fairly stressful with knocks and setbacks along the way, but nothing too shocking. We are a really tight knit team and run things together. Sam is better at numbers, but in general we can do eah others roles interchangeably. Our chef is very much part of the business, although we have come up with a lot of the recipes ourselves.
I find that I am less tired and stressed than others who have gone it alone as I can share the burden and take time out. We still pull fairly long days and keep fairly unsociable hours, although we are closed on Sundays. In the future we will get a manager but at the moment we are enjoying being hands on and talking to customers.
mtl: What is a Mooli and how is the business doing so far?
Mathew: Every mooli is packed full of warm flavoursome fillings such as Keralan Beef, Goan Pork, Chicken & Apple, Asparagus & Cumin Potatoes, Scrambled Paneer and combined with zesty salsa, vibrant chutneys and crunchy salad, all rolled in a fresh homemade roti (made on site every day). A Mooli is a neither a wrap nor a roll nor a burrito. We tested 500 names and wanted a word that we could call our own. We have trademarked “Mooli”, so 50 Frith Street is the only place you can buy one.
We wanted to provide a different option for a takeaway lunch that was something warm, with flavour and heart. In the evenings we turn the lights down and people can sit down with a drink rather than taking them away.
The bread is very important and we tried all types of commercially available flatbreads but found them too artificial, not tasty enough, too loaded with preservatives, etc and they just didn’t do justice to our flavoursome fillings and chutneys. We all grew up in India eating very good homemade bread and we wanted to replicate it here. However it is hard and very expensive to do it in London because of the skill and labour involved.
With the help of another restaurateur (Dodie Miller, owner of Taqueria in Notting Hill), we found a machine in Texas that produces wheat tortillas but that can also produce our rotis in large volumes. It was a difficult decision to make to buy one because of the capital involved, but because our product line is so simple and focused, we needed to make sure that the bread is very good. It was comforting that the machine was being used by the Neasden Hindu temple in London. Interestingly, we have found that often religious institutions are at the forefront of food technology.
Starting out in Soho has been great. It is filled with creative folk who like new concepts and ideas. We are doing better than we expected and our competitors in the area have been very welcoming and helpful. We meet with and have been visited by the founders of Leon, Benitos Hat, Hummus Bros, Chilango, etc. all brands that we have taken inspiration from. We have a lot of regulars already from nearby offices, theatres, jazz clubs (the Jersey Boys and the bands at Ronnie Scots are regulars) and we are doing deliveries into the City. We are thinking about the second branch but will wait for the first one to prove itself with a steady and sustainable level of customers. In the meantime we are always thinking about locations!
mtl: Do you have any advice for our readers?
Mathew: If you love business and you want to create something then you can find a way to do it well. Whenever you really enjoy something I think it is possible to do it well and life is too short to not enjoy what you do. Nothing is as rewarding as doing something you really love. However before taking a big risk, submerge yourself into that space and get a feel for it.
mtl: Thank you Mathew and good luck with your expansion plans.
Mooli’s can be found at 50 Frith Street in Soho
Click here to see theMooli’s website
Click here to read the Mooli’s menu
Click here to read Mathew’s blog
If you know any other ex-lawyers who have gone and done something interesting or unusual with their lives then please get in touch.
Send this feature to a friend