Hands On, Varun Tuli! Creating Culinary Success!

DI sits down for a conversation with Varun Tuli, MD, Yum Yum Tree Group, a serial entrepreneur with a flair for innovation in food and creating concept dining. He talks about his ingredients for success, approach to menu curation, going local with produce, importance of ambience and learning from past challenges.

Priyaanka: Before we sat down, I noticed you were busy in food trials. Considering you have so many different brands and so many outlets and a centralized kitchen, how much of your personal involvement is going into this on a daily basis?

Varun Tuli: On the food front, it goes in every day. I basically stay on the creative side of things. In creating the concept, creating the menus, every single thing related to food is under me. I don’t get into accounting so much. I don’t get into operations so much. We have departments to take care of all that. I also take care of procurement because that’s directly related to food. In the office we do tastings pretty much every day. We try to add new dishes on a quarterly basis and constantly innovate on the menu across all brands. That is my zone.

Priyaanka: All your brands are highly successful and popular in their own distinct cuisines. So, if it comes to Italian, people are coming to TSBP; Pot Pot is doing phenomenally well with Indian. And of course, there is Yum Yum Cha that revolutionized Asian dining for Delhi. In all this, what are your ingredients for success?

Varun Tuli: With Yum Yum Cha, we had very similar food to Yum Yum Tree. The two brands ran parallelly for about two years, before we closed Yum Yum Tree. They were basically three key differences between the two experiences. One was that Yum Yum Tree was an alcohol-based concept. Yum Yum Cha has no alcohol. Secondly, Yum Yum Tree also had some standard traditional dishes like Hakka noodles, honey chilli potato, and Sichuan dishes. We removed those traditional, ordinary experiences that exist. So, across all the brands, we try not to give regular, ordinary, comparable experiences. We stick to the same formula that we were successful with at Yum Yum Cha. Smaller restaurants, fun atmosphere with focus completely on the food. No alcohol. None of our outlets serve alcohol. And the funny thing is many people seem to not notice this. And what ends up happening is that in India, we saw at Yum Yum Tree, it had very limited alcohol pickups because by the time duties and taxes are added and then markups happen, it just becomes prohibitive to go to a restaurant and drink as well.

We also target places where you can pretty much eat every day. It’s not cheap, but it’s not so expensive that you can’t indulge in it two, three times a week. Across all our brands, I know people who have ordered dinner from us and are going to have lunch from us the following day. We’ve kept it accessible enough.

We then also make sure that the food is of great ingredients and is simple. It’s not complicated in its style. We don’t use packets from anything. For example, all our Thai curry paste is ground in-house. We make sure that we are in complete control of our product. Whether it’s a pasta being done in-house or a Thai curry paste or noodles, everything that we do is basically in-house and homemade. What we can’t do in house and we can’t replicate, we don’t do it. We stay away from it.

Priyaanka: What about the menu curation? You mentioned that when you set up Yum Yum Cha, you didn’t carry forward the bestselling dishes from Yum Yum Tree. That’s an unusual move.

Varun Tuli: We basically dropped the top 10 selling dishes. The highest selling dishes we dropped. And that was a restriction because we said we have to create a new concept. I didn’t know I was going to shut Yum Yum Tree eventually. The idea was to have a distinction between the two. Because otherwise, how do you innovate? And we do that very often. We remove what we know is going to be regular and sellable and we try and do something else. But we also take a look at what you want to eat and what is kind of easy to understand on a menu. It’s not going over your head. We keep the understanding of the dishes very simple.

Priyaanka: In terms of the ambience, your restaurants are quirky, gimmicky, innovative and inviting. How do you go about planning this so definitely with each brand?

Varun Tuli: To start with, you have to have a concept. For example, when we were doing Yum Yum Cha we had to look at a central scheme. We had designers at the time. We had people who helped us. Even though post that, we started pretty much doing all the artwork and all the branding and logos in-house. I do that myself. It is branded in our way and there is a logic to it.

For Yum Yum Cha, we went through many Asian elements as possible concepts. And then we came across origami, the Japanese art of paper folding. I do believe concept is sometimes more important than the cuisine itself.

Even if you took a look at Big Chill, there are movie posters everywhere. You kind of lose yourself in a different environment and that’s the whole point of restaurants. So, environments that are slightly exaggerated, I feel sometimes work better. And if you don’t want to do an exaggerated environment and you just want to do a cool hangout space, then you can’t really do a single cuisine. Then you’ve just got to do a cafe with a bunch of different offerings focusing on a great location, which is all the same.

Priyaanka: The central theme you mention, also continues into the style of delivery. And my next question is, how is the feasibility of that? Is the innovation you bring in packaging also an ingredient of your success?

Varun Tuli: Of course. It’s a very structured and manufactured approach. You see when you are buying food from a restaurant, from outside, ambience is something that people charge for. Going to a Zuma vs. going to a Wagamama, the price it demands is also linked to the ambience they offer. So, what is the ambience when it comes to home delivery? It is the packaging. When you are trying to deliver something that is dear to you, like food is very dear to me, you can’t see it, like you want a gift wrap. Noshi actually means a present in origami, a gift in origami. It’s a way of gift wrapping in origami and therefore the packaging boxes. The product we are selling is not the food, the product is the packaging. A lot of people confuse that. When you have to gift someone something, it has to look good. The concept of sending someone’s food as a gift. Even before Covid, we started getting requests from people.

