In Conversation with Kabir Jeet Singh
How did you get interested in building a brand for customised burgers that were Indian in thought and concept? What was the opportunity that you saw in the category?
While in university in Birmingham, UK, I did a part-time job at a burger shop. It was there that I started playing around with ingredients and recipes. Just as an experiment, I started ‘Indianising’ the burgers, which, surprisingly, became fairly popular with customers. Among friends, I began to be referred to as ‘Burger Singh’. Later, I began my commodity trading job in the UK but kept coming home to India for holidays. It was during one of those times that I noticed how the pizza market was taking off in India in a big way. Surprisingly, the category of burgers, while being present in India, wasn’t growing at a phenomenal rate. A burger is a franchisable product – 60 percent of all the sandwiches sold around the world are, in fact, burgers.
In the West, a sandwich or a burger is something that you pick up while on the go for meals. In India, however, mealtime is a family affair, an event where everyone gathers together. While pizzas offered a similar experience to Indians, in the case of burgers, it wasn’t so. It was, quite possibly, the reason why the growth rate was slow. I also noticed how Domino’s became a market leader in the pizza category in India a—it ‘Indianised’ what was till then a ‘foreign’ product even as people were skeptical about it. I observed the success of Domino’s, confident that the same model needed to be applied to burgers for it to become a successful category in the market. That’s when I quit my job and decided to start Burger Singh.
I saw two clear opportunities – one, there were burgers in the Indian market but nobody was customising the product category to the Indian palette; two, the segment had the potential to grow rapidly. When we got into the market, the burger market was 2 percent of the organised sector. Today, it’s growing at 24 percent.
What sort of research was undertaken before launching the product?
We did 12 months of product research to get our burgers to suit the Indian flavor. This was essential since we were in the business of serving customers a quality product – patties needed to be made to perfection, the spice blend had to be flavourful, the sauces required the perfect flavor, the vegetables, meats, and other ingredients had to be hygienic. We started researching in 2013, we also began product trials, and it was in 2014 we rolled out by opening select outlets in Gurgaon, including one specifically for the night delivery market. This was another opportunity area for us to reach out to our target customer. The midnight food delivery segment was unorganised when we rolled out our brand. Burger Singh burgers allowed customers to experience a product that was consistent on quality. We ensured that our burgers reached our customers quickly while taking care that our quality was not compromised on. We scaled rapidly – from one outlet in November 2014 to four outlets by July 2015.
Burger Singh has been able to successfully innovate a product, which till recently, wasn’t known for its customization? How do you keep reinventing the menu?
At Burger Singh, we strongly believe in constantly experimenting and bringing new products to our valued customers. We want to offer products that are Indian – our challenge is always to customise what people think of as a ‘foreign product’ to the Indian palette. Innovation is an ongoing process and ties in with very close monitoring of what our customers prefer. Every quarter, we remove the lowest performing products at our outlets. Additionally, we introduce new products every quarter. This exercise ensures that our innovation never stops. We go through our sales data meticulously to study what works and what doesn’t.
The success of Burger Singh in such a short span of time is a pointer towards what the consumer desires…
Absolutely. While Indians have always enjoyed their street food, a massive shift is that hygiene is playing a critical role in food consumption now. Interestingly, a lot of products in the ‘quick service’ category are getting organised and that’s why customers are happy to eat food that’s from brands. The customer wants quality and good taste. It’s a reason why people are moving away from street food and getting increasingly inclined towards eating at branded outlets. While the focus is always on quick delivery of our product, we don’t compromise on the process to create our burgers. Each of our product takes eight minutes to cook because we want it to be fresh. It’s not merely assembling the patty with sauces… It’s far more complex in terms of quality product getting provided.
India is a diverse market, especially when viewed from your product offering point of you. How, then, do you innovate and expand?
Yes, India is a fragmented market from our product offering point of view. The market is a huge mix, in terms of culture, religion, backgrounds, customs, food. Our strategy, then, is to customise some part of the menu to whichever territory we go to. We understand that we cannot compete with local cuisine. So, in Pune, for instance, we offer Punjabi samosa burger… It’s in the Delhi territory that we offer a unique vada pao burger, which, if served in Pune, will invite immediate comparison with the staple Maharashtrian street food product. In the UK, where we have two outlets, we have brought down the spice levels of most of the burgers. The menu there is very different, representing flavours from various Indian states – we offer Malabar burger, laal maas burger, even gosht chilli Assamese burger. Eventually, we want the brand to succeed across all the markets that we are present in.
How has Burger Singh perfected its sourcing strategy?
In terms of vegetarian products, even chicken, the market is fairly mature with its supply pipeline, general knowhow, and technology to produce consistently hygienic products. The challenge arises when you want to go beyond these categories. I must say that the Indian spice-makers are already far ahead of the curve compared to the western counterpart. I genuinely feel that in India we can source the best products provided we are willing to pay. At Burger Singh, we are clear that we want our brand to be associated with consistent quality and hygiene, so we don’t hesitate to pay the right price for it.
Our strategy is simple – we don’t compromise on our ingredients. However, instead of looking at ‘dining’ as our core strategy for our product offering to reach customers, we focus on ‘delivery’ and ‘takeaway’. We have been able to survive with low pricing and low margins because our store size is very small. Our real estate cost, unlike other players in the segment, is low.
How do you build brand loyalty?
The simple answer is that if your product is good, it is repeated numerous times. It’s the quality of your offering that determines whether the customer sticks to the brand or leave it. Our brand loyalty strategy starts with the product that we are making. At Burger Singh, we are not in the service sector, we are not even in the food &beverage sector… we are in the product sector where the aim is to deliver the best quality product to my customers. Over time, it will ensure newer set of customers apart from the existing customer base.
On the question of how brands achieve loyalty, in our case, we have several audit functions at every stage, from the sourcing of the ingredients to the standards maintained inside the kitchens, and how the product is delivered to customers. In fact, it is mandatory at Burger Singh to keep one product from each batch separately to ensure that if something goes wrong, we can trace it to samples. We maintain very strict policy in terms of quality testing and product delivery to the end customer.
By the end of 2018, how is Burger Singh expected to grow? What is the journey of an entrepreneur like?
Our same store growth has been 37 percent. We have doubled our number since then. While the company’s annual run rate is close to Rs20 crore, we expect to be at 42 crore by the end of 2018. In terms of challenges of an entrepreneur, I can tell you it’s a fairly lonely journey, it’s very stressful. It’s the passion, however, that keeps me going. The payoff, I must say, is worth the effort. Through Burger Singh, I want to make burgers for each and every Indian. With that in mind, I keep going.