Anshu Bahanda: Welcome to another episode of Wellness Curated. As you know, the aim of this podcast is to offer you ideas, trends, techniques, so you can lead a healthier, happier, more hopeful life. And today, we’re going to talk about something extremely interesting: Money and Relationships. Before I carry on, can I request you to please subscribe to our channel so that we can get you more and more speakers and offer this service to you for free? Okay, so, coming back to money and relationships, joining us today is the accidental co-founder, as she describes herself, of the Food Matters Group— Gauri Devidayal. And it’s a business that she launched with her husband. Originally she was on a break from her tax consulting career, but she never went back. She set up The Table, she set up MagStreet and a bunch of other things. She’s also written this lovely book called Diamonds For Breakfast, where she shares tales from her restaurant industry adventures. Today, we are going to talk to Gauri about her experience of working with a partner/ with a family member. Welcome to the Chat Gauri, and thank you for taking the time to be here with us today.
Gauri Devidayal: Thank you so much for having me Anshu.
AB: You’re welcome. So, Gauri, tell us now, you called yourself an accidental co-founder. That’s what your website describes you, as of the Food Matters Group. Now, I know you’ve covered this in the book, but could you offer my readers and my listeners a little bit of an idea about why you called yourself that?
GD: Yeah, actually, by my background, my education was in law. And my profession, after that, my career for the next nine years or so was actually as a chartered accountant. So I was working with one of the big four firms as a tax consultant. So, of course, the plunge into sort of hospitality and having your own business was quite unconventional, in a sense, from what I was doing previously, and hence the title ‘Accidental Entrepreneur’. And it was actually my husband who was very keen to open a restaurant in Mumbai and I started dabbling in it to help him out and then realised that it was a full time job and that’s when I, as you mentioned, planned to take a one year sabbatical, which is still going on in a way.
AB: So it just started like that, that basically you were helping him and that was it?
GD: In a way. I tried talking him out of it for the best part, because he wasn’t actually from hospitality either. So it really felt like we would be the blind leading the lame. But he was very keen and it made sense given the dining scene that was in Bombay at the time. This was back in 2008, 2009. And I actually got involved just helping on the financial and legal aspects because that was my background. So it was meant to happen on the sidelines, just helping to set up a business, the company setting up bank accounts, just helping with that part of it because for most entrepreneurs, they hate doing all of that nitty gritty work. And that was something I used to do day in and day out. So that was supposed to be the extent of my involvement. But of course, this idea and this project was sort of developing in my living room in a way. And so I kept my nose out of it and eventually got fully involved.
AB: Your business is not just successful, it’s hugely successful. I don’t even live in Bombay, but every time I go there, I land up going to your restaurant. So tell me, how did you decide where to invest, what site to pick, what food to serve? How did you decide on all this between the two of you?
GD: So a lot of things were actually driven by what we wanted when we went out to dine and that we felt wasn’t in the city. And in terms of the cuisine, Jay had just moved back from San Francisco. Jay is my husband. He had just moved back and, you know, was really missing the flourishing food scene. You know, Bombay really wasn’t what it is today in terms of how, now you have restaurants opening every week. And I remember when we opened The Table, it seemed like it was after a long hiatus of restaurant openings of new restaurants. So people were very keen to check out the new kid on the block at the time. And we opened in Jan 2011, so it’s almost 13 years. So it was really driven. There were very few standalone restaurants. I think for the most part, people used to dine at five star hotels. And of course there were a limited number of hotels and a limited number of times that you could really go out to dine in these restaurants. And I think it was driven by that gap, identifying that gap that really triggered this idea, and of course, being exposed to food. So I had moved back from London, Jay from San Francisco, you know, we’d been exposed to so much out there that it just felt like the right thing to do. It made sense to bring some of that back. And in fact, our first chef was from San Francisco. And you know, when people ask what that means and what was so attractive about that kind of food that we wanted to bring a piece of to Bombay, it’s actually cuisine agnostic. And by that I mean that it’s not any one cuisine, it’s ingredient driven. It’s a seasonal menu. So it keeps changing and it’s really pretty freestyle. And I think that’s the thing that we missed and wanted to bring to the city. Having said that, from the time the project started to the time the restaurant actually opened its doors, it went through several ups and downs and several modifications in terms of even the concept, et cetera. So a lot of that is written about in the book.
AB: Right, yes. Is there a clear demarcation when it comes to money and investment decisions: like that one of you will make those and the other person will handle, say, operations?
