Mark Wright is an Australian restaurateur living in England and serving Indian food. These three major global cultures have been the driving influences behind his fast-casual restaurant business, Rola Wala, which is currently delighting spice-seeking foodies in Leeds, Oxford and London through its rolled naans and authentic fillings.
His healthy Aussie lifestyle was upped a notch while he was working his first paid advertising job in the capital – a measly salary forced the young city newcomer to cut meat out of his diet in a bid to save money. This led Wright to experiment with the food he could afford. He soon realised the potential that meat-free ingredients had when paired with the right flavours and seasonings. “Before that, it was steak or chicken, and everything else sat on the side,” he explains.
His newfound intrigue in flavour pairings erupted when Wright took a six-week trip to India, which gave him a dazzling perspective on how to take this food seriously.
“I saw something I had never seen there,” he says. “I was used to the British perspective of Indian food, which we all love, but it was different out there. I saw a side of the cuisine that was not only diverse, but it was so healthy. You can eat it multiple times a day, and it was more than curry and fat-laden food. There were spices, energy, preparation. As a culture, it’s so authentic in that their whole life revolves around their family and food. That’s something I hadn’t experienced.”
Rola Wala? YOLO
On his return to London, Wright was supposed to head back to his advertising job, only he didn’t. Instead, so overwhelmed was he by his sudden love for cooking Indian cuisine, he handed in his notice and began to teach himself the art of spice in his own kitchen. From India, he had learned that it was possible to combine sweet with sour with spice with salt with bitterness… all in one dish. He was enthused to move away from what he calls the “two-tone” nature of British food, where we start with savoury and finish with sweet. Instead, from his kitchen came the culinary creations that set him on the path to create Rola Wala – two of those initial recipes remain on the menu to this day.
Wright admits that he had been too embarrassed to tell his former colleagues why he had quit his job and what exactly he was doing locked in his kitchen all day. He also didn’t tell them about his first attempt to sell to the public in Hoxton Street Market. He began the day with nothing but his new dishes of rolled naans and high quality fillings, and, five customers later, he finished the day with £25 and a lot of leftovers. However, those five sales were all he needed to confirm he was on the right track.
“I had five customers that day, but they all understood it, so I kept going,” he says. “The next step was to go big, quickly. I had heard of the Alchemy Festival, which is now run by KERB – 40 or 50 Indian restaurants trading on Southbank. So I turn up with some crazy branding and a healthy-based idea. Everyone looked at me like, ‘Who’s this skinny white boy?’ They were all professional Indian chefs in all the gear, but I had a queue down the street and sold 2,000 portions that weekend. It’s a four-day festival and I sold out after the second day. It was about £1,200 for the pitch, and I sold 2,000 £5 rolls. People just got it straight away.
“Indian food as a cuisine is constrained by tradition, and how people perceive it, but we try to do something different. I have come at this from an angle with no experience, no history, no family ties. I just like to eat it myself. I haven’t tried to say ‘This is the world’s most authentic Indian’. We’ve packaged it in a way that makes it more accessible for people, and whether they’re dairy-free, gluten-free, vegan or meat-loving, we’ve got something for everyone.”
Setting up shop
From that point on, there was no looking back for Wright. He created Rola Wala, a name that should probably be explained. ‘Rola’ in Hindi means to ‘roll’, representing the crux of Wright’s rolled naan business. ‘Wala’ is to be connected with the previous verb or noun, like chai wala, for example. Simply put, in English, Wright is a ‘The Man that Rolls’. Got that? Good.
Like so many street food-based businesses since then, Wright found himself trading as part of the Street Feast set-up at Camden Town Brewery, not too long after Street Feast was launched. Soon after, Jonathan Downey took on the business and Rola Wala suddenly had multiple sites to trade from across London. It was from there that they were invited to have a look at a new leisure destination being built in Leeds.
