Punjabi by nature: Myra’s Chetan Kapoor

People hailing from the North Indian state of Punjab are well known for their grit and enterprise. The impact of Punjabi music, Bhangra and cuisine, specifically chicken tikka, have taken over discos and restaurants across the world. Watching Chetan Kapoor, the Punjabi founder of restaurant chain Myra’s, in action is like witnessing all their industrious qualities, mixed with an easy wit and efficiency,  at work.

I landed at Myra’s Stadium outlet for my appointment, introduced myself to this tall man and asked to meet Chetan Kapoor. He sat me down and said that Chetan is traveling to KL and that the appointment was for next week. Irritated, I called my colleague who had fixed the appointment to scream at him for messing up my schedule. In the middle of the hollering I am interrupted with, “I am messing with you. Hi, I am Chetan Kapoor.”

Photo: Connected to India
Photo: Connected to India

Starting with one restaurant in 2008 in Singapore, Chetan now runs six outlets across Singapore and neigbouring Malaysia with 54 employees across all locations. I caught up with him over a cup of masala tea and a samosa as he prepared for the opening of outlet number six in KL on June 1.

“When we opened our first outlet in KL last year, one of the customers there was a corporate guy involved in the Gurdwara Cup. We hosted the Gurdwara Cup party at Myra’s in KL, so they got a taste of the food and services, and they liked it,” said Chetan.

Subsequently, Myra’s won the tender for Selangor Sports Club – and when the Gurdwara Cup’s organisers heard that Myra’s was the caterer, they shifted the entire event from Penang to KL for this year. “All the food and beverages for the event will be handled by us,” added Kapoor.

The new Myra's outlet in KL, Malaysia. Photo courtesy: Chetan Kapoor
The new Myra's outlet in KL, Malaysia. Photo courtesy: Chetan Kapoor

The 66th Gurdwara Cup and Sikh Festival of Sports 2017 will be held from June 7-10 in KL. The four sports covered by the festival are soccer, hockey, netball and badminton – all of which are represented by national teams from Singapore and the states in Malaysia.

CtoI: Could you share with us your journey? How did Myra's come about?

Chetan Kapoor: My first job was in Boston in 1988 – it was supposed to be a position as a hockey coach for American kids at a summer training camp. But when I reached there, I realised it was for ice hockey not field hockey. The other sport I played was cricket, but American kids don't play cricket. So I ended up teaching them volleyball, and the lessons were just once a week – these kids were diabetic kids, only seven to 13 years old and they were quite small, so not many of them took volleyball.

So for six days a week, I was an assistant to the chef at the kitchen. We had to cook food for 500 people every day – five times a day based on their insulin levels. This lasted four months and they were happy with my work. So in 1989, they called me back to Boston again.

I came back to India in 1990, the year the Sunday Observer newspaper was launched. I joined the newspaper as an advertising executive, getting ads for the newspaper and so on. While I was at the Observer, I was driving one of my colleagues home one day and I asked him where he was going. He told me that one of his friends works for this Japanese company in Hong Kong and the owners are in town to hold interviews. I was interested as well, so we both went for the interview and but only I got the job. I also said no to them until they took both of us.

It was an electronics trading company. The sourcing office was in Asia across Hong Kong, Taiwan, Korea and Japan. The selling offices were Panama, Spain, Austria, and a couple more European countries. We were sourcing electronics from Asia and shipping to these places. So the both of us were trained in Hong Kong and sent to Taiwan as assistant managers.

Photo: Connected to India
Photo: Connected to India

In 1994, when India opened up for imports, I decided to open an office in India, do the trading from there, and sell to these people who were buying from me. But this didn’t work out well, so in 1995 I left and went to the US.

CtoI: It wasn't commonplace for Indians to be travelling abroad at that time, was it? Since globalisation had not set in in its full glory.

CK: It was because I was involved in a religious group, and at that time there was a satsang going on. Our guru had decided to open a dera in Finland; so we went to Finland, and from there we went to New York.

In New York, my angmoh friends and I bought a car and drove down the entire east coast – all the beaches from New York till Miami and then back in 26 days. It was good fun, and then we sold the car back to the same person we bought it from. It was a Chevy; we bought it for 150 dollars, and sold it back for 100 dollars.

CtoI: What did you work as in New York?

CK: So I was there in 1995, and I found a job in a perfume shop on Broadway in NY, working 12-hour shifts. On weekends in the evening, I would work part-time in a restaurant on Wall Street. However, these two jobs weren’t able to get me a H-1 visa, so I found a job in an IT company. C and C++ languages were very common then, so they were getting professionals from Asia for positions in the World Trade Centre. Everything went on very smoothly for a while, and then 9/11 happened.

90 per cent of our clients were in the WTC, you see, so after 9/11 they gave us three months to find another job. But the economy was such that IT jobs were not there because of this. So in March 2001, I came back to India and started my own management and model-grooming institute, called Casablanca, to groom people for ramp modeling

CtoI: I heard that your first daughter was born in US. And how did you end up in US again returning to India?