The other thing that you have to appreciate is that when you order something from anywhere, we also looked at repurposing items. So that the brand kind of opens up. Noshi, for example, if you just open your freezer, you will hundred percent see ice packs of Noshi in your freezer. Our canvas bags across all brands. You reuse them. I have lost count of the number of flights I have taken and seen people using them.

Priyaanka: In terms of selecting locations for your restaurants, expanding into new markets what’s your strategy? Which cuisine, which location?

Varun Tuli: So, typically we look at high footfall areas. Now we’ve opened a second TBSP in Gurgaon, so now we are looking for Pot Pot as well. We want to expand them at the same pace.

Priyaanka: Coming to Delhi, how do you see it evolving as a capital for global cuisine? Are we there yet?

Varun Tuli: I think they’re almost there. The thing is we’ll never be there because we’d always have a gap. So, if that gap was ten years, then it became five years, then it became three years. I think we are a couple of years behind the world. But what has happened is that gourmet centres and commercial centres were typically the US and the UK. Those centres have started shifting. Dubai has become a very important centre. A lot of Indians go to Dubai. So, the ability for people to try those cuisines has become more accessible. The average Indian has more exposure now. Now they want similar experiences here, in their own city.

Secondly, people are eating out more often. When you eat out five times a week between ordering and eating out, one of those times, you can be experimenting. People are experimenting more with their food now.

Priyaanka: In terms of cities and New Delhi in particular, to become a global destination for food, in comes your ecosystem that should ideally support it. Let’s say your labour laws, your timings, your licensing requirements. How do you think we are faring on all of that?

Varun Tuli: Licensing for sure needs to be a little easier for a global audience to want to come to India. And they have to find value in the product as well. If you go to Europe and you stay in a hotel. The government and city taxes are much, much lower. On food, there is no tax. Hotels in certain cases have a 10% tax and vacation destinations in some, there is 0%. So, by the time you stay in those destinations, you are quite comfortable that the taxation does not kill you. Secondly, when you look at import duties, when it comes to food products. See we are also exporting a lot of food. It can only be offset by what we are importing and what we are exporting. Where we want to protect our farmers. I understand that. BLURB But when it is a very, very small percentage of your total product and those kinds of ingredients are not readily available here, you have to do something. You either encourage these manufacturers to set up shop here and make it into an export hub, or you allow some of that to be imported. Now if there are such heavy duties. And there are taxes. And then you add the taxes on alcohol, by the time you make these things accessible to people, they’re not accessible enough. They’re only accessible for a very small percentage of people. I think for it to become a global destination for food, firstly accessibility in terms of cost, in terms of taxation is very, very important.

See, India is also such an important tourist destination, but if you compare the landmass of India to the number of tourists that come in. It’s nowhere near many, many countries. I would say even Nepal, for example, which only has Mount Everest, has a very high percentage of tourists. And I’m not using any metric, I’m just saying if we walk the streets, the number of foreign nationals you see are more versus the number of foreign nationals you see in India. There’s a vast difference. Thailand only thrives on tourism. So, we can take advantage of tourism, right? Then there are a lot of bottlenecks. For example, of course land availability in major cities, of course there it terms of building hotels, et cetera. But even in smaller towns et cetera, there is a lot of red tape to be able to kind of build a hotel in Rajasthan or Kochi. Large hotels are required, room infrastructure is required. We need to be able to make those things also quite accessible to people.

Priyaanka: Coming back to your success, what were the challenges you faced along the way and then how did you overcome them?

Varun Tuli: Yum Yum Tree of course was a challenge because it was too large. Between the cost of the rent, the number of staff, the utilities, et cetera. The cost of just maintaining and running the place was too big. So, we were losing money there. That definitely was a bottleneck. I think for a certain amount of time we were relying a lot on imported produce. And we slowly started going away from that. I think 2011 is when we started slightly moving away from international produce. And today our dependency is very little.

There are great cheese producers here. Great dairy producers. We just specify the cream fat percentages to people. We don’t use imported cream anywhere. We restrict ourselves to Indian cream. We have, let’s say chocolate for example, becomes a problem. We restrict the number of chocolate desserts. Everywhere you go, in our restaurants, there’ll be one or two maximum and they’ll also have elements of cocoa powder and other things which are not necessarily dependent on that high quality chocolate.

Priyaanka: What about changing consumer trends? How do you see the Indian customer evolving?

Varun Tuli: The first thing is the number of times people are eating out. They are eating out five times a week, for example. Secondly, they are exploring regional Indian foods. Tastes they didn’t know. I think people are definitely starting to explore those local favourites all around. And then slowly they are starting to explore Southeast Asia. They’re starting to explore Spain, France, Greece, the Middle East, Mexico and such global flavours. And of course, it’s only a matter of time that global ingredients come into our restaurants. But take the example of the avocado. We are growing it locally. It is available pretty much everywhere. And you’ll see Instagram stories of street vendors in Surat making avocado toast and selling it to people for hundred rupees. And it was just a matter of time that you would see that happen here.

Priyaanka: So, what’s next for you?

Varun Tuli: It is further expansion within our restaurants. Retail is definitely next on our agenda. Going into quick commerce and grocery stores with our sauces. For our retail we are only in Delhi NCR by choice. For catering, of course we do all over the world.


Varun Tuli started his first venture in food in 2008 with a dine-in restaurant, Yum Yum Tree in New Friends Colony, New Delhi. Subsequently since then his business has expanded and grown with brands that include Food Inc: Catering, Yum Yum Cha, Noshi, Pot Pot, tbsp. Tablespoon and Wheaty.

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