GD: So I actually feel that the demarcation, if you’re talking about from a business, in terms of the business, not the personal aspect…
AB: Yes, the business.
GD: When it comes to the business, I actually think the demarcation can go any which way. But given that my background was in finance and, like I said, law, and I was a sort of qualified accountant, obviously it made sense for me to handle the numbers. And it’s something… I think I’m the only person in the company who doesn’t get scared opening Excel spreadsheets. So it made sense for me to do that. But I think that’s more from an execution standpoint. And I think that’s where Jay and I really complement each other, because a lot of, I would say the entrepreneurial aspects in terms of the ideas, the crazy ideas, in fact, are his, which then I helped to execute and make it happen in a realistic manner, without kind of…
AB: in a sensible way…
GD: [Yes and] without keeping a check on budgets and making sure the paperwork is in order. And I actually find now, having worked together for so long, that I think those are the two demarcations. It’s almost the creative versus the execution part of it. It’s the left and right brain. And the thing about restaurant operations is that it’s huge. There’s so many things to look after. And so when it comes to operations, again, we split it. We found our strengths over the course of the years, and that’s kind of how we divide the work, divide and conquer. But it is true that we do have to find that sort of division of responsibility. But I think when it comes to important decisions, they’re to a large extent made jointly, and that’s how it needs to be.
AB: Okay. And how do you handle personal finances? Do you keep it distinct from your business? And also, what happens when there’s a conflict of something, when you guys don’t agree on something, does it go home with you?
GD: Oh, God, if I had a penny every time that’s happened. I think that it is important to keep the personal and the business finances very separate. Of course, when we started the business, it was funded by us. So in that sense, we had kept aside a certain amount of savings in a way that we put into the business. One thing I would say is that, don’t let it be your entire savings that go into the business because then you have nothing more to sort of fall back on for your personal life. And I think that that’s sort of most important and of primary importance, whatever happens in the business. Especially because it’s not in many cases, just about two people. There might be children, there might be parents, et cetera, that are dependent on you. So it was very important that we set aside an amount. And when we were setting out into this venture, because it was completely new to us, we made it very clear that whatever this is, the pool that you have to play with and you make or break it in this. And I think that it’s very easy to blur those lines. But me being the sort of anal accountant between us, I managed that really to the best of my ability. But I think that it is important to keep them distinct and not dip into the two pools.
AB: Okay, so I was talking to some friends who actually- they work in a family business. So it’s a husband, wife and the two grown up children. And they actually have an outside consultant come in, I think it was- from memory- twice a month. And they actually spent seven, eight hours with him just trying to analyse and discuss issues. How do you establish your boundaries between each other? Do you have external help?
GD: I think that a lot of companies, especially as they grow, do. It’s very recommended that you bring in a board, even if it’s not a formal sort of board as such, of directors, but just a sounding board of people that you trust but who also will be honest with you and question you when needed. And I think that’s really important. We actually had that in my parents. Right off the bat, I would say my father more than both my parents. But just as someone who had, again, no experience in hospitality and so was coming at it as sort of objectively as possible. And of course, over the years, even within our fraternity, we do have people that we bounce things off. But it is something that, it’s a tricky one because sometimes you don’t want to divulge too much about your business outside of it, particularly when it comes to a restaurant where it’s a very public facing business. It’s a business people are frequenting. It’s one where you have to be very comfortable with the people. I am part of a few sort of entrepreneur organisations where I have what’s known as a trust group of sort of ten people that are my sounding board, in a way.
AB: You’re talking about something like the YPO Forum
GD: Kind of, one is called the Ascent Foundation, which was started by Mr Harsh Mariwala. And I’ve been a member of it for about six years now. And it’s been fantastic because it’s people from all different industries. There’s no conflict when you have your group and everyone’s sharing their experience. And I think that that’s really important to have, because you can get very… Especially when you’re working with your spouse, it’s important to get that outside perspective sometimes.
AB: But tell me another thing. Do you feel like working with someone so close to you? Is work still in progress? Or do you feel like no, because we have the same values, it came really easily.
