Vikram Vij is the best-known purveyor of Indian food in Canada, with a growing list of restaurants, cookbooks and prepared food lines to his name. Now with an even brighter spotlight on him as the latest "dragon" on CBC's Dragons' Den, Vij hopes to export his unique brand of cuisine to the world
Devour Kelowna Food Festival March 2014: Vikram Vij is surrounded by a group of adoring fans. One enthusiastically pumps his hand before blurting out, “You won’t remember me, but...” then beams as Vij cuts him off, “Of course I do, you had...” reeling off exactly what the now starry-eyed diner had eaten a year or so back at Vij’s world-famous restaurant on West 11th Ave. in Vancouver.
It’s a skill he learned as a bored teenager, forced after school to watch his father at work in his Indian fabric semi-wholesaler in Mumbai (still “my Bombay” to Vikram). “At the time I hated it,” Vij confides. “I couldn’t believe that I had to just sit there. I look back now and it was the funniest thing: I’d watch him wheeling and dealing and he always remembered past customers. He taught me that to remember someone is one of the most important things you can do.”
As Vij poses for photos, roaring with laughter here, pressing his hands together and bowing his head in a respectful namaste there, it’s clear that the new star of CBC’s ninth season of Dragons’ Den (launching this month) gleefully embraces his newly found TV fame, which fits him as comfortably as his trademark long kurta shirts.
Watching Vij effortlessly love-bomb a room of foodies, you have to wonder what big-screen success would have been in the stars if his business-savvy father had allowed the young Vikram to follow his dream of becoming a Bollywood actor instead of sending him to Mumbai’s prestigious Elphinstone College to study chemistry. But after an unpromising start (“I wasn’t smart enough to be a scientist”), Vij decided to follow in the footsteps of “an uncle of an uncle” and go into the restaurant industry instead: “I’d explore those artistic feelings and be a stage actor with food, not lines.”
When Vij opened his first restaurant in Vancouver, a 16-seat hole-in-the-wall on Broadway between Granville and Hemlock, legend has it that he needed $100 a day to break even, often ringing in an order of naan bread himself to make up the difference. Nowadays that break-even figure is $20,000 a day. The Vij empire is a hungry beast that needs constant feeding and currently includes Vij’s on West 11th and the more casual Rangoli restaurant next door, award-winning food truck Vij’s Railway Express in Vancouver, part interest in a market stall in Victoria called Vij’s Sutra and Shanik Restaurant in Seattle (owned and run by Vij’s wife and business partner, Meeru Dhalwala).
Then there are the new kids on the block: My Shanti in South Surrey, an 88-seater (with a 30-seat patio) that opened this May and cost $2.7 million to build; and the latest addition to the family, a new Vij’s location on Cambie Street that’s set to open in December (when the “old” Vij’s will become Mian Bawarchi, the concept for which the restaurateur is keeping under wraps: “I want it to be a big surprise”). Finally, there are the cookbooks and the $7-million, 2,600-square-metre production plant that produces 15 different SKUs in the Vij’s At Home prepared-food range (seven vegetarian and eight meat), which currently sell in more than 400 stores across Canada. Vij admits the plant is currently underutilized (with year-over-year growth less than half of what was originally projected), but he’s powering through the paperwork necessary to get Americans gobbling up Vij’s “Masala” and “Mother-in-law” curries by the end of the year.
Restaurateurs opening more restaurants is not news, but parlaying that restaurant success into a nationwide take-home food industry and a mainstream TV career is something else. It’s in that desire to expand beyond restaurants and into people’s homes—to show and tell about Indian food—that you discover the key to Vikram Vij’s drive for success. He is a man on a mission to convert us all, one lamb popsicle at a time, to the many and varied tastes of Indian cuisine.
“He’s done something remarkable,” says ex-Vancouver magazine food editor Jamie Maw. “He’s made Indian cuisine accessible; he’s pulled the curtain back and revealed it in a way that goes light years past butter chicken. He supports his brand with cookbooks, his narrative of coming here, the aunties in the kitchen, and he said, ‘There are no secrets here; you can make my lamb popsicles at home’—which, of course, everybody does and takes credit for.”
A few days before My Shanti opens in Surrey’s upscale Morgan Crossing neighbourhood, with craftsmen adding finishing touches and his all-women crew continuing to familiarize themselves with the kitchen, an impressively un-flurried Vij gives me the tour and pours chai before settling down to talk. “I want to be the Nike of the food industry,” he declares, his expressive hands dancing in the air. “I want to bring my Indian food to India, the USA, China. I want to have a business beyond me. People die but names stand; it’s not about ‘Vikram Vij’ as an ego or an individual—it’s the legacy of ‘Vij’s.’ With the packaged food, it’s as though I went into their kitchens and said, ‘I will help you make a delicious Indian meal.’ You still have to make the rice and naan, but someone in Winnipeg can now enjoy the greatness of Indian cuisine any night of the week.”
Fighting to push beyond the ubiquitous butter chicken is part of Vij’s raison d’être. He arrived in Canada in 1989 with a one-way ticket and a six-month work visa after a chance meeting with Ivor Petrak, the general manager of the Banff Springs Hotel, in Vienna, where the young Vij was working as a chef after training in Salzburg. “Canada was the only place I wanted to come,” says Vij. “It was a young country and I felt as a young immigrant I’d be respected. Ivor told me, ‘Guys like you should come to this country because you’ll be successful.’”
