How a first generation businessman found his calling in Odia food
Debasish Patnaik’s mission to popularise Odia cuisine in the country has resulted in a seven-outlet restaurant chain with a turnover of around Rs six crore.
From chingudi dalma - lentils cooked with mixed veggies, shrimps, coconut, and mild spices - and chhatu rai – mushrooms tossed in mustard sauce - to pohala machha besara – pohala fish in home-style Oriya gravy - and chakuli – pounded rice and gram flour tawa-fried - rounded off with kheeri – sweet rice pudding…
Debasish Patnaik started Dalma to introduce the younger generation and tourists to Odia cuisine in both Odisha and other parts of the country (Photos: Tikan Mishra)
Serving these delicious dishes little known outside the State of Odisha, 55-year-old Debasish, Managing Director of Dalma Comforts & Entertainment Co. Pvt. Ltd, has opened restaurants exclusively dedicated to lip-smacking Odiya cuisine, at cities as far as Bengaluru, Delhi and Kolkata.
Born in 1961 in Cuttack to a government school teacher, Debasish confesses to being a foodie. “I would watch my mother cook – she was a great cook,” he says, “and I loved food from my childhood days.” He grew to cook his own favourite dishes – dalma and Oriya mutton curry – very well.
His father was later transferred to Bhubaneswar, where Debasish, a pampered only child, did his schooling.
In 1980 after completing his graduation from Buxi Jagabandhu Bidyadhar (BJB) College in Bhubaneswar, he did his Masters in Political Science and then an MBA from the Xavier Institute of Management, Bhubaneswar.
Debasish's father was a government school teacher
He had wanted to become a lawyer, but in 1984 his creative instincts led him to open an advertising agency, Creative Consultants Private Ltd, in Bhubaneswar.
He created advertisements mainly for government-aided services such as tourism and handicrafts.
For the next sixteen years Debasish continued with the advertising business, but the idea of entering into the hospitality industry was growing in his mind. He sensed a business opportunity in Odia food.
“I noticed that there weren’t any restaurants in Odisha serving the State cuisine,” Debasish shares. “Even the premier hotels in the State served Continental, Thai or Chinese food. People touring our State were totally ignorant of the delicious food cooked in every Oriya household.”
He began to mull over ways of making the State cuisine popular among visitors and also the younger generation which was unaware of Odisha’s rich culinary legacy.
In 2000, he decided to close his ad agency and venture into a completely new area for him and for the State. “My purpose was to serve quality home cuisine to local people and tourists,” he says. “Money was secondary in my mind.”
Diners at a popular Dalma restaurant in Bhubaneswar
But there was a problem. “There were hardly any experts of Oriya food,” says Debasish, recounting his business’s teething problems.
Eventually, he managed to find around nine cooks and inaugurated his first restaurant at Madhusudhan Nagar in Bhubaneswar in May 2001.
“We took over a closed restaurant – around 1,400 sq ft – and refurbished it into a 40-seater eatery,” he explains. “I made an investment of Rs 10 lakh, partly from my savings and partly loaned by friends to start a private limited company.”
“We wanted to connect instantly with the people and so we called it Dalma,” he says, “after the signature Oriya dish, which is a kind of dal with nutritious ingredients such as papaya, brinjal and more. This dish is a household name in the State.”
It was a bumpyroad. “We suffered losses in the first three months, but I stuck on,” he says.
Debasish is a foodie and has a special liking for Odia cuisine
“I wanted my customers to enjoy quality and unforgettable food and would personally supervise the kitchen. We recruited fresh cooks and trained them for the job.”
After initial hiccups, Dalma soon began to attract increased footfalls with each passing day, “We started selling 20-30 thalis (plate) of Oriya food every day,” he says. “We charged just rupees 30 per plate for our authentic Oriya meals.”
Soon Dalma came up with the second restaurant in Bhubaneswar, “We rented around 2,000 sq ft and invested around Rs 25 lakh, borrowed from banks, for the new eatery.”
By 2007, Dalma had registered a turnover of Rs 1.5 crore with growth of 10-15 per cent per annum. In 2008, Debasish took a leap forward to realise his dream of taking his brand outside Odisha and making it known among people who were strangers to it.
“We came up with our first outlet in Koramangala – which has a significant Oriya population – in Bengaluru in 2008 on 1,800 sq. ft with an investment of Rs 30 lakh, again with funds loaned from banks.” The response there has surpassed all his expectations.
Between 2010 and 2014, Dalma opened five restaurants in Rourkela, Bhubaneswar, Puri, Delhi (in Odisha Niwas) and Kolkata.
One restaurant in every district of Odisha is Debasish's goal now
“We run six outlets now with an ownership model (one outlet in Bhubaneswar shut down due to below par sales),” he says, “but we are thinking of expanding with the franchisee model. We started with 20 plates per day and now sell over 700 plates in our restaurants daily, with the thalis priced modestly at around Rs 140.”
MIS control, technology and online checks help Debasish keep track of operations at other outlets.
The entrepreneur is ambitious. “We will soon be opening our second outlet in Bengaluru,” he says. “Besides, my goal is to have our outlets at every district headquarters across Odisha.”
His mantra for success – ‘Believe in yourself, work hard and do not shy away from taking risks in life’ – seems to have worked for him, and for Oriya cuisine!