GD: It’s definitely always a work in progress. And I think that it’s not because we don’t have the same values. I think it’s just that the ability to separate work and home is one sort of big challenge, where you have to very consciously make that effort to manage that distinction. I think the other thing is that we both got into this feeling very passionate about the idea, and that passion sometimes can lead to having very strong views— opposing views on things. But I come back to that point of separating the responsibilities. And the way we do this is to say that, for example, marketing and PR might be my responsibility. So while Jay might have his views on that, the end decision is mine. And then there’ll be something which is sort of under his domain, share my point of view with him, but then the final call is his. And I think as long as you respect that and I think that at some point there needs to be that trust. And hopefully, who better can you trust than your spouse? So it’s a double edged sword in the sense that it’s probably the person you trust the most, also the person that you can speak most freely with and therefore can sometimes lead to those, I guess…
AB: And tell me, one of the things you said was to give people tools on how to work with someone they’re close to. One of the things you said is learn to respect the other area, even if you don’t agree. Any other suggestions or tools?
GD: Giving that space to each other is also really important, especially when you work together. Because otherwise you’re with each other all the time.
AB: All the time, yeah. 24×7.
GD: So I think giving that space, that respect of recognising that each one has their strengths and that’s why you’re working together. That’s what they bring to the business or to the home. And you have to trust them to do what they’re doing is in the best interest of business or family. I think that’s really important. And respect. Also that if you have those conflicts and those tussles, whether it’s at home— you leave it at home. And if it’s at work— you leave it at work. And it does take a lot of maturity, it does take a lot of self awareness, I think it’s fair to say, to achieve that. So we all slip up at times. And I think the other thing I want to say, and I say this purely from personal experience, but I think it’s fair to say this is one of the reasons we’re still together 13 or whatever, 13 years later. I think you need to identify, especially in a business like ours, which is, like I said, in the public eye and in the press, and you need to identify who that spokesperson is going to be. Is it going to be one or the other or both? And you speak with one voice, because if you have both people sort of fighting to be in the limelight…
AB: The face of it.
GD: Yes, then I think that can lead to sort of ego clashes in a way. And that’s usually the biggest cause of problems between partners in a business.
AB: So you’re saying, just be very, very clear about every step of the way, even in terms of who’s the face of the business, who’s going to talk to the press. And respect was another big one.You said, just (to) make sure.
GD: Trust, respect.
GD: And that managing egos by identifying who’s sort of possibly going to be in the limelight more than the other.
AB: Okay? And when you’re looking at, say, new ventures or you’re talking about scaling up or even about moving in a different direction sometimes, because like you said, where you started with your vision board and what you landed up with was different. So how at those stages do you avoid conflict?
GD: I don’t think the idea is to avoid conflict. I think it’s important to have healthy debates and question each other, because a lot of times that idea gets refined through that discussion. But at the end of the day, if you have and I’ll be honest, especially during COVID when it was a really challenging time for us financially, as well as things as we’d started out to be shut down overnight and could not be resumed at any point. And me being the sort of risk averse accountant was just like, no, let’s not make any new sort of investments at this point. Let’s just stabilise the business. But there were other considerations. Either we had a property that was on rent and we would either have to have returned it, or done something with it, which meant that we needed to make a decision one way or the other. I mean, there were times when I would have felt safer leaning one way, but then I think you can never really be an entrepreneur playing it safe. You know, this is where I sort of hesitatingly respected Jay’s final decision on opening Mag Street Cafe, which is a more casual format restaurant. And today we’re on our third one now, so we’re about to open the third one. So obviously something did go right that allowed us to scale that up. But it is something that you do question, especially when it’s like in our case, it’s two of us. We’ve grown this business slowly and steadily. It’s not something that we’ve rushed to open 50 restaurants, and so it’s still a very personal business for us. And I think that it’s inevitable that you will question every time you’re doing something new, because that just means more, you’re taking on more on your plate, in a way. And it’s a decision that we sort of struggle with every single time we’re doing a new project, whether it’s a new brand or an existing brand. But I think I have to say that as entrepreneurs, I think it’s fair to call myself one. It’s weirdly addictive. This business is weird, and you just kind of can’t help yourself but take advantage of opportunities. But I think you have to just do them in a calculated way and eventually it does work out. So I think we’re both like minded enough in that sense, where I think we’re 80% enough like minded, where that 20% we can deal with a little bit of, let’s just say a discussion and debate.
AB: Right, wonderful. But Gauri, I’ve also seen, I mean, we’ve all seen a lot of families where the financial issues have split over to the extent that people are not even talking to each other, they’re not acknowledging each other. So do you have a protocol in place? Do you and Jay have a protocol in place to stop something like that from happening?
