May 12, 2022
Big Chat: Rola Wala
From India to Leeds with love: in conversation with Rola Wala
Rola Wala has been a staple of Leeds’ Trinity Kitchen since 2014 with its twisted Indian street food concept proving incredibly popular with the people of Leeds. We sat down with founder Mark Wright to find out more about the story behind Rola and what the future holds…
Let’s start with Rola Wala’s journey so far. Can you tell us a bit about what made you set up the company in the first place, what’s the concept and where you find your inspiration?
I was working in London at an ad agency, when myself and my partner at the time travelled to India for a 6 week break.
I was blown away by the assault of flavours served by street food vendors – an explosion of colour, aroma, texture, and spice. It lit my fire, I spent some time cooking while I was there while staying with local Indian families which set me on a mission, to bring this incredible experience back to the UK for everybody to enjoy.
When I arrived back in London, I set about learning in my home kitchen. I had no restaurant or cooking experience, but I wanted to recreate what I’d found in India…I lived above a street food market at the time and after the first week of effort trialling different recipes I had so much food, I just thought there must be a way to sell it, so thats what I did. On my first day I made £35 and I thought I’d struck the jackpot.
Weeks later, my first real market was Europe’s biggest Indian Food festival, Alchemy Fest in Southbank, London. I took 2000 portions that a friend who had a professional kitchen helped me prepare (along with a very patient partner!). I’d expected to sell half the food over two days. I ran out on the first day, I had more cash in my hands than a drug dealer, and I knew that I had an idea with legs.
You’ve recently launched a new look and a new menu, tell us a bit about this… What made now feel like the right time to change things up?
We’ve gone back to our roots and asked ourselves and our customers, what does Rola Wala mean to you? To a large extent it depends on who you ask but the one thing that comes up over and over again, is that people just want to get their flavour fix in. So we’ve refreshed our brand essence around just that, ‘The Flavour Fix’…The first stage of this was to undertake a light refresh and introduce some of our key new products – including a new range of freshly made chutneys which range from the no-chill pear & tamarind, through to the extra-Hot Scorpion chutney, and new options such as the Beetroot & coconut salad, as well as the all-new Epic bowl, which includes three fillings in every meal, it’s loaded with all of the flavours of Rola and is a huge fill of good calories.
Stage two will launch in June and see us launch some new sides such as a bhaji, and Rola fries, a new filling or two, as well as refresh our delivery menu to provide more and better options for lunch as well as dinner.
What are your values as a restaurant/takeaway – what are the core things you offer customers that others don’t right now?
I never set out to have a restaurant brand, I just loved the food we were making and I was looking for ways to share it. Since our early markets we’ve built our brand by focussing on core values common to any good restaurant – great food and service, but it’s our focus on fresh spice-fuelled flavour that sets us apart. Typically, food in the UK is considered savoury, or sweet, or in the case of Chinese sweet and sour. Real Indian food is great because it combines up to all five tastes in every bite – sweet, savoury, sour, bitter, umami.
Once you fall in love with the diversity of flavours resulting from the combination of spices, and ingredients it’s a never-ending journey…What we are seeking to do at Rola Wala is make these flavours fast, fresh, and good for you.
Tell us about the menu – what’s on there, what’s popular, and what are your personal favourites?
There are two schools of thought – you have the crowd pleasers like our Chicken Tikka or Keralan Chickpea, a nod to the cuisine in the region in the south of India, but then we also have the Nagaland Lamb and Beetroot Dal which are both cult dishes, incredibly popular, and you’ll only find them at Rola Wala.
I believe you should rate any Indian restaurant on the quality of its dal, so I’ll put that forward as my personal favourite. Its our original dish and I’ve never found another restaurant that serves anything close to it.
You recently spoke with The Caterer about some of the great, unique benefits of working for Rola Wala, do you feel that you have even more responsibilities as an employer coming out of the pandemic?
I think it’s becoming more and more obvious that the nature of our business has changed. For years, people have complained about working for ‘the man’, restaurants in particular often have such a divide between senior management and restaurant staff that it creates tension, as senior management want uniformity and control and the best restaurant staff want training, expression, autonomy, and growth… it’s very often a glass ceiling and hard for them to grow into a role outside of the restaurant as they have to wait for a role to come available, progression can take years.
Covid comes along and staff are rightly considering other options that involve less intensive, inflexible work hours, and greater progression…The challenge in adapting is that it’s not just a people problem, the restaurant business model is changing too – restaurants of the future are not going to be hiring unskilled staff on minimum wage, but well trained, motivated, ambitious people who are looking for an opportunity to grow a career that provides a degree of flexibility and autonomy. Technology will replace a lot of the basic roles.
Having grown the company and downsized again, we are back in start-up mode and it’s incredibly exciting because we can offer people the ability to grow as our company does, we are incredibly ambitious and we want to offer fast progression to people that have the nouse to drive forwards in their career, on the top of this it’s my stated mission to make our company so attractive to work for that pay is a secondary consideration. It’s philosophical, but the reality is that we can create a system for our people that affords them the flexibility, and rewards they want, and a career where they can grow, so we are going to focus on that, which is what I see as our responsibility to our people and customers – make our people happy and our customers will be too.
The past two years have been challenging in so many ways. What other key challenges did you overcome during the pandemic, what did you learn in the process, and how have you adapted to emerge stronger?
When everything was shut down and my staff went on furlough, I kept on one staff member who wasn’t eligible, and we worked to handle deliveries while completely re-developing the menu from the ground up. A lot of our food was previously produced by a supplier and delivered to us, it was efficient but expensive and the quality had been a concern as we couldn’t always control it. By taking all of our food production back in house, we now control 100% of our food production, and are able to offer our customers more for less. It sounds simple but in reality it’s a complete shift in priority for the business, we have always and will always be food first, so this allows us to control every aspect of our product in a way that provides greater challenges for our staff, a better product for our customers, and a better margin for the restaurant.
What are your proudest moments as a brand so far?
I still remember the first customer we ever served in Leeds. That was a huge moment. Today it’s all about the people – given the challenges of covid it’s all about seeing the team we have today succeed personally and professionally. They are all great people, motivated, and they bring the energy and vibe each day to make it happen. All of them are superstars.
Where are your favourite places to eat/drink when you have a night off?
La Taberna for tapas, Belgrave for food, bevvies, and vibes. Chow Down for street food, bevvies, vibes, and entertainment.
What’s next for Rola Wala – what have you got planned for the coming weeks and months, and what do you hope to see?
We will be trading at Chow Down in the summer, and are hoping to open our next location in Manchester this year. Watch this space.
And what about the long-term – what are your ambitions for 3-5 years’ time?
We see the brand getting back to where it was pre-Covid, I think the restaurant industry has a bright future and I want our brand to be a part of that. I would love to see us grow in the UK first, and then build out in Europe. I would especially like to get to the US at some point, but the greatest achievement would be to take it back to Australia. That would be like a homecoming.