Between 2015 and 2017, chef Regi Mathew and his friends, John Paul and Augustine Kurian, undertook a unique journey across Kerala. They ate at toddy shops and visited home cooks to understand flavours and dishes whipped up by different communities across the state. By the end of this journey, they had met nearly 265 home chefs and collected close to 800 recipes, in an endeavour to understand unique techniques and hyper local ingredients.
The three friends then opened Kappa Chakka Kandhari (KCK), first in Chennai in July 2018 and then in Bengaluru in December 2019, to serve authentic Kerala style food. With a team of professional chefs, and toddy shop and home cooks, Mathew put up dishes such as the Ramassery idli and pidi kozhi curry, using local ingredients and traditional cookware such as urlis, chattis and cast-iron ware. However, with the pandemic bringing about a nationwide lockdown last year, the restaurant had to pivot to a delivery-only model in Chennai from dine-in-only.
The focus of the delivery menu was comfort food with dishes, which might not have existed earlier on the restaurant menu. Its success led the partners to set up KCK FoodPack as a branch of the parent company, specialising only in delivery and catering services for people entertaining in small numbers at home. Mathew, Paul and Kurian talk to Mint Lounge about launching new verticals during the pandemic and moving to a set menu at the restaurant:
Based on the needs of the clientele, what were the kind of changes you made to the KCK delivery menu?
When we started Kappa Chakka Kandhari, we never intended to have delivery. It was meant to be a dine-in space. However, during the first wave, we observed a demand for comfort food, so we launched a menu with comfort food from across the southern states. That’s how KCK Foods came about in April 2020 for delivery and takeaways. We also included some favourites from the restaurant menu, keeping in mind dishes which could travel well.
You recently launched DumBir as an independent business vertical, focusing on biryanis. How did this shift to north Indian flavours come about?
When we launched the KCK FoodPack delivery menu, we included the Thalassery biryani in it. Although immensely popular in Kerala, biryani and parotta was never a part of the offering at Kappa Chakka Kandhari, which focussed more on traditional homestyle food and toddy shop cuisine. Over time, we realised just how popular biryani is as a delivery option. So, by December, when we opened the restaurants in Chennai and Bengaluru again, we thought of starting another vertical and getting specialised cooks for more variants of biryanis. So, we got a specialty chef from Delhi for the Lucknow-style Awadh biryani. Our ingredients come in from the north. In early 2021, we launched the Thalassery and Lucknow biryanis under a new delivery-only, DumBir. We have a centralised kitchen, with a plan to open 8-10 outlets in the city meant as delivery and pick up points. Dum Bir is currently operational in Chennai and we are hoping to launch in Bengaluru soon. The bento boxes are balanced meals, meant for individual consumption, while the party packs are meant for small gatherings at home. The packaging makes it safer and practical for the food to travel, and for individuals to consume it on the go, or at home.
With restrictions easing after the lockdown last year, both Kappa Chakka Kandhari restaurants reopened with a set menu for dine-in. Will this continue when the restaurants open again?
After the first lockdown, when we opened the restaurants, we organised the menu in a way that would be conducive to customers. We launched seven non-veg and three vegetarian set menus, each featuring 8 to 9 dishes. This was planned as a minimal interactive menu. When the customers made a reservation, they would be sent the menus, so that they could plan their meals. Once they came in, after thermal screening and other protocols, the food would be served as per their choice. These set menus became immensely popular. These were based on concepts such as ‘Nadan Memories’, ‘Toddy Shop Memories’, ‘Ammachi’s Specials’, ‘Monsoon Magic’, to name a few. This also allowed us to create pairings, and give customers a unique taste of Kerala. During the pandemic, there was scarcity of ingredients as well, due to the supply chain being hampered. So, we created menus based on what was available. These set menus are back at Chennai, which opened on 9 July and in will be back in Bengaluru by the end of the month.
Lessons from the pandemic that will continue to inform logistics and operations?
Whether it is delivery or dine-in, the same principles of quality of ingredients and production inform our work. Customers come to our restaurants with a lot of confidence. They seek the same qualities in delivery as well. That is the ethos we follow. Secondly, our operations have been based on the comfort of our staff. These are cooks from Kerala. Entire families depend on their earnings. During the first lockdown, we shifted the staff to Chennai, provided them with accommodation, and took care of their meals. When the Bengaluru eatery also opened up in December, half the staff shifted there. The entire staff is now vaccinated. During the lockdowns this year, we have also supported meals for frontline workers. This has kept our team engaged during this time.
Turning the Tables is a series on how food entrepreneurs are coping with covid-19.