GD: I have to say, I mean, I’m touching all the wood around me, but no.
AB: So am I.
GD: Yeah, we haven’t come to that situation or that point where we don’t agree on making a financial decision. And so it’s not really come to that. But I think sometimes the issues can also be because of generational differences. So especially in family businesses where the older generation might not necessarily understand the need for spending on certain aspects which the younger generation really does see the need for. And I think that’s something that I hear about all the time. And fortunately, that’s not really an issue for us. But again, I think it really comes back to being aligned on goals. And also in terms of what you were talking about, sort of generational differences.
AB: Right. But what happens when you’re entering into business with a friend or a romantic partner, like in your case. Or a colleague or something like that? Are there any learnings that you have that you would say, okay, look at ABCD, make sure you’re clear on these before you get into it?
GD: I think one thing I would say, I mean, I’m sure there are many and I haven’t sort of done a business with a friend to be able to speak from experience. But I would say that especially if you’re not married or tied up in other ways, like being family, it’s very important, and I think even if you are family, it’s very important to have written agreements. Because a lot of these businesses start from chatting about an idea, and when your relationship is on good terms, everything seems peachy. And there’s a lot of that trust that I mentioned earlier that has a very big part to play in setting up these businesses. And when things start going wrong is when you really test each other and you test that relationship. And the fact is that things do go wrong. And I think it’s in everyone’s interest, I would say the one thing is that no matter how good friends you are or how great your relationship is, put it on paper and get it vetted by a lawyer. Because this is not one of those things you just write on a tissue paper and hope that works in court.
AB: Oh wow okay, yeah.
GD: I think what I’m saying is that- be prepared for the worst, because sometimes I hope not, but it will happen. That’s the nature of being an entrepreneur, that you will go through ups and downs, and you just need to be as prepared as you can be.
AB: So you’re saying put an MoU in place, put legal documents in place. Just be very clear where each of you stands before you get into the business. Don’t do it when your business has become Amazon.
GD: Yeah, exactly. And then that’s when sort of, I guess, egos come in. And this way before, while it’s still a vision and a goal, put that down so you both know where you stand.
AB: But Gauri, tell me when things go wrong, and they always do. COVID is an example where all the restaurants suffered so much, you were saying that yourself. Do you feel like that spills over into personal life?
GD: I mean, 100%. It’s impossible. We’re not robots to not let things, not let those lines bleed every so often. And we’re human beings to feel a certain way which doesn’t just switch off when you come home or when you leave home. But I think it’s one of the biggest realisations I had at one point, and this was actually not COVID related, but before COVID when we had to close one of our restaurants. And I just thought that it’s the end of the world. People just think that The Table was a one hit wonder, that you’re not really capable of opening multiple restaurants or managing multiple restaurants. It was actually a really pivotal moment for me as a restaurateur, because I realised that it’s a business and I had a sort of completely different career before this business and there’ll be something next if this business doesn’t work out and it doesn’t define me for the rest of my life. And I’m grateful to be doing something I love, but it’s not the ‘be all and end all of me.’ And you have to take those challenges in your stride.
AB: So at the end of every chat, we do a rapid fire round to summarise the chat. So important things that anyone should remember before deciding to enter into a relationship that combines work and pleasure.
GD: I think I’ve said this before, but I’m going to just say it again, is that— divide and conquer.
AB: Okay. One way in which one can remember to check business at the door with your shoes or your coat, when you get home.
GD: I’m still learning, I think, it’s just not worth mixing the two. And now we have a ten year old, so she helps to separate the two a lot.
AB: Lovely. A piece of advice you wish someone had given you when you decided to start working with your husband.
GD: Well, I wish people had told me that it’s actually okay to do it because I was told the contrary by everybody around me; that it was going to be a disaster. There was a recipe for disaster to be working with your spouse, and he wasn’t even my spouse at the time, so I think that. I think that it’s totally fine to do it, and I’m seeing more and more you know, people starting ventures together and yeah, it’s actually really fun.
AB: Thank you, Gauri, what a lovely chat we’ve had. Thank you so much for taking the time. Thank you so much for taking the time to be here with us today. I hope you learned something new, and I hope we brought you closer to leading a healthier, happier, more hopeful life. Please subscribe to my channels and I would love to hear from you. My email address is Anshu@WellnessCurated.Life. Please send me questions, topic suggestions, whatever you’d like to send me. Thank you so much and see you next week.