“That was when we got invited to Trinity,” says Wright. “Within the shopping centre business, it’s very innovative, and I think it has created a community for the people in Leeds. We went in there as a self-funded street food trader for a month from April 2014. In the first week, we took £15,000 in a 3m x 3m store. There was Pho, Tortilla, Chicago Rib Shack and all these well established brands, but our line was down the shopping centre. I always thought there was a space in the Indian food market for this sort of thing. You’ve got sushi, burgers, etc., but what about Indian as a fast-casual food? No one has nailed it.”
When the Rola Wala brand moved to Leeds, Wright and his co-founder Mark Christophers met Danny Vilela, who knew the casual dining industry ery well due to his time cooking at Bill’s. It didn’t take long for Vilela to get on board with the Rola Wala offer, and soon he joined the founders as head of production and operations.
The success of this debut site didn’t go unnoticed by Landsec, the owner of Trinity Leeds, who quickly offered Wright and his team a full restaurant set-up in the centre.
“We got in there four months after the first pop-up,” he says. “I was naïve back then, and turned up with Danny with no menu, no staff, nothing. Just a lease. It took two months to open it, but we got it done. That was the jump-off point for the retail brand, and that was when I saw where the business could go.
“The challenge for us was the transition from a great street food brand to retail – learning to sell Indian food to shoppers was the crux of the challenge for us. People on the street love it, but shoppers are less interested. We repackaged what we had been doing before, and that’s how we made it work. What’s more, we’ve learned to operate a business remotely because of Leeds and it works really bloody well – we took £22,000 last week.”
From Leeds to London, and after taking on his first injection of funding from the team behind the Barworks business, Wright opened up off Spitalfields Market in Shoreditch. The London site is just a stone’s throw away from his old stomping ground on Brick Lane, where he had first become enthralled by the smell of spices wafting out of dozens of Indian restaurants in the area.
What’s intriguing about the London unit is that it is very much more aligned with the grab and go market, as opposed to the food court set-up in Trinity. For Wright, this is a key factor for his model – he can put the foodservice area of Rola Wala into almost any space.
“A lot of people say that to be a restaurant we need a certain number of seats, but you know what, the industry is changing, and we’ve realised that.”
Wright has also realised the potential that deliveries have in his business. Not only are they generating 40% of sales at the Shoreditch restaurant, but he also sees deliveries as an opportunity to grow the brand in London without having to take on any further bricks and mortar.
“The biggest challenge with delivery is making margins work, as Deliveroo takes 25%. The margins have shifted, and that’s where it gets you thinking. We’re looking at options at growing our reach, especially with some of the potential leverage of networks with one of our partners – with the spaces they have, we can have quite a reach for our food. I don’t want to open up another 10 of these in London right now, as I don’t think the market is right for it. But if I can get my food throughout London via delivery with fewer costs, I think that’s far more interesting.”
The growth in deliveries is one thing, but the growth in units is another. Not only has Rola Wala launched a new site in Oxford’s Westgate (another Landsec development), but its first franchise site is due to open in Dubai in March or April this year. Working with a family-run franchise partner through a no-fee, profit-share arrangement, Wright and the franchise team are planning on delivering 20 Rola Wala sites over five years.
“I am so excited about it,” he says. “To go from a small idea in a London market to say we’re opening in Dubai – there’s nothing more exciting. Can we translate it for out there? It feels like we can translate simply, but doing it culturally is the challenge. Our franchise partners want three next year, but let’s get Dubai working, and when that works, we’ll do the second.
“I want the business to grow,” he concludes. “We’ve grown incredibly quickly to go from two to three and I know we’ve got a shit load of work to do to get this London one singing right – we’re going to focus on the beginning of this year to do that. Then we’ll look at the next stage. I don’t want to take on the next big chunk of funding to do 15 more sites. I could eat my words, of course, but I’d like more opportunities to grow without that big capex spend. It doesn’t make sense to rush out another 20 restaurants. Plus, I don’t think that’s where the market is going right now.”