Potbelly – Food for Thought

Jyoti Shekar

Litti Chokha is probably one of the few, if not the only, Bihari dish that we have heard of. Yet getting your hands on a delicious plate of the same needs some effort. You just not find it everywhere! I had a chance to taste an authentic one a few years back on a trip to Jamshedpur and it has been on my favourite list ever since.

Imagine my surprise when I heard of Potbelly, a restaurant run by Puja Sahu serving authentic Bihari cuisine!

Located in Shahpur Jat and Chanakyapuri areas of Delhi and Indiranagar in Bengaluru, it has the fine distinction of being the first exclusively Bihari restaurant in India. In fact, it is hard to find Bihari food even in Bihar. You will spot restaurants and nondescript dhabas serving anything from tandoori chicken, butter chicken to masala dosa and Indian Chinese, anything but the local food. Despite having depth, the cuisine has never been glorified until Potbelly surfaced. In fact Potbelly is the only independent restaurant in a state house – Bihar Niwas and is the two-times winner of the Times Food Award for the ‘Best Regional Bihari Cuisine’.

Always in a quest to find women achievers, we love talking to women from various industries; especially ones who are solely driven by passion, rather than formal education in their field of work. We spoke to Puja about the restaurant, her motivation to start the restaurant and the challenges she faced in doing so. A fashion designer by profession, Puja became a restaurateur without any formal training in the field.

Jyoti: Hi Puja, it is amazing to see you doing so well, especially in a career you chose a little later in life. How did you come up with the idea of setting up a restaurant, a whole different world from your designing career? 

Puja: Thank you so much! Potbelly happened serendipitously. There was no plan of opening a Bihari restaurant. In fact, it happened out of sheer boredom when I was losing passion for my work. I decided to open a small café, just with good coffee and desserts. I came across a rundown terrace on the top of the building where I had my boutique store. I loved the view from there and decided ‘this is it’. But since it was four floors up, I realised no one would come for regular ‘run of the mill’ food. Then a friend suggested that I should serve what my mom cooks. Which meant Bihari food. Initially, I was a bit apprehensive to call it a Bihari restaurant because of all the stereotypes attached to Bihar. But eventually that became our USP since it was the only Bihari restaurant in the country.

That’s how I started the restaurant, without a plan! With meagre savings and no prior experience of setting up or running a restaurant, it was a leap of faith for me. Even now, after almost a decade, every day I learn something new about the cuisine. 

Jyoti: Do you think it is more difficult to venture into a space hitherto unexplored? And does being a woman make it more difficult? 

Puja: Owning a restaurant sounds fancy from the outside but it is an extremely fragile venture. You’re always walking on eggshells. Being a woman and doing business in our country is hard enough especially when you have to deal with male employees / staff. You have to constantly prove yourself. And they make you feel like you’re not worthy of being their boss. But I am past that. I am an awfully tough boss and now they all respect me, mostly out of fear. It was also difficult for me as I had had no prior experience of running a restaurant. I learnt everything on the job. I learnt a lot from my own mistakes.

Jyoti: What kind of challenges have you faced while setting up the business? 

Puja: There were so many challenges. One big challenge was that I was on a very tight budget, and the other limitation was I didn’t know anything about setting up a restaurant. I did everything myself, from designing the space, to hiring a local contractor and getting the place ready, to designing the menu. My mom was my pillar of strength through it all. She trained all the cooks and the kitchen staff with a lot of diligence. Nearly all my staff was untrained; we had brought them from villages. Hence, training them was a Herculean task. Another challenge was that this cuisine was unheard of, so we didn’t have customers for days on end. And marketing the cuisine from a culture which has so many preconceived notions attached to it made it all the more difficult.

Jyoti: Many women entrepreneurs, even sales professionals, talk about networking challenges they face, especially if they don’t nurse that occasional drink or stay for late dinners because of household obligations. How important do you think networking is? 

Puja: I am not great at networking. That may be a downside, I am not sure. I have never stepped out to network over drinks or parties. I simply can’t because I have a little one I need to come home to. And it’s also not my thing. But I do serve my customers well and make sure they have a great dining experience, which has worked as an effective marketing tool as they would then spread the word and recommend dining at Potbelly to many more people. It’s important to focus on the product. Keep setting higher benchmarks. And let things happen organically. We are active on social media and have been investing our time and money on creative events. Not being able to network shouldn’t become a limitation.

Jyoti: Do you have any advice for the new entrepreneurs out there?

Puja: It goes without saying that an entrepreneur should not be averse to taking risks and exploit one’s strengths head on. I believe we should keep reinventing ourselves and this should reflect in our work. Use your creativity and ingenuity to stay on top of your game.

*All images used in this article are either Eyra’s own design or widely and freely available on the internet.*

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