Meherwan Irani and his wife, Molly, started Chai Pani in Asheville, N.C. in 2009. Today there are two Chai Pani locations and three other concepts under his watch. Meherwan tells his inspiring, refreshing, unconventional story on our Restaurant Owners Uncorked podcast series, and here are a few of his comments…
On the types of people he hires
“What I’m looking for is empathy. Do they actually understand how their actions make other people feel? Does this person have emotional intelligence? Can they communicate well and understand how emotionally-driven people are at the end of the day, and that how you motivate them is by connecting at that level?
For me, work ethic is not about how many hours somebody puts in or how hard they work. Work ethic to me is this inclination to always do something as well as it possibly could be done. Nothing less than that is acceptable. There are people all around us wired that way. So, we look for that combination and then I really, actually let them run with it. I go, “Hey, I would do no better or no worse than them in their shoes with the same decisions.” I have trusted myself to figure it out and make the right decisions, so I’ve got to trust them, too. As long as I have my culture carriers in there, in the midst of them, I know, generally speaking, our culture will be intact. But I want to let these people make their own decisions. That’s how Chai Pani Decatur runs — it’s a completely autonomous business, and my job is just to inspire and not worry too much about micromanaging their decisions.”
On his research into why restaurants fail while writing his business plan for Chai Pani
For awhile I was really worried about this sort of myth or urban legend that 70% – 90% (depending on who you ask) of restaurants go out of business in their first five years. I was really curious to find out if this is real or is this just an urban legend. I did the research. The University of Florida had a hospitality management program where they’d done a study on restaurant closings. They listed five reasons why a typical restaurant would close. They had the stats on restaurant failure rates. I think what they said was that a third of the restaurants close in their first year – the ones that don’t close in the first year usually make it to their fifth year. That’s when the second third closes, for completely different reasons than the first year.
But, their point was that there are all the usual suspects for why a lot of restaurants goes out of business – lack of capital, bad food, bad market conditions, location. But all of those are completely eclipsed by the single, most overriding factor – and that was lack of a defined concept that is easy to articulate. If somebody asked you what kind of restaurant it was, the key was in being able to answer that question as simply and quickly as you can. And the study went on to say that’s why even mom-and-pop Mexican restaurants in strip malls and Chinese restaurants and Italian restaurants all tend to last, even the ones that aren’t that good. One thing they have going in their favor is when somebody says what kind of food it is – you can just say “Chinese” and that’s it. But when you have a restaurant going, “Well, we do a fusion of Mediterranean-Tapas-style but with a little bit of Asian ingredients and . . .” Yeah, you lost me. That was their point. So that was a key factor in my business plan – I wanted to make sure my concept made sense.”
On what has helped him succeed over the last seven years
“I read something that some business guy – could have been Warren Buffet or could have been Steve Jobs, or someone like that – basically said there are certain commonalities to successful businesses that are started from scratch. The three most important things that they have in common are, number one, somebody with a very clear vision and a sense of purpose. Number two, people that were willing to completely buy into that vision. Almost like tribal loyalty buy-in. And three, limited resources. In fact, scarcity of resources. The first two make sense. But the third one really struck the deepest.
I did have this real clear sense of what I wanted to do. And when I explained it to people I knew they bought into the vision — or maybe they were buying into me. In either case, they believed in something. But the critical factor was that our limited resources made us really think outside the box and forced us to do things differently because we didn’t have the money to do it the way we were supposed to. For example, opening with two hundred and fifty dollars in the cash register and not even having enough money for payroll and using social media instead of putting ads in the local paper. We couldn’t afford to advertise at all. Period. Zero. None. Yet at the same time, anytime a charity approached us for any kind of benefit or to give food or to give gift cards or to come cook, we’d jump all over it. So now, six years later with four restaurants and a fifth on the way, we still do that. We don’t advertise but we give tens of thousands of dollars a year of food or time or effort for charities.
So, those three ingredients combined created an environment that might have seemed extraordinary to you, but to us that was just the way we did things. That’s how we’re able to do it today.”
More from Meherwan in our second Restaurant Owners Uncorked book, coming in the next few months. You can also enjoy hearing his co-owner at Buxton Hall Barbecue, Elliott Moss, share his passion for his work in our film, The Pitmaster.