Grow Your Restaurant From a Single Food Truck to Multiple Locations
NaanStop was the dream of two brothers to bring their mother's food to the world, and make ordering Indian food more approachable. The brothers, Neal and Samir Idnani, are this week's podcast guests. They shared their story of starting out as a food truck in LA and growing to three locations in Atlanta.
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Read Through The Transcript:
Making Indian Food More Approachable
What made you want to open a restaurant?
Neal: NaanStpo was born out of a conversation around the dinner table. Our friends would come over to our house and they would gladly raid the fridge, but they would never go out to eat at an Indian restaurant.
And we thought, how do we change that? How do we make Indian food something that people feel comfortable going out and ordering? They would always feel like they needed someone to come with them and, and guide them through the process.
How did it go from a conversation around the dinner table to an actual restaurant?
Samir: Yeah. So our mom, all of our recipes at NaanStop are our mom's recipes. And at the time she was actually catering. People loved her food so much that she started a catering business. And we were trying to think "how do we broaden the appeal?"
We were trying to convince her to open an Indian restaurant in Nashville, Tennessee. But at the time, we had those problems of the average person who was confused, was intimidated to walk into an Indian restaurant, and always felt like they needed a., they needed someone who knew the menu, who knew the language in order to teach them what they needed to eat.
And that's when Neal and I started brainstorming, how do you make it more comfortable? How do you make it more approachable? How do you make it understandable so the average person can walk in, and understand how they need to order? And that was the basis for our menu, which has wraps, rice bowls, and salads. Things people understand today. But the protein and the flavor are all ours all a hundred percent homemade to mom's recipes.
Neal: Everything is our mom's recipe. That was really important to us. We didn't want people to feel like, oh, we're making it easy, but we're also dumbing it down or watering down the flavors.
We make everything from scratch. Our team gets in at sometimes four and five in the morning to make food from scratch. We do it the right way and we make food with love. We just make it really convenient and we make naan wraps, rice bowls, and salads, which everybody kind of knows how to eat or how to order.
But you can walk up right to the counter and look at the food and ask for samples and ask the team what, hey, what is this about? What can I eat? Is it spicy? Is it not? So we like to make it a really comfortable environment where people can walk in and enjoy the flavors that they already know they love, but if they don't have any idea, they can feel welcome to.
How did you make that decision to start a family business?
Neal: Yeah, Samir and I both started working on this from different angles. I was, working, I graduated from college and I was working at a hedge fund and I hated it. And when the markets, went south and, I lost my job, I said, great, I'm gonna go and try to do something that I feel more passionate about.
And I took a minimum wage job at a Jimmy John's to learn the restaurant business. How to lead a team, how to make schedules, how to do inventory and order food, and, the basics of how to run a restaurant. I thought of it like going to school. And so meanwhile, while I was doing this, Samir, was in business school and he was working on it on the business plan and things like that in his classes.
Samir: So I was at USC in business school and wanted to explore the entrepreneurship track there. So I made NaanStop the focus of all my classes in the entrepreneurship program. So feasibility analysis, business plans, you know, I was interviewing people, going and eating at food trucks, talking to them, talking to other restaurants, and just trying to fine-tune the idea.
While Neal was learning a lot about the operational background, the systems and procedures, and so forth in Chicago. So I'll never forget when we were wrapping up at business school and I was going into graduation. Neil had flown in from Chicago and he was telling me about his career and where he was at Jimmy John's and how he felt like there wasn't any opportunity for advancement or growth for him.
And so I told him, why don't you move to LA? I'm graduating. I was taking a job with AT&T right out of grad school, and I told him, to move in. And we'll open a food truck and we'll give NaanStop a go and try to make it happen. And I'd said that literally right as I walked into graduation. So Neal took his time to think about it.
Neal: Yeah. When Samir got out of his ceremony, I gave him a big hug. I said, "congrats, bro. I'm moving to LA!" And I flew back to Chicago. I turned in my two weeks' notice. I sold all my stuff that couldn't fit into my Volkswagen Golf, and I drove out to LA.
The first location was a food truck, correct?
Neal: We started as a food truck. We just wanted to get out there and start feeding people and see what it was like. So we literally maxed out some credit cards and, leased out a food truck, and got some food.
We started. And we did that for about a year to test it out. But we always wanted to open up a restaurant. And so when our lease was finished, we turned our, truck back in and we wanted to get back closer to home. We grew up in the south and Samir went to Georgia Tech for undergrad.
So we thought Atlanta was a great place. We moved to Atlanta and we opened up our first store in Atlanta in 2011.
