Friday, 7 May 2021
Big interview: Atul Lakhani, CEO of Sanjay Foods
It’s no secret that 2020 – and the beginning of this year – have been incredibly tough on the hospitality, leisure and event industries. Leicester-based catering business Sanjay Foods is no exception, losing 90% of its usual revenue as live events have been off limits, but founder and CEO Atul Lakhani has been savvy enough to diversify his offering with a new takeaway service and virtual cooking lessons to survive. He explains to Dan Robinson how he’s never worked harder than over the past year – and what the future holds.
Atul Lakhani outside the IXL Events Centre
“You’re only as good as your last event” has been a favourite tagline for Atul Lakhani throughout his entrepreneurial life.
It’s carried him far as his catering business Sanjay Foods became a powerhouse in the Midlands events industry and landed him an exclusive contract at a polo club.
But over the past 14 months, as live events closed down and he was forced to look at alternative income streams including a takeaway service and virtual cooking lessons, there’s been a subtle variation on his mantra.
“The pandemic has taught us we can’t take anything for granted in life,” says Atul. “But it hasn’t changed our outlook, and we’ve stayed true to our values.
“From the onset of starting our takeaway service in Leicester, I said to the team that the ethos must be exactly the same as it’s always been when we’ve served lots of people at big events.
“In the events game, you can do 50 amazing events and one bad one, which is unfortunately the one that’s remembered.
“The only difference during the pandemic has been that we’re only as good as our last takeaway.
“And that’s so important because one poor takeaway will reflect upon our brand that we’ve given our lives to building.”
How Atul Lakhani set up and grew Sanjay Foods
Atul has his family to thank for his resilience, in particular his Indian-born father Bhagwanji, who had to start from scratch when he brought his young family – including a five-year-old Atul, his mother and four older sisters (his younger brother arrived three months later) – to Leicester from Uganda in the 1970s.
Although Bhagwanji lost all his money in a number of businesses, he set up the renowned pure vegetarian restaurant Bobby’s in 1976, introducing Atul to the hospitality business.
“I’m young enough to harbour my own entrepreneurial instincts but I’m old enough to remember the commitment the first generation of immigrants made – the sacrifice and perseverance,” says the married father-of-four.
Sanjay Foods has built a reputation for catering at Indian weddings
After studying economics and politics at the University of Greenwich, he set up Sanjay Foods in 2001.
It has evolved beyond merely a catering business into an event management company, helping clients to plan, design and deliver weddings, corporate parties and charity events. The food offer has expanded too from primarily Indian dishes to now include Lebanese, Arabic, Indo-Chinese, Thai and English cuisine.
The company has the catering rights at more than 180 venues spanning the breadth of the UK and has built a particular reputation for working at luxury Indian weddings.
Arguably its biggest moment arrived in 2014. Having already been one of seven caterers at the IXL Events Centre, a multi-million-pound conference and wedding venue set in a 600-acre estate at the Dallas Burston Polo Club in rural Warwickshire, Sanjay Foods was appointed the exclusive caterer.
Five years later, Atul’s company took another step forward and acquired the conference centre, which is a popular location for weddings, car launches and other big events such as at Christmas.
“Dallas Burston Polo Club is a prestigious, quintessentially English setting in the countryside just outside Royal Leamington Spa, so it was a real feather in our cap,” says Atul.
“To go from being one of seven caterers to win the exclusive rights – and then go on to take it over – wasn’t something we’d ever expected and it still blows me away, to be honest.
“I look back and remember how we couldn’t even charge what we were worth in the early days, but it was such a competitive market and we had to sustain our business.
“It’s often said that if you keep knocking on the door for long enough, something will open – and I think the commitment we’ve shown to ‘chefmanship’, organising fantastic events and the never-say-die attitude led us ultimately to the polo club.”
The club, which has plans for luxury lodges, yurts and a hotel, is owned by Dr Dallas Burston, a retired GP and pharma entrepreneur with an estimated wealth of £120m in 2018.
Atul adds: “He travels all around the world, owns properties in numerous countries and is used to the finest things money can buy.
“And yet he’ll tell all and sundry that he has the best caterers in the world at his polo club in the Midlands.”
Acquisition of IXL Events Centre came just before lockdown - forcing a diversification into new businesses
The paperwork confirming the purchase of IXL Events Centre landed on Atul’s desk in February 2020.
Within a month, it shut down amid lockdown and a year that begun with such promise ended as a damp squib, as it did for so many in the hospitality and events industries.
“The rug was swept from under our feet,” recalls Atul, who spent the first couple of months reflecting before turning his attention to finding ways of pivoting the business.
In June last year, he launched the Sanjay’s Express home dining and takeaway service from the company’s kitchen at Belgrave Industrial Centre, just off Leicester’s Golden Mile strip.
Having used the base as a launchpad for serving event guests from Newcastle to Devon, and then focusing efforts on the polo club in the West Midlands, it offered an opportunity for Sanjay Foods to re-engage with its Leicester roots.
There may have been opportunities for serving customers from further afield but geography was restricted due to the city’s local lockdown.
Atul says: “There was a time when people said you could only get Sanjay Foods at a great event or wedding, but now people were getting their food delivered to their door.
“We have state-of-the-art kitchens at our unit in Leicester so it made sure they didn’t go to waste, and the reaction was great.”