Yet Banff in the late ’80s didn’t impress Vij, who’d grown used to the dainty European ways of cigar clubs and delicate fussed-over French cuisine. “It was all prime rib,” he remembers. “Huge portions and everything eaten so quickly! For six months I just did my thing and I didn’t want to be there, but then I looked around and realized I couldn’t own property in Europe. It was so expensive, but at least here in Canada I could own something. I’d figure it out.”
After the death of Petrak in 1992, Vij went west to Vancouver and took a front-of-house job with one of the city’s most respected restaurateurs, John Bishop. “I honestly had no sense of his hidden qualities at all,” says Bishop, laughing. “I hired him because he had a European hotel school background and a good grounding in service and wine knowledge. He joined us as a food expediter, which is a very detailed job in fine dining, checking every last detail to make sure it’s perfect. He was a very hard worker and people liked him a lot, but he had this burning desire to have his own business.” Two years later, undeterred by Bishop’s advice to not risk it and after being turned down by a potential investor who thought the idea of a modern Indian restaurant was “stupid,” he left to launch Vij’s with a $20,000 loan from his father and $10,000 of his own money.
Bishop says, “You need vision and the guts to take the risk and do this,” and it’s that vision—and Vij’s legendary charm—that caught the attention of Dragons’ Den executive producer Tracie Tighe, who asked Vij to try out for the show after working with him on a Dragons’ Den spin-off show, The Big Decision, in the spring of 2013. “I think some people will be surprised when they watch the show,” says Tighe. “Some of the dragons are straight-up dollars-and-cents guys, but Vikram’s business style is more personality-driven. He goes on instinct and hunch. Some of the other dragons don’t think about what appeals to them. It’s just all about what makes a good business deal, but Vikram goes with his heart.”
But is it possible for a business with annual revenues of almost $6 million to be all instinct? Jamie Maw doesn’t think so, recalling one afternoon at Vij’s where he saw the proprietor meet the produce van and carefully inspect every single item personally. “To be a successful restaurateur, you have to be a sound business person,” he says. “You’re moving perishable items and dealing with fickle customers six nights a week.
“Vikram has a huge heart, but he’s a canny guy and that is the reason for his success,” continues Maw. “Well, that and his ability to make people feel comfortable, like they’ve had a special evening—and, of course, those remarkable eyes you generally only see on black velvet oil paintings!”
Still, Vij himself would be the first to admit that any bank looking over his business model would not call him a financial success. “They would say, ‘No, you are wrong,’” he says. “‘There are too many giveaways, you need to tone it down.’” Declaring that the only thing that’s flashy about him is his beloved jewelry (all silver pendants, beaded bracelets and ornate jewelled rings), Vij chooses to drive a 2004 Prius (“My car is a disaster, I live out of it—it’s full of clothes, flowers, coffee cups and cardamom”) and lives “humbly and simply” in a home near 14th and Cambie (around the corner from the new restaurant), with any splurging going on trips with family and friends. “Am I the most profitable business? No,” he says. “Most efficient? No. I have extra fat—not only on my body but my organization. But I’m OK with it because at the end of the day I’m really happy. It’s an extremely personal model and it’s an expression of who I am.”
For a man on a mission like Vij, Dragons’ Den doesn’t just give a platform to further spread the gospel according to Vij; it also gives the opportunity to spread his brand of business smarts. “It’s never big money that makes an entrepreneur,” he declares. “They start with small money and take that to create a company. I think Dragons’ Den is a perfect fit for me because these people coming to pitch are looking for seed money—they just want to get something going. I want to help someone like I was helped.”
This has been a pivotal year for the Vij brand. Dragons’ Den catapults Vij away from specialty cable channel Food TV into a primetime nationwide show with an average audience of some 2.46 million viewers watching live and online each week. There was an enRoute magazine award in October 2013 for Vij’s Railway Express—the first time a food truck’s been given the honour—which squarely places the brand in “best new restaurant,” not “best new Indian restaurant” territory. And this September marks the 20th anniversary of the original Vij’s restaurant (18 years in its current West 11th location). All that plus a personal milestone for Vij, his 50th birthday in December, and the start of a new five-year plan.
“I’ve achieved my personal goal—to have five businesses under my belt, one for each decade, by the time I’m 50,” he says. “For the next five years I want to fine tune each of them—make them more efficient, more productive and more healthy in order to have a life of their own after I am gone. We want the packaged cuisine to go global; that’s one part of the business that hasn’t stood on its own yet, but it’s a bigger elephant and it needs more capital and time. Right now I don’t need any capital investment, but if I need a large amount, I’ll talk to the bank. If I’d lived extravagantly, had boats and fast cars, I couldn’t have done this; at the end of the day it’s my money, it’s not borrowed.”
Despite being quoted in a recent Globe and Mail interview as saying, “Don’t run after money or fame,” both have somehow caught up with Vikram Vij. It may have been by a circuitous route, but the Indian teenager who longed for fame and recognition as a Bollywood star now can’t walk down the street without people shaking his hand and asking for autographs. “I’ve never pursued money,” insists Vij. “I’ve always been a spendthrift because I loved taking that risk—the challenge of going back and having to make that little bit more. I don’t go to casinos, but I do gamble on myself—and I’m the only asset I believe in.”