When it comes to North Indian food, Bihari cuisine doesn’t seem to capture much attention compared to the glamourous Mughlai or Punjabi cuisine. Despite the stereotype, Puja Sahu and her team decided to bring Bihari cuisine to the forefront. Thanks to its delicious menu, a cozy ambiance, and great service, Potbelly has become a most loved spot in Delhi NCR and now even in Bengaluru. Started in 2012, The Potbelly has expanded to 4 locations in just 8 years, out of which one outlet is in Gurgaon, two outlets are in Delhi, one in Bengaluru, and one in Puja’s hometown Bihar. The Potbelly holds the distinction of being the first-ever fine-dine Bihari restaurant, anywhere in India.
In Conversation With Puja Sahu, Co-Founder, The Potbelly
In an exclusive conversation with The Restaurant Times, Puja Sahu, co-founder of The Potbelly, uncovers the secret behind her restaurant’s success and what goes behind achieving a loyal customer and employee base.
The Story Behind The Potbelly
Before entering the restaurant industry, Puja had been pursuing design. Despite being a designer for 12 years, she still felt that there was a sea of untapped potential that wasn’t getting utilized well. This was when she got the idea of starting her own restaurant venture. However, she was not keen on opening a restaurant that catered to Bihari cuisine initially.
It was Puja’s co-founder who suggested the idea. The stereotypical views associated with Bihari food created a state of confusion for Puja. Her initial concern about serving Bihari cuisine was that people would perceive it as ‘unglamorous,’ or ‘not very special’.
Puja confesses that many of her team members thought that the idea of serving Bihari cuisine was outrageous. Apart from Bihar’s trademark dish, Litti Choka, there was no awareness about any of the other food items from the state. After a lot of brainstorming sessions, it was decided that they would be serving Bihari cuisine. True to their promise, The Potbelly’s menu is not only diverse but extremely flavourful as well.
Initial Challenges Faced While Establishing The Restaurant
Puja had no prior knowledge of running a restaurant. She sought advice from experts and understood all the nitty-gritty of running a restaurant. Puja says that it may appear fancy to run a restaurant, but it is an industry where one cannot make many mistakes. If a customer has a bad experience, he/she will not likely return and spark negative word-of-mouth publicity.
Puja highlights that Potbelly started with limited funds. So, it had to be ensured that the restaurant looked attractive despite limited resources. Hiring staff was another challenge that Puja faced in the otherwise male-dominated restaurant industry that wasn’t very welcoming towards female restaurateurs.
How Potbelly Manages To Keep Customers Coming Back?
According to Puja, the first rule of winning customers’ trust is to offer high-quality dishes.
“One cannot merely offer a mediocre product and expect to have a base of loyal customers. Reinventing your menu, adding flavors, new dishes to the menu, exciting your customers time and again is essential”
She works effortlessly on refining the product, ensuring the best quality inventory, redefining the flavors, and checking the consistency of the menu items. Even today, Puja continues to keep a check on the items that their cooks have been preparing for years.
Puja highlights that motivating employees is extremely important.
“Understanding their problems and working with them on a frequent basis not only motivates them but also displays a sense of empathy that is vital in deriving loyalty out of the employees as well.”
Being around the restaurant when customer footfall is high and receiving constant feedback has worked highly in favor of Puja. Getting to know your customers is very important for any restaurant business. The Potbelly continues to distribute physical feedback forms to the customers as it goes well with the brand image they are trying to create. Puja says that they have trained their employees to interact effortlessly with customers and check if everything is fine even before their food arrives.
She interacts with customers and addresses their issues personally. The staff at Potbelly also keeps a check on Zomato reviews and ratings and tries to address customer problems promptly.
Word-of-mouth is the most effective marketing strategy that has worked for Potbelly.
“When you lay a rock-solid foundation and ensure that every customer leaves your restaurant with a sense of satisfaction, your job is almost done.”
Within a month of restarting operations after lockdown, The Potbelly is receiving high customer footfall once again and operating at a high capacity.
Impact Of Covid-19 And Learnings From The Experience
Like many restaurateurs, Puja too was anxious after having to shut down the cafe during the COVID-19 crisis. Just 20 days before the national lockdown, she had inaugurated the Potbelly branch in Bengaluru. Funding and labor expenses were the major hurdles they faced during the lockdown. Even if they were paying 50% salary to the staff, there were other overheads. Rental costs also posed a problem as landlords weren’t very supportive at some locations.
However, Puja has built up good credibility with the vendors because of which they were willing to supply inventory on credit even during the crisis.
Potbelly has always been known for its dine-in experience. Puja says that they were never focused on taking delivery orders initially but were left with no other choice than to devise a delivery strategy since the lockdown. The team focused on packaging measures and constantly communicated with customers via social media. The brand is currently delivering food via third-party aggregators but plans to build its own delivery system in the near future.
Puja emphasizes that the pandemic taught them many lessons. Earlier, they were focused on expanding the business, but with the slowdown, they started streamlining operations, reinventing procedures, and utilizing the resources well.
Her message to the restaurateurs entering into the regional cuisine segment is;
- Look at every aspect of the business in a very detailed manner.
- Be hands-on. You cannot start a business and leave it up to your employees to take it forward.
- Start small and expand your business gradually. Always adopt the strategy of starting with fewer resources but remember to gain complete knowledge of the products you’re serving.
- Gaining an in-depth understanding of your product, suppliers, ingredient source, and target market is critical. Your foundation needs to be strong.
- Business acumen can be acquired over a period of time, but it is vital to take the necessary steps and believe in your product. Watch Puja Sahu in an exclusive F&B Talks session with The Restaurant Times.