Restaurant owner Nisha Katona says she owes her success to Liverpool and that despite the pandemic she will ‘fight to keep building’ her business, to create new jobs and enrich the lives of her staff.
The Mowgli Street Food founder opened her flagship restaurant on Bold Street six years ago.
The 49-year-old praised the city, saying she loves Liverpool for giving her a chance to succeed and encourages her fellow restaurateurs to invest in the city.
The former barrister gave up a 20-year career to pursue her passion for Indian home cooking and now runs her own empire which consists of 11 restaurants across the UK including sites in Manchester, Birmingham, Oxford, Sheffield, Edinburgh and Cardiff.
With plans to open restaurants at Cheshire Oaks and Bristol this year and Mowgli Edinburgh in early 2022, there’s no stopping Nisha who wants to continue to enrich lives in the cities she sets up shop by creating new jobs.
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Nisha told the ECHO: “I try and build about three or four [restaurants] a year if I get the right sites in the right cities and I will because if I can create jobs why would I not do that?
“As long as I can create jobs and enrich lives in these cities, then I’ll keep building. We’re hoping to have Cheshire Oaks open four weeks after lockdown, but that’s the big question – when is lockdown going to end? But I’ve got at least another three that will be opening for this year, so we’ve got a full pipeline.”
How Liverpool took a chance on Mowgli
However, Nisha admits when she opened her first restaurant on Bold Street she only took a two-year lease because she thought it would fail.
She said: “I thought we were going to be dead in the water, I thought it would fail and it was not going to work. And that’s what I love about the city of Liverpool – it really gave us a chance.
“It’s open-minded in terms of food and ‘we’re going to try this weird new food’. The majority of the menu is plant-based, it’s dishes that aren’t on a normal curry house menu. These are the dishes that are my ancestors’ dishes. This is my own home-style cooking and people honoured that.
“What’s really amazing and the reason it’s worth growing and it’s worth being a voice in the business world is because I encourage my fellow restaurateurs from London to come up and invest in Liverpool. Come up and open your restaurants in Liverpool. It’s a brilliant, brilliant city to launch.”
Nisha, who grew up in Skelmersdale but settled in Birkenhead in Wirral with her husband Zoltan and two daughters, Tia and India, added that she would probably be better off with just one or two restaurants.
She added: “The irony is I probably earn less than I ever did as a barrister, but it’s the bigger picture, isn’t it? I just really love the city and I love how much investment has come to it and I think we’ve got to stick our heads above the parapet and do well and show people that you can launch national [from here].
“I think we’re possibly the first national chain that’s come straight out of Liverpool and it should just encourage other entrepreneurs.”
Nisha’s commitment to staff during the pandemic
Nisha made the decision to send her staff home and shut all her restaurants a week before the first national lockdown was imposed back in March 2020 due to the coronavirus pandemic.
She said: “I didn’t need to build Mowgli, I had a really good job. So when I built her, I built her with a really compassionate purpose in mind and having that really helps you steer through the darkest times. I didn’t realise that until I went through the darkest times.
“The reason I built Mowgli and the reason for our existence and our purpose is to enrich lives in the cities we go to, starting with our staff. So that has away been what has motivated me, we want to go and make lives better and hire those 16 to 24-year-olds and build this career workforce.”
When the country went in lockdown and before the furlough scheme was announced, Nisha put measures in place to care for her staff.
“The reason I shut a week earlier than we needed to is because I thought there’s a pandemic out there. There is this virus which is infiltrating every building, I want my kids safe.
“We paid our staff in full. Before we even knew what the government we’re going to do, we were going to honour our staff. So it was a punt that we took, and I think because we started off in that way, living our purpose, which is to enrich the lives of those teams, what’s happened is the teams trust us completely.
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“We didn’t lose a single employee. We’re in constant contact with them and we have a number of avenues where they can get help with their mental health that are being used. Our general managers and operations managers check in with them very frequently to see how they’re doing.”
Nisha currently has 500 employees furloughed but said she will do everything she can to make sure they have a job to come back to.
She added: “They have this safety net which is us. We can weather this and we will protect their jobs and them knowing that they’ve got jobs to come back to and that they are loved by this company and precious, it has made it all actually quite pleasant.
“It’s a crazy thing, in terms of the business, I’ve never felt frightened or out of control. But I think I am quite fatalistic I also think I came into the world with nothing, if I go out of the world with nothing, then it was meant to be. We’ve still got money coming out the account and we are paying full rent to landlords and this is dreadful, even though there’s not a penny of revenue and it’s just heartless and feudal.
“But I will do everything I can to protect the jobs that I’ve created, but also I will fight to keep building because every time we build a Mowgli we create 60 more jobs. That’s my mission in life to create 60 jobs but good jobs for people who will feel joy in their work.”
New TV show – A Taste of Italy
Throughout the last year, Nisha has been working on recipes for a follow-up to her successful Mowgli Street Food cookbook – The 30 Minute Mowgli book.
She has also been busy filming for TV including Secrets of Your Supermarket Shop which was on screens last month, has regular cookery spots on This Morning and is a guest judge on the upcoming series of Masterchef.
But Nisha’s latest TV series, which was filmed before the pandemic, takes her away from her Indian roots.
A Taste Of Italy follows Nisha as she travels to cities such as Orvieto in Umbria, Bari in the Puglia region and Lucca in Tuscany, taking in the stunning landscapes and historic architecture of each location, as well as meeting a local chef to learn the regional secrets that influence their dishes.
Nisha added: “I’m just passionate about the way our ancestors cooked food across the globe. You know, what is it about the way grandmothers cooked their meatballs which is so timeless?
“I love the fact that Channel 4 looked at my brown face and didn’t think ‘Oh she can only cook Indian food’ because I’ve been around the world learning how to cook – my first cookbook was about food from around the world. Instead, they gave me an Italian food show, which is just incredible. I really appreciate that, so it’s a big moment for me.”
A Taste of Italy begins tonight, Sunday, February 14 at 7.25pm on More4.