Barrister who left a successful law career behind to launch what has become one of Liverpool’s favourite restaurants with its Indian street food menu proving a massive hit. Tony McDonough reports
Nisha Katona never wanted to be a restaurateur. And when she did became a restaurateur she said there was “not a bone in my body that wanted to give up any equity”.
Then in July she accepted a £3.45m equity investment from private equity house Foresight to facilitate a national roll-out of Liverpool-based Mowgli – her authentic Indian street food concept.
Ms Katona, a barrister for more than 20 years, says it is her love of the food she sells and her desire to give Indian food a “national voice’ that has compelled her to act against her own instincts.
And in the unlikely event of a dramatic downturn resulting in Mowgli’s failure, it won’t be because the entrepreneur and her team didn’t work hard enough.
“I will work from seven in the morning until two the following morning and I absolutely love it,” she explained. “If I am on holiday I manage the business from the beach. It is like breathing to me. I am a complete grafter.
“My staff love this business so much. They put a status on their Facebook pages saying ‘I have a new girlfriend and her name is Mowgli’.
“Nowadays it is so important for a business to have a voice and a face. I do every word of my social media. It animates your business and brings it to like so people then invest in it in an emotional way.”
Starting with a single outlet in Bold Street in Liverpool city centre, more than three years ago, Mowgli has expanded to a second outlet in Liverpool, one in Manchester and a fourth in Birmingham.
Leeds will come next with London now firmly in the company’s sights. The business now employs more than 120 people and turns over around £6m a year.
Ms Katona, who used her life savings to launch the business, related her story to a breakfast audience at an access to finance event organised by Professional Liverpool.
When you have eaten at Mowgli and someone says to you “I’ve not been there, what is it like, what kind of restaurant is it?”, you hesitate to answer. If you say “well it’s Indian” that will instantly conjure up images of the traditional high street curry house with its chicken bhunas and tikka masalas.
But Mowgli isn’t like that. Not even close. It is like Indian food you have probably never eaten before. And it is that individuality that has made it such a hit with diners wherever it has opened its doors.
“My parents came here from India around 50 years ago,” Ms Katona told the audience. “And the passion for the food is a big part of our heritage. It is one of the few things you can keep alive.”
That passion was always with Ms Katona and it found an outlet in cookery books – she has written three of them – and in YouTube videos where she was ‘the Curry Evangelist’. But the urge to open a restaurant became irresistible.
She found a site in Bold Street, just before its very recent revival as a destination for great food, where the rent was very cheap.
“I took that lease with a two-year break lease because, to be honest, thought I was going to die on my backside,” she said.
“What is really interesting about the restaurant industry, especially as a woman, is that there are very few role models. The image it has in the media is awful. We have these testosterone-fuelled psychopathic kitchens. It is the last place you want to go.”
Mowgli defied Ms Katona’s own expectations spectacularly. People loved it from the word go and queued out of the door – but even then she remained unconvinced: “This is my home town so I thought it might be just the pity vote.”
Would-be investors saw the potential and in the early days she received a number of offers, including one of £500,000 for a a share of the business, which she declined.
“I realised some people could smell a brand even before I could,” she said.
In the early days Ms Katona carried on working as a barrister by day and “sanding floors and opening a restaurant by night” but eventually realised it needed her full-time attention so she left the bar.
She started to see the growth potential in Mowgli but was reluctant to take any decisions that would dilute her own control over the business. She expanded with an outlet in Manchester and a second site in Liverpool, all without any outside investment.
She said: “I am not only the only the CEO, I am the head chef, the exec chef, the development chef. I built this thing and it was all mine. I make a decision at midday and by 4pm it happens across all sites.”
She held a number of positive meetings with private equity houses and began to see how Mowgli could create a “voice for authentic Indian food across the UK”.
But once Ms Katona agreed to start negotiating, and changing her mindset to accept the ceding of some control to others, she really got to understand the meaning of ‘feel the fear and do it anyway’. It was a period of immense pressure.
She explained: “So what you are doing is parting with equity – and you are parting with control. And for someone like me who is all over every detail that is really hard to do. You think ‘no one can know it like I know it’. That was the terrifying part.
“I was told I could just have four restaurants and become very rich. But it is this passion to take Mowgli national. Why shouldn’t my team grow? They are brilliant. And that is why I decided to take investment.
“It is important to go to the negotiating table not needing it. If it wasn’t exactly what I wanted I was prepared to walk away. If you need it, that is no place to start.
“But all of a sudden you have a boss. I have someone telling me when I can take holidays and a salary.”
This, she says, has caused a “seismic change in my psychology”. In recent weeks Ms Katona identified a site in London she thought would be perfect – but her board disagreed. And as a sign of her growing maturity as a business person, she accepted their decision.
“I have had to become more humble and thankfully I learned this quite quickly. It was actually a weight off my shoulders,” she added.
Art of delegation
Despite her tendency towards keeping a tight control on the operation, she also adopts the Richard Branson philosophy of always hiring people who are better than you at certain jobs – leaving her to focus on Mowgli’s core function of providing great food.
“I am very good at delegating so before I even built the first Mowgli I decided I wasn’t interested in learning how to use a till, or in how to write a rota,” she said.
“I am delegating more and more. I have just turned my business development co-ordinator into a business development manager.”
During her talk she also offered praise to Peter Richards, a former McDonald’s executive who has proved to be an invaluable mentor, and Mowgli chair Karen Jones, who was the founder of Cafe Rouge. Ms Katona describes her as a “giant”.
What Mowgli will not do as it grows is change the menu. The Bengali cuisine passed down through generations of Ms Katona’s family will remain a permanent fixture.
“I won’t innovate to stay ahead of the pack because I think that is too contrived,” she said. “If I felt I had to start getting gimmicky then I shouldn’t be doing it any more.
“The food matters to me more than anything. When it is locked down that is a great release.”
And she is aware of her position as a role model to other aspiring female entrepreneurs – and to her own children, adding: “Can you run a business like this and not destroy your family? It is one of the questions I would like the answer to and I still don’t know.
“There are incredible lows and we might die a death in three years but it is important to chart the journey so people can see what it is like to be out there and women especially can see what it is like to be out there.
“As for my children, what they see is a mother with a tremendous work ethic. It is important for children to see that in a mother as well as a father. I work my socks off all the time and that is what I want them to see.”