Photo courtesy: Myra's
Photo courtesy: Myra's

CK: In May 2003, I got married, and my wife and I went on our honeymoon trip in August – we went from London, to Montreal, Toronto, and we reached New York. I remember the day as that very day they caught Saddam Hussein.

As luck would have it, my wife fell down in the friend’s basement we were living in. We took her to the nearby hospital where we found out that she was pregnant. Because of the fall and complications, we were advised by the doctors that we could not fly back, so we had to be in New York till the baby was born.

Life came a full circle then. I went back to the same perfume shop and started doing 12-hour shifts there again. When the winter started, I went to buy a winter jacket in a shop, and started talking to the owner. He was importing goods from China and distributing to US and Canada I had learned Mandarin when I was in Taiwan and Hong Kong, so I told him I could handle the goods. So that was how I restarted my entrepreneurship.

My first daughter Myra was born in America.

At that time, my wife was working as a graphic designer at the main distributor of the perfume shop I used to worked in. Over the years, they were buying goods from Asia, sending them to NY and then shipping to Australia and New Zealand – they were losing on time and freight. So they were going to open an office in Singapore but nobody in the office wanted to leave New York. But when my wife mentioned it to me casually I said yes, we will go to Singapore. So the next day we met the boss, agreed to the terms and opened the company here in my name.

CtoI: How did you go from the perfume industry to F&B in Singapore?

CK: In 2007, we moved to Singapore, and the company gave us a condominium at Lavender Street near Little India. Together with the local person here who was handling the perfume business with us, we opened a shop there selling some perfumes and crystals for about two years.

The new Myra's outlet in KL, Malaysia. Photo courtesy: Chetan Kapoor
The new Myra's outlet in KL, Malaysia. Photo courtesy: Chetan Kapoor

I used to frequent this Indian restaurant located above my shop – one day, the manager of what is now our Beach Club outlet was giving an interview in the restaurant I was eating at. He mentioned that the outlet was available, so I went to take a look with the Indian restaurant owner. We decided to do a 50/50 joint venture, but he tried to take us for a ride, so my wife and I kicked him out and took over the restaurant.

The next day  we opened the restaurant at 11 am without any staff, no name or signboard, and started serving drinks. We decided to start a Mexican restaurant because there wasn’t one on the beach. The staff of the previous restaurant came back and were willing to learn with us.

Interestingly, our neighbour was a lady from Mexico, who used to own two restaurants there. She came and helped us that weekend to take orders and train the staff. The next day she took us to the Mexican ambassador, and through his help, we got a chef from Mexico to work for us for two years. That was how the Mexican restaurant started.

CtoI: Was all this planned?

CK: I didn’t have a life plan – I just played my life as it came. We gave up the green card at that time and filed all the company registrations here.

There were some tough decisions to be taken, for instance when the restaurant came upon us, we had recently bought a house here. So we decided to sell the house and put the money in the restaurant. The next decision was whether to give up the green card and take PR. We did just that.

Myra's outlet at Stadium. Photo courtesy: Myra's
Myra's outlet at Stadium. Photo courtesy: Myra's

CtoI: Doing business isn't easy, and F&B is especially competitive. So what do you think sets Myra’s apart from the others?

CK: F&B isn’t an easy business in a new country, especially when every aspect of it is new. But our Mexican-(North) Indian concept worked out well. Another thing is that my wife and I are both passionate about it so we are both thoroughly involved in every aspect. We didn't just leave it to the staff. We also got a lot of support from the club (Surfing club on ECP beach) and all the people there. They kept coming back and they would bring more people. So things worked out nicely. 

CtoI: Would you call Myra’s a success? How would you define this success?

CK: I would say it's very successful – we have 54 employees, so that's 54 families depending on us for livelihood. We have been running for 9-10 years now, and people have actually requested that we open a franchise in certain locations. For instance, we have people coming from Gold Coast, Australia, to take our franchise. We are currently in discussions, let’s see how it works. A couple of guys from India had approached us too.

CtoI: What would you say is the biggest contributor to your success, besides hard work? You look like a very chill and relaxed person. Is that just a front or is there a hyper side to you?

CK: Yeah it's not a front. My wife and I don’t worry too much – we just take it as it comes. From the start, we have everything with a hands on approach. We both know the cuisine and how to cook; we handled the HR and communications; we basically started off without any staff; I issued all the cheques myself. We are very much in control, and so far so good! People we had started with are still with us today.

CtoI: What's your vision for Myra's?

CK: We see ourselves expanding to the rest of Asia in the near future. Right now what we do when we expand, is we will train the guys here whoever been with us for 3-4 years and are trustworthy, and then we plant them in the international outlets. We used this same strategy for KL – so two of my guys who have been with us for six years now are handling each of the two outlets there.

CtoI: Have you considered expanding to Hong Kong or Taiwan, since you can speak Mandarin?

CK: Yes we are considering Hong Kong, but the rent there is really high. However, it is also a very good market for us, because there's a lack of Indian-Mexican restaurants there.