This week we met with Kaushik Guha, founder of Hakka Bakka, a Lincoln Park fast casual restaurant specializing in delicious kati rolls. So pull up a chair, order up a kati roll, and find out how it all got started!
delivery.com: Can you tell us about your background and how you got involved in the restaurant industry?
Hakka Bakka: My background is in economics. For eight years I was an economist for various consulting firms, which allowed me to work with a lot of multinational food companies — and that’s where the interest began. At the time, looking at high-level industry overviews, I noticed a pattern with the growth of various ethnic cuisines; when you looked at Mexican or Chinese food, they really took off when the second generation of immigrants had more disposable income.
And so you start to see large ethnic food companies like Panda Express or Chipotle, but there’s nothing like that for Indian food. I wondered why that was, and saw an opportunity there, so I quit my job and went to culinary school in Chicago. After graduating with a certificate in Culinary Arts, I put together a business plan, brought together some financiers — mostly friends and family — and started Hakka Bakka.
DCOM: When was it that you first opened your doors?
HB: It’s been about nine months now since we opened.
DCOM: And what does Hakka Bakka mean?
HB: It means “surprise,” but our use of it really means “flavor-struck.” When you talk about fast, casual Indian food, people might not expect great flavors. Most of our competitors use frozen, pre-prepared food that they just re-heat, but we do everything from scratch. So the goal is to highlight that fact: that food can be really tasty and delicious but also served quickly, as long as time and effort is put into the process.
DCOM: What were some of the biggest challenges you faced?
HB: Well, the most basic Indian curry requires seven to eight different spices, so being able to standardize that was probably my biggest challenge. It took me about two years of research and development to get to a point where my recipes were completely standardized, so that I didn’t have to be in the kitchen any more. So despite other operational challenges that might need to be ironed out, that’s the most important step toward opening more locations.
DCOM: What’s your favorite item on the menu?
HB: Very traditional is the chicken tikka kati roll with an egg. I think that’s by far the most popular, and my favorite. Our kati rolls are slightly bigger than what you might get back in India. The other unique thing is ours are fully customizable, so when you order, the bread is made fresh, we add the chicken and egg, and then the customer can choose from onion, cucumbers, tomatoes, cilantro, mint, jalapeno, and our house-made chutney. Anything they want.
DCOM: In the short amount of time that Hakka Bakka has been open, you’ve already become really involved in the community. Is that something that’s been important to you as a business owner?
HB: One of the big things for my wife and me is to push back against the idea that business is some kind of zero-sum game, and that you have to be ruthless to be successful. Everyone can give back. Even at an early stage like where we are, we can’t spend millions like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, but even a small donation of food goes a long way. Because for most of these charities and organizations, it’s the small donations that really keep them going. And for us, it’s wonderful to see how even small contributions impact the community directly. For example, we work with Inspiration Kitchen, which helps at-risk youths and adults to get stable jobs. We’ve worked with Refugee One as well, which helps people displaced by war and strife. And Lincoln Park has a very vibrant community of schools and organizations, so by virtue of being here, there’s no dearth of opportunity to help. At the very least, everyone can always do with a nice meal.
Everyone can be so afraid of failure, but when you do something kind, even if you get nothing immediate in return, it creates a kind of karma, and along the way you find that you get help from others, and it creates a wonderful culture and community. That’s what we’ve been experiencing.
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