From a Food Truck to 3 Locations
On the food truck side, what are the things you learned from running a food truck that you're still using today in running your restaurant?
Samir: Anything that could go wrong with a kitchen or a vehicle will go wrong and probably go wrong simultaneously.
Neal: The food truck was very, very stressful. And, one a few things that we learned was that we like building regular customers. We like knowing and loving our customers, which was a little bit more challenging in a food truck because you're moving from different places to different places a lot of times and going to events and we liked being our favorite locations were the ones where we would come there.
Hey, every Tuesday afternoon we're gonna be here every Tuesday for dinner we're at this spot and started to get to know our guests. From a business standpoint acquiring a customer is the most difficult part. Retaining a customer is always easy and more cost-effective. And, you know, I'd rather have 10 customers who come and eat with me once a week than a hundred customers who come one time.
And so we found that that was really important to us.
We also found some different things. What neighborhoods worked for us, and what kind of events we did attract the kind of people who wanted to eat our food and really enjoyed our food. So that gave you some learning lessons too with where to put down roots when we did bloom, we ended up opening up locations.
How did you decide on those locations?
Samir: So with the food truck there were definitely a bunch of different ways to find your locations. There were locations where everybody, a lot of food trucks would go, like a food truck park almost what it is today. There are festivals, there are doing your own scouting, driving by and seeing a different location and then doing the research behind it, seeing how many people are walking in to, if it's—we found that there's an affinity between Trader Joe's customers and NaanStop or Whole Foods customers and NaanStop.
And we tried just parking outside at Trader Joe's one day and did great and tried to explore that. Do traffic counts, how many people are coming by, how many people are walking versus driving. As a whole, you can get as surface level or as deep as you want on doing those analytics to find those locations.
Neal: We get very granular on those, like when anytime we've scouted a new location, we do hours and hours across several days and different day parts where we will sit in restaurants and cafes and bars and just out on the street and do traffic counts.
And try to get a real sense of how many customers are patronizing each one of these businesses, what do I suppose or know to be their average check per customer and do extrapolations like this to really—you can't just go into a place and say, oh, well this restaurant's here and this restaurant's here there must be a lot of business. So we do a lot of that homework to find out where is that business.
What have you learned with each new location?
Neal: The biggest challenge is managing people. Anybody, anybody can make food. But when you start to grow multiple loca—I mean, not anybody can make food like obviously, you need to passion and skill, but, and so much sweat goes into it, but when you are an owner-operator with one location, it's much easier to maintain the quality. See that everything is happening the way that you want it because you're there most of the time.
One of the biggest challenges is building a culture where people do the right thing, whether you're there or not.
People do things the NaanStop way, whether you're there or not. People take pride in their work, whether you're there or not. And building that culture and training a team and being able to rely on that team has been the biggest challenge.
For me personally, just in my own personal growth and being able to, when I look at myself 10 years ago and the way that I would lead a team it's different, and I've learned a lot of different things and become a lot more adept at doing that through a lot of trial and error.
But that has really been the biggest challenge of our growth from multiple locations.
Samir: And I'll say Neal's done a lot of great work in putting systems and procedures in place, putting recipe books, and step-by-step guides of "before we open the store, here are the 10 things that we need to do to make sure that we have a successful shift."
Now that we've gotten through lunch, here are the five things we need to do to get cleaned up and reset and put those daily checklists together. Let people focus on serving guests and bringing warmth and giving great service versus trying to remember every little thing that goes on.
I think another thing that we realize in this is that we need to put those systems, that infrastructure in place, and how important our time is in building the company and building a company.
When you're one store, you're a small business, you're a family-owned business, right? As you grow and scale, you don't have the same time, like Neal was talking about, to sit there and oversee everything, to coach everybody individually yourself, to make sure that, to clean up something that wasn't cleaned properly, to taste all the food every single day to make sure that it's made to our standards, right?
And so you really have to start thinking about, okay, where can I spend my time in order to make a great product and make it consistent?
Building A Culture of Appreciation
How have you created opportunities for your team? How have you kept your team engaged? How are you dealing with the current labor shortage?
Neal: Building a culture of appreciation is really important. I think that the restaurant business has faced challenges in retaining talent because, we haven't—the rest, the industry hasn't necessarily treated people particularly well. We've asked people to work long hours, overtime, late nights, early mornings, you know, everything.
And so, it's a lower-paying industry, so we have to be more, we have to be better. We need to be better about the way that we treat our workers and the way that we think of people as part of our team. And so, we try to really create a culture where people feel really genuinely appreciated for their work, where they're fairly compensated and provide opportunities for advancement like you said.
