Fair & Square in conversation with Ranjit Mathrani, Indian restaurant entrepreneur

Our guest on this episode of the Fair & Square podcast is Ranjit Mathrani, Chairman and co-owner of MW Eat, the Chutney Mary, Amaya, Veeraswamy and Masala Zone restaurant group. Before running some of the most prestigious Indian restaurants in the UK, Ranjit had a multi-faceted career including as a senior civil servant, a merchant banker, an international project financing expert and a former High Sheriff of Greater London.

Recorded at the newly opened Masala Zone restaurant in the historic Criterion building in London’s Piccadilly Circus, Ranjit tells our host Adam Batstone how his earlier career experiences provided the inspiration and discipline to create his influential Indian restaurant group.

“(My) restaurant involvement was a function of my merchant banking desire to monetise talent and the other of that talent being there to be monetised,” he said.

The talent was Camellia Panjabi and her sister Namita, Ranjit’s wife, who, among their many accomplishments, are leading authorities on authentic Indian cuisine. Chutney Mary opened in 1990, although Ranjit’s involvement was purely as a financial backer through a Business Expansion Scheme with other investors including Neville Abraham, founder of restaurant business Groupe Chez Gerard.

At that time Ranjit was working in merchant banking, a career which included senior roles at Lazard Brothers, Standard Chartered, West LB and his own international advisory company. He pioneered private power projects in Pakistan and Hong Kong and in the UK was one of the founders of the Private Finance Initiative.

PFI was initially a successful policy, but Ranjit laments its later incarnations. “Hospitals and schools came later and were an abuse of the PFI,” he says.

Merchant banking was his second career after 17 years in the civil service in Whitehall which he joined in the 1960s, starting work in the Department for Economic Affairs, which he describes as the then prime minister Harold Wilson’s attempt to get a counter weight to the Treasury. Later responsibilities included deciding which industries could access power during the then prime minister Edward Heath’s Three-Day Week measure to conserve electricity at a time of industrial unrest.

In his role now as chairman of a leading restaurant group, Ranjit welcomed government support for businesses during the pandemic. However, he believes the support was too widespread and money was given to some industries that did not need it. For restaurants and retail, rating and leasing framework structures should be looked at, he suggests.

A current issue for hospitality is labour shortages caused by a combination of Covid and Brexit, which is leading to an inevitable increase in wages.

Despite these challenges MW Eat – a £30 million annual turnover group, employing about 500 and serving one million diners a year – has now opened its largest restaurant to date with the 150 cover Piccadilly Masala Zone.

“If we had to expand our view was we had to have larger sites. So when this opportunity came up we weren’t necessarily seeking it out…but these opportunities come very rarely. In addition the economy was recovering and the worst was over,” says Ranjit.

The MW team has overcome the challenge of designing a restaurant in a large, listed building featuring a stunning gold leaf ceiling, through creating separated dining spaces and combining Indian decorative idioms with contemporary design.

But for Ranjit it is food that comes first and foremost. His vision has always been to build a restaurant group which would serve real, proper Indian food and demonstrate that the complexity and sophistication of Indian cuisine was second to none.

Next on the menu is further expansion in London and outside the capital. He has also been approached about licensing and franchising abroad, particularly the Middle East, and is looking at these opportunities.