The next idea arrived shortly after the takeaway take-off as Sanjay Foods embraced the Zoom revolution with virtual live cooking experiences.
It evolved from a previous service it had provided to several law firms, in which spice kits were sent to the companies and, after adding fresh meat and vegetables, Sanjay chefs taught them how to cook an Indian dish.
The concept throughout lockdown has been similar but executed online. It has the potential to become a fixture of the business and, alongside the takeaway, helped to land the company the Excellence in Customer Service award at East Midlands Chamber’s Leicestershire Business Awards last year.
“I wanted that Jamie Oliver or Nigella Lawson experience with a proper kitchen environment, rather than a commercial setting,” explains Atul. “To the layman, it feels like something that can be replicated at home.”
While the furlough scheme has helped Sanjay Foods to get by and there was a drop in permanent headcount from 25 to 14, these services also sustained employment for many of the remaining team.
Atul recites a quote from Askhari Johnson Hodari, an American black history academic who said, “if everyone helps to hold up the sky, then one person does not become tired”.
He adds: “The virtual cooking experiences and the takeaway have been a great way to keep going throughout the pandemic.
“I’ve probably done more work in this past year than the previous four, but I’ve really needed my core team to help me to hold up the sky.”
Hospitality set to change drastically
The takeaway service is being phased out as the Government’s roadmap out of lockdown offers hope of bringing large-scale events back from 21 June.
In reality, Atul predicts it’ll be 2022 until the shoots of recovery are truly evident – with a “boom period” expected due to the large savings many workers have accumulated over lockdown and the jobs market being propped up by the furlough scheme.
But he predicts the future for hospitality and events could look a lot different to the one that preceded the pandemic.
“The market will change substantially,” he says. “Clients will become a lot more risk-averse and no-one will take anything for granted.
“I can see weddings downsizing and the lead time being shorter than the usual 18 months because people want more certainty. The greatest challenge to business is uncertainty.”
There are concerns over a post-Covid “brain drain” from the hospitality industry due to the job insecurity of the past year and a reluctance for people to return to weekend work.
Atul has also noticed lots of suppliers – particularly solo female-led services such as cake makers and wedding dress makers – have shut down, with traders swapping their business for full-time employment.
He adds: “The diehard hospitality people, where it runs through their veins, will come back.
“But certainly, it will be survival of the fittest – and we have no plans of giving up.”
‘You don’t hire smart people to teach them what to do’
Empowering his staff to uphold his high standards has been a crucial component of Sanjay Foods’ success, believes Atul.
While he is the sole director of the business, he encourages his core team – which works alongside agency staff at large events – to feel the same pride in their work as he does.
He recalls a conversation with Dr Dallas Burston, owner of the polo club that houses the IXL Events Centre now owned by Atul.
“Dr Dallas once said to me that quality, execution and standard was something he’d always advocated, which was very much in line with my ethos of what my business needs to be all about,” he says.
“It’s important to get the commitment of the core team and empowering our people to feel an ownership of the business.”
Atul, whose team includes several people who have been with the company for more than 15 years, tries to lead by example in showing the same commitment to running the business.
He adds: “We have a very transparent open-door policy and we run our management team as a democratic process. So there will be times when I’m overruled in decisions, which is a progression from when you start a business and think everything you do is right.
“I remember a while ago reading about how you don’t employ smart people to teach them what to do.
“But we also invest heavily in training to develop the understanding that we’re only as good as our last meal or event.”
'I want to find justice for our industry’
A “perfect storm” of Covid-19 restrictions and gaps in funding support means catering companies like Sanjay Foods have been among the hardest hit during the pandemic.
Atul, who until recently chaired the Large-Scale Weddings Working Group within the UK Weddings Taskforce to provide industry representation with Government, says: “Throughout this period, I’ve wanted to find justice for our industry.
“As a caterer, we were excluded from all grants because we weren’t deemed to be hospitality.
“We were caught in a perfect storm. Firstly, we were prohibited from trading so there was a blanket ban on large-scale weddings and events, and we didn’t benefit from the Eat Out to Help Out Scheme.
Atul Lakhani pictured at the front with his team
“Secondly, we didn’t receive a penny in business interruption payouts even though we were still spending so much money across the business, and we also had to make full refunds to clients – with the Competition and Markets Authority making no allowance for the time, money and effort that went into planning big events and food tastings.
“On top of that, despite proactively advising clients to take wedding insurance, the insurers that paid out to our clients made our lives hell on the basis of subrogation rights, which allowed them to pursue third parties such as ourselves.
“And even though some service providers we use, such as our telecoms provider, insisted on full payment, we’ve operated in a spirit of co-operation by behaving ethically with our own suppliers.”
The acquisition of IXL Events Centre on the dawn of the first lockdown has proven to be a costly exercise, with running costs totalling £50,000 per month despite remaining closed.
Local restrictions grants have been available, along with business rates relief and the Coronavirus Business Interruption Loan Scheme, but it’s only plugged a small gap in a large income hole – with revenue down 90% on pre-Covid levels.
“From a relatively strong business with no borrowing, it’s made us vulnerable because the supply chain is totally excluded from hospitality support,” says Atul.
“The longer this carries on, the worse it becomes. But we’re resilient people so we’ll get through this.”
This article appears in the May edition of Business Network magazine. Read the full issue online hereBack