Samir: We'll hire people to come in to become a GM with us and we'll train them. And once they spend the right amount of time with us where they are experts on running the business and the day-to-day operations, then there's an opportunity for them to open their own NaanStop location and their NaanStop franchise.
Or they can continue to build their own, develop themselves and build their own business thereafter, not just be an employee for NaanStop. And we think that's really important to give them someplace to go and take to the future. Give them opportunities to grow professionally as well as in their personal development.
And it's a stepwise iteration. So you learn the operations as a general manager because there's a whole host of other things that you need to worry about as a business owner, like my business licenses, my permits, my hiring people, you know, there's a whole additional level above and beyond what it takes to run a store and keep it running on a day to day basis.
You just recently received funding to expand. What options are you looking at for that expansion?
Samir: So we've learned a lot through this journey. The partner that we have is Full Course. They are committed to helping minority and minority-owned food businesses build and grow and expand and achieve their dreams.
So we've always had the dream to make NaanStop the name for Indian food and make it as easy to Indian food as easy to eat as it is to eat a burger, a slice of pizza or burrito, or a taco.
Along this way we've learned that it's really, really important to have people who are committed to that vision on board with you as a partner, as well as people who have deep industry experience. For us there have been several people along the way who have told us, we love your concept, we love your idea, we are looking, and we would like to invest in NaanStop and help you grow.
But to us, it was about finding the right partner and the right fit, who could work together over a long period of time. And who provided guidance and mentorship and knowledge in areas where we are—because while I have a hundred percent faith in my brother, I have a hundred percent faith in myself but you still need the experience to help you level up and to get places faster. It's like why you go to college. It's why you take certain jobs to get that experience so that you can achieve your goals and dreams. And that's what we found with Full Course.
Working With Family
How is it running a business with your brother?
Samir: It's great. Believe it or not, Neal and I have always grown up very close and our parents taught us tp value each other and the experiences and expertise that each of us brings.
We have different personalities and different passions and different areas of expertise so we kind of work within our wheelhouse. You know, while Neal loves to be in the store working with people, I love the guest interaction. But in terms of like the day-to-day being on my feet every day, and the same level of involvement with the employees, that's something that Neal excels at and enjoys a lot more than I do.
Meanwhile, I have always done—for the first five years of us running this business, I was doing double, working at AT&T and working at NaanStop. So I've always done things behind the scenes, like the books and posting to social media and doing technology where I didn't have to be physically present in the store at all times.
That's kind of how we split the load up, and I think that works for us because we have our areas of focus that we both enjoy.
Neal: It's such a blessing, really, just such a blessing. When you're starting a business, so many things can go awry and you just need to know that somebody's got your back. Like no matter what, they're gonna show up to work.
Like there were days when I just needed to know that no matter what like it was gonna get done. And because my brother and I have that level of trust it goes a lot deeper than any sort of coworker relationship. I just know that no matter what, at the end of the day, it's going to get done.
If it has to get done, it's just gonna get done. And that has just continued to be a blessing in our business.
Samir: There's one thing I'd like to add. It is so comforting to have my brother in the business together with me. There are so many challenges that come at us every single day. There are so many things that are stressful and that are pulling us in a hundred different directions, and because I have a hundred percent confidence in Neal it puts me at ease. Whatever he is working on will get done and we'll get done well and we can divide and conquer and continue to move the business forward.
Was it the same way since you started, or was that like an evolution of your relationship to get to the place that you are right now? How was it 10 years ago when you first started?
Samir: I think we've always had this place of mutual respect for each other. We've always, like most children, we always found our own lanes in life and they were different. And so we don't step on each other's toes. We're not ones to argue.
We may disagree and that happens all the time, and that happens with business partners, but we've learned to disagree with respect and learned how to resolve those disagreements respectfully.
Because at the end of the day, we have a relationship that we don't want to get hurt, and we've turned down opportunities. I will tell you—When we were in LA in particular, we've had multiple people come up and say, we love your name, we love your concept, and we love the story and we love Neal and Samir and the story of this being a family-run business.
And they wanted to make reality TV shows frankly, about this. And we shied away from those because we know what they try to do is create drama for ratings. And to us, our relationship with each other is more important than that fame and that fortune. That's always something that we keep in the back of our minds, and that's always something that we prioritize.
And to give you another example of that, Neal, and I just went on a hike together on Saturday to get our time with each other in so that we continue to work on our personal relationship and not focus only on the business.
Growing to 10+ Locations
Why did you choose to partner with an investment group for funding?
Neal: I think the most important part for us was not getting the funding, it was getting the expertise.
