Foodopreneur 1: Soorma Bhopali- Taste some vegetarian ‘Bhopaliness’

All the best heroes

Shekhar Sinha, who had a cult following during the days of B-school glory in IMT-Ghaziabad (the author being witness to this, details withheld at Shekhar’s request) embarked on a journey down the road less traveled when he quit his corporate job, and it is on such a road that you will find his restaurant ‘Soorma Bhopali’ – a vegetarian outlet in a city obsessed with non-vegetarian food – Bhopal.

We asked him some blunt questions-the salary that he was giving up, how he narrowed down on ‘the one thing’ that he must pursue- and received honest, straightforward replies (which was totally expected).

Please read on and be inspired by an entrepreneurial story with a lot of heart, everyday realities and one that is untainted by unnecessary glamour.

1) What was your annual compensation or CTC when you decided to leave your job?
No one actually believes me when I tell them this but colleagues and friends from ex-organization can confirm that, in the little corporate experience of two and a half years I have, I never ever bothered to go through my pay slip. I never cared to check how much tax was deducted from the salary or how much telephone compensation was given unlike many others for whom it was a topic of discussion for the entire evenings. But yes, I remember the last salary credit message I received in Oct’14 of Rs.52,700/-. Obviously, I wasn’t doing well when compared to other MBA batch mates. Most of them are either settled abroad or are working in India with six figure salaries per month.

2) How much did the experience at your previous job push you towards starting ‘Soorma Bhopali’? Any particular reason/incident?
I come from a service-oriented family. The word “service” here refers to a government job. Both my parents (now retired) have worked in government jobs for more than 30 years. So, opting for a government job was not a choice but a compulsion for me. Luckily/unluckily, during our placement season, I couldn’t get through to any of the top MNCs and instead made it to one of the PSU banks. It goes without saying that I wasn’t happy with my “government” job. I could literally visualize myself in my manager’s position, 30 years down the line, cribbing and cursing the organization but not doing anything about it and ultimately giving my retirement speech in the same organization.

3) How were you able to decide ‘the one thing’ about which you were passionate and had to make a career in?
Well to be honest, you can never be sure if you have found “that one thing” which you are passionate about. It’s a continuous process. I remember, when was in 10th standard, I wanted to make a career in singing. At the time when I completed MBA, I wanted to be in Advertising/Graphic Designing and ultimately, I quit my Banking job to start a restaurant which has nothing to do with all that I had dreamt of. But yes, I admit that I have always been passionate about building “something” from scratch- of building new systems rather than becoming a part of existing ones. I am passionate about everything that gives me the freedom to explore my strengths.

4) How did your friends and family, especially parents react to this? Was there a student loan angle?
It was never a tough decision when it comes to support from family and friends. They were/are always by my side. I found it extremely funny when my mother after seeing my frustrated and disappointed face every evening, used to say, “Kal agar tu bina resign kiye aaya to tujhe ghar me nahi ghusne dungi” (If you don’t resign tomorrow, I will not allow you to enter home). On calls, my friend/brother/co-founder ‘Pankaj Kothari’ used to tell me,”Kar de bey resign, jo hoga dekha jayega” (You just resign, we will see to it afterwards). So, clearly, it was never about the family or friends’ support. It was always about doubting self-belief. What if it doesn’t work? What if we fail? That’s the reason it took me more than 6 months to quit after paying off my student loan.

Shekhar (Right) with co-founder Pankaj
Shekhar (Right) with co-founder Pankaj

5) What are some of the things that you would be thankful to your previous job for? (for ex. reality check, crash course in interpersonal politics, training for heavy workloads, applicable domain knowledge and so on)
My job taught me how to ‘communicate’. I got an opportunity to work on big budget projects and on product launches. The most important experience was to learn how different teams (Business, Operations, Technical, Customer Facing) come together to successfully plan and execute a project. The co-ordination and synergies among the teams and how all of them work towards a common objective, by bringing together their individual strengths. It was great to be a part of something so impactful, something which we had only studied in our MBA classrooms.

6) Describe ‘Soorma Bhopali’ in your own words?
We, the whole SB team, are trying to build “Soorma Bhopali” as a place where you can have “serious meals” in the most non-serious way possible. “Meals” which not just make you happy but which actually kills your hunger and you get the value for money that you pay. We want our customers to not just come to have food but to experience the “Bhopaliness” that the name “Soorma Bhopali” carries with it.

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7) What genre of food did you want to offer people and what was the inspiration/reason behind this choice?
Bhopal is famous for non-vegetarian food but we decided to go vegetarian. That’s because we didn’t want “Soorma Bhopali” to be limited to a particular audience, we felt that Soorma Bhopali should be for everyone. Keeping this in mind, we decided to introduce “Soya Chaps” (the only vegetarian food that come closest to non-vegetarian cuisines) in Bhopal which are more popular in North India but hardly anyone knows about it in our city, except for those who have lived in cities like Delhi, Ghaziabad etc.
On a lighter note, we have observed non-vegetarians coming to Soorma Bhopali on “Tuesdays” and “Saturdays” to eat chaps. :p

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Hindustan Times article featuring Soorma Bhopali

8) What next for Soorma Bhopali?
In it’s little existence of 8 months so far, there have been good days and bad days for SB. On good days, there’s a sense of achievement that finally, Soorma has reached its destination and everything will fall in “place” now. But, on bad days, you start doubting yourself. You start feeling like being lost in the middle of no-where. I am sure it will be a long journey for SB into the unknown.

9) What next for Shekhar Sinha?
Toughest of the lot will be chasing “experiences”- good if money follows! 🙂 Honestly, it feels like being a 12th standard student all over again- pennyless and clueless about the future. :p

We will be waiting with a tremendous appetite for a lot more ‘Bhopaliness’ being served hot by Shekhar. Till then we recommend that you pester him for opening the next branch in your city!

This was the first of our series on Food Entrepreneurs, stay tuned for many more stories on how people use food to change the face of their lives.

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Please visit ‘Soorma Bhopali’ on FB

About Madhur Oza

Aspiring artist. MBA. Erstwhile corporate cavalry. Live to eat. Nerd. Suburban Mumbaikar (pseudo Mumbaikar technically). After having been conditioned by society, it's time to be conditioned by the soul...

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