A common path to success for many a businessman is to find a niche market and establish himself as a dominant player in it. Considering that a large enterprise with wide-ranging business interests might not always meet the needs for particular products and services of every segment of the population, businesses with niche offerings have the potential to make big profits if they satisfy these unmet requirements. There is another advantage of carving a niche, which Aayush Agrawal sums up thus: “When a business focuses on creating a niche for itself, its competition will automatically become obsolete.”
Creating a category in the market
At 29, Agrawal leads Lenexis FoodWorks, a company which set out to be different. In this pursuit, it found its position in the marketplace by launching a unique venture called ‘Wok Express’, in Mumbai, in 2015. Agrawal says, “I believe that India has a hugely untapped, latent scope for becoming a world-class food destination. Indianised foreign cuisine is a huge hit across the globe, but Indians have only seen the classier gourmet establishments with limited patronage. As a niche category in itself, Wok Express caters to the masses by serving pan-Asian gourmet food in the quick service restaurant (QSR) format.” While pan-Asian cuisine was not new to India, the QSR format was, but Wok Express, in Agrawal’s words, “continues to enjoy a first-mover advantage because there is no other brand working in this space”.
The taste in a wok
Perhaps what makes Wok Express so popular among patrons is its iconic ‘Make Your Own Wok’ concept. For those who may be unfamiliar with the format, it basically involves customising the dish you want to eat by picking a base of steamed rice or noodles, the protein or vegetables of your choice, and condiments and a sauce, the offerings ranging from traditional ‘Green Thai Curry’ to more adventurous ones such as ‘Hot Crispy Garlic’ or ‘Bangkok’. Agrawal says, “Each combination is uniquely crafted to suit the Indian palate, so that customers always have something new to try at Wok Express.” Even though the woks here are what the noise is all about, Wok Express offers other delicious dishes too, including soups, appetisers, bao (steamed buns) with various fillings, dumplings and desserts.
The concept that inspired it all
Wok Express was inspired by a famous fast-casual stir-fry restaurant chain outlet in New York, which had the concept of having customers make their own Asian recipes and the chefs cooking it their way with the freshest of ingredients. Agrawal states, “We were struck by the simplicity of this concept and the sheer depth of its scope in India.” Even though India was entirely unaccustomed to such a concept and market realities did not look conducive initially, the team at Lenexis FoodWorks decided to take a gamble and replicate the model in the country—by offering pan-Asian gourmet food in the QSR format. Reflecting on those initial days and the success that followed, Agrawal says, “We did our research, understood the ground realities, and brought in experts to help with the conceptualisation, products, marketing and operations. Today, the growing number of Wok Express outlets is testimony to our hard work and success.”
Setting up the first outlet
The first Wok Express outlet opened its doors to the public at Pali Naka, in Bandra, Mumbai, in May Speaking about how training the staff was of paramount importance in the days leading up to the launch, Agrawal says, “Considering the fact that Wok Express was a brand new concept, finding the right mix of chefs, the support team and suppliers was a huge challenge for us.” Nevertheless, Agrawal and his team accepted wholeheartedly what would turn out to be their biggest assignment yet and set out to train every individual that they had employed to ensure a world-class experience for customers. And they were immensely successful at it, going by the good reviews that started pouring in post the official unveiling. It was their first big victory! “We soon expanded to other parts of Mumbai: Wok Express outlets were opened at Churchgate and Bandra Kurla Complex (BKC) within a year,” Agrawal says with pride.
The trials along the way
In the years since Lenexis FoodWorks has been established, the team has grown to 460 employees. Agrawal says, “As we continue to grow, we have brought on board dynamic young and experienced people that have never backed away from a challenge.” However, hiring the right people for the organisation in the first place was a challenging task, as was managing the talent. Nevertheless, it was a challenge that the company dealt with successfully, for they brought in specialists who were experts in their respective fields such as human resources, marketing, finance, supply chain, new product development and operations. Speaking about the other major trial that the company faced, Agrawal says, “India is a country where there is a distinct flavour in every nook and cranny. Educating the masses about the idea behind a ‘wok’, and bringing pan-Asian gourmet food to them in an affordable, QSR format was a huge challenge for us.” Rather than be deterred by this, Agrawal and his team took it in their stride and set about to overcome it—a process which has been slow but steady.
A businessman at heart
Aayush Agrawal is a scion of the illustrious Agrawal family that owns Ajanta Pharma Limited, a multinational speciality pharmaceutical formulation business. He graduated from the prestigious Bentley University in Massachusetts with a Bachelor of Science in Management, and then went on to pursue a Master of Science in Strategic Marketing at Imperial College London. Being part of a business family, he had spent most of his life among generations of entrepreneurs. He says, “My education gave me a great platform to learn new things. That said, I have also grown up in and around one of India’s biggest business families, so I think it is safe to say that business management is what I know best.” Before the inception of Lenexis FoodWorks, he had also spent some time learning the ropes of the family business and trying his hand at another F&B (food and beverage) venture. Agrawal’s growing abilities as an entrepreneur shows in Wok Express having extended its presence with 24 outlets across the city, in a mere span of three years.
The lessons learnt
For Agrawal, challenges present opportunities for greater success, better ideas and quicker solutions. Apart from creating a niche in business and hiring the right team for success, a big lesson that he has picked up along the way has been to stop and ask for advice if stuck. He says, “There is no harm if you are unsure of how to go ahead with something and someone in your family, team, or one of your friends has an answer to your troubles.” So who does he look to for guidance when it comes to business? “My mentor and advisor is my cousin Yogesh Agrawal [the managing director of Ajanta Pharma Limited]. His articulation and business acumen is something I really admire,” he replies.
The focus in the future
Wok Express has been a great learning process for Agrawal when it comes to building and managing a business. When asked about whether he has any advice for aspiring entrepreneurs in the F&B industry, he says, “While I am still in the growth phase of my entrepreneurial journey, I believe what has worked
for me till date should work for other aspiring entrepreneurs too.” And what is that? “One must always look at long-term goals for ones business. This is because short-term gains are temporary, while long-term gains keep on giving,” he says. For Agrawal, the end goal is simple: to create a distinct presence across India by expanding into several more cities. To this end, for 2018 in particular, the plan is to enter Pune and New Delhi. We wish him good luck!