We could get the money. I feel like there's a way to get the money from somebody somehow to raise funding. It's the know-how and connections, knowledge of the industry that we're gaining the most from the relationship. It's not about the funding, it's about building the company the right way.
And they have experts for us that have skin in the game and ownership in the business, but they're an expert in HR and operations and finance. So any time we are trying to, they're constantly working with us to build and improve in each of those key areas. So whereas we might have been blind to an issue that we had in HR or something like that, and they're proactively encouraging us to do the work of building a great company and a culture and making sure that all your i's are dotted, your t's are crossed along.
What's next for NaanStop?
Neal: So much of during the last few years was in Covid was survival.
And after coming out and feeling like we're stronger and we're performing even better than we were before the pandemic. We're looking now to do our growth. We're building out the franchising program. We're gonna be opening up a few company-owned units. So in the next five years, you're gonna see us with instead of three locations, you're gonna see us crossing 10, 20, 30 units in a very near future. So our goal is really to start making this Indian food, this comfortable, approachable Indian food, just more widely available. Providing a ton of growth opportunities to our team to fill into those positions and help uplift them too.
Samir: And as we grow, you know, we don't wanna lose sight of some of the things our mom has taught us.
There's a concept of Shaiva, which is serving others. So Neal has been really helping raise money for a lot of organizations, local charitable organizations. We saw the need during Covid when people were affected so badly. It started with just those being food insecure but then other organizations who are also having a challenge raising money.
And we've started special pop-up programs where we donate 10% back to organizations that help with domestic violence, homelessness, food insecurity, lots of schools, and a whole host of different organizations, and we want to continue to grow and give back to the community as we grow our business.
A Few Pieces of Advice
If you had one piece of advice for someone looking to open a quick-service restaurant, what would it be?
Neal: I wanna say two. One is to do your homework. If you haven't, a lot of people want to get into the business, like " oh, it's fun. I love entertaining, I love cooking. I'm good at it." Yeah, that's great. That's wonderful. But you need restaurant experience.
You need to just know what you're getting into as far as the wear and tear on your body. Up on your feet, 12, 14 hours a day sometimes. Just the hustle and bustle of it, the mental stress o carrying different orders in your head, and this spill over here. And it's just, it takes a certain kind of person who really likes to do that.
So do your homework, both in terms of your business, and also knowing what the work is. Because practically speaking, the owner's gonna have to like be the one who cleans the toilet when it overflows the first time. Or like get on their hands and knees and fix a pilot light on the oven when it goes out and you got a catering work going out in two hours or something like that.
So just kind of being comfortable with that.
The other is taking care of your own mental health. The restaurant business is very stressful. It is. People are like, ask anybody how many, if they've cried in the walk-in cooler before, and like people will raise their hand. I mean, there are memes. I was reading 20 memes about people crying in the walk-in cooler the other day on like a Reddit thing. It can be stressful sometimes.
And also being a business owner and an entrepreneur is stressful in its own way and not having financial security, these things are stressful.
So just make sure that you have a good support network, and make sure you're doing things for yourself. It can be easy to give all of your time and effort to your business and not have anything left. And if you're not taking care of yourself, you can't take care of your business. So those are my two takes.
Samir: Literally the same. Do your homework and don't be afraid. Have humility. Don't be afraid to jump in and do anything and everything because you need to run this business well, especially as you're starting. And that means, like Neal said, scrubbing toilets.
If you have to work on your feet for 12 hours a day, go up to another business owner and say, "Hey, I would like to open my own business. Can I learn from you?" That's it. It's hard to think about that. Think about that for a second. You go tell somebody else. I wanna learn your business. And you think someone's gonna say no, right?
Because you think they're gonna look at you as a competitor. In reality, if you tell them that, they'll be like, great. Give me one year. I'll teach you everything you need to know. You'll be lights out by then one year, and you're a fantastic employee for one year. It's a win-win for everyone. Don't be afraid to ask those questions and don't think anything's off the table.
Be humble. Humble enough to go work for somebody else before you open your own thing so you can learn. And like Neal said, take care of yourself physically, and mentally. It's a marathon and you're gonna be doing this for years. And so you will burn out if you don't take care of yourself physically and mentally.
Find those resources for your support network. And I struggle with my physical health as well. And I have to remind myself I have to take time out to do my exercises, to do things that I need to do so that I can be a better business partner, I can be a more effective leader that I can be a better husband, and a better father.
And those are very important in life.
Amin Yazdani is the CEO and Co-Founder of Craver, a fast-growing mobile platform for Restaurants, helping them gain and retains their loyal customer base.