07 Apr 2015 18:49 IST

Serving it up fast & casual

Chennai-based restaurant, Una Mas, offers high quality, healthy food

The promise of churros (a snack of fried dough doused in chocolate sauce) brings Vrinda Sasidhar and Siddhartha Ramakrishna to Una Mas on Chennai’s Kodambakkam High Road. Inspired by the colours and imagery of a totem pole, the restaurant is bathed in vibrant orange, red, green and yellow outside and inside. The seating plan, though, is staid, somewhat like a canteen. Inside, at the far end, is an open-plan kitchen, where an assortment of raw vegetables, sauces and beans alongside a stack of tortilla wraps line the counter. “It’s a fast-casual restaurant,” explains an apron-clad Vidya Badrinath to the pair, her first customers for the day. Badrinath is the owner of this Californian franchisee, the first in India, and founder and CEO of Spicevana Cuisines, the parent company.

Healthy food

For the uninitiated, a fast-casual restaurant does not offer full-table service but promises a higher quality of food than fast-food restaurants. “We use no preservatives or artificial flavouring; there are gluten-free options and diabetic-friendly ones. You can choose what you add, control the amount of cheese or avoid it completely, it’s healthy and has no trans-fats,” she rattles off.
Vrinda and Siddhartha are impressed. Their burrito and gumbo (a spicy broth consisting of rice and vegetables), a lemon iced tea and non-alcoholic sangria arrive promptly, along with a complementary side of hand-cut, baked nacho chips. Between mouthfuls of her burrito, Sasidhar asks for a plate of churros. “I would normally never eat a burrito. It’s around 1,100 calories,” she says. “But this one, without the cheese and less rice, is around 600 calories. So, I feel less guilty about eating the churros now,” she adds. A beaming Badrinath, who credits her lithe figure to eating at the restaurant every day, agrees. Una Mas’ USP, according to Badrinath: healthy, quick-service Tex-Mex food.
After spending 16 years in the US with stints at Unisys Corporation and the New York State Worker’s Compensation Board, Badrinath decided to pursue a dream: to start something of her own. She decided on a restaurant that serves up the kind of food she likes and would serve her family every day and relocated to Chennai four years ago to do this. “Most of my family and friends were startled when I told them I was moving to Chennai to start a restaurant. It is perceived to be a place where people are reluctant to eating out and trying new things, unlike Delhi or Mumbai,” she says. A lot of people suggested that she look at Bengaluru instead. “But I grew up here and I had a hunch that the city is ready for something like this,” she says.
After relocating, she spent two years preparing the ground for the restaurant and started Una Mas last December with two silent partners. It wasn’t all smooth sailing. “Coming from the US, you end up assuming that the work ethic and the ease of doing business will be the same. It isn’t,” she rues.
“Not only is service delivery and quality poor, but I feel people don’t take women seriously enough in the restaurant business,” she says. “If there’s a man sitting beside me, they prefer to talk to him. Initially, my own vendors did that to me,” she adds.

Roadblocks

The cuisine relies heavily on imported ingredients, such as specialised cheeses and spices that are unavailable here, she says. And importing is difficult, restrictions are plenty and it’s incredibly expensive, she adds. “For instance, the wholesale price of Monterey-Jack cheese in the US is $1.50 for a pound; here it’s $14!” she adds. “And since we are trying to make food reasonably priced, it’s difficult to make a decent profit,” she says. Everything is priced between Rs 59 and Rs 249. Another challenge, she says, is high attrition rates. However, training wasn’t an issue because it’s not an intense cooking process. “The recipes aren’t very complicated,” she adds. Apart from this, taking the franchise route was a beneficial call. “It provided the needed initial support with respect to conceptualising recipes and with running the place,” she adds. “It really helped a newbie like me.”

Expansion plans

She says it’s seeing a month-on-month increase in sales and they will break-even in a couple of months. She plans to open one more store in Chennai and the next two years will see her expanding. “We are looking at 10 outlets across India, as the franchisee contract dictates that,” she adds.

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