Dial ‘M’ for Malayali – Meet Zachariah Jacob,  co-founder of Mahabelly

Dial ‘M’ for Malayali – Meet Zachariah Jacob, co-founder of Mahabelly

Smrithi Suresh

“There is no love sincerer than the love of food”

– GB Shaw

Law is an all-consuming profession. Either you will fall in love with it or you will loathe it. It is easy to experience both these emotions in the field and practicing lawyers would tell you that once you are in it, there is no looking back. But how about looking outside? How would it feel to pause for a moment and think about those seemingly innocent dreams that one nurtured in college, which went beyond those thick law books and bulky briefs?

While most lawyers would be content to treat such thoughts as a much-needed shot of escapism from their daily routines, there are some who actually dare to step outside their cushy career paths and chase their long buried dreams.

I had the opportunity of meeting two such gentlemen recently (one of them happens to be a lawyer) who after pursuing conventional career paths are now busy churning out regional delicacies from their kitchen. So when a friend told me about a newly opened restaurant serving Malayali food with a lawyer-ly brain behind it, I paid a visit to Mahabelly.

The story of two ‘Zimble Malayalees’ and the love for Kerala

Zachariah Jacob and Thomas Fenn are the brains behind the newly opened restaurant, loosely christened after the famous mythical king of the State, King Mahabali. But I am more interested in the story of how a lawyer and economics graduate were bitten by the entrepreneurial bug.

“Both of us have been in Delhi since 2006 and were in college together (St. Stephens). While I went on to pursue my law degree, Thomas joined a management consultancy”, says Zachariah or Zac as he likes to be called.

Missing home food while sampling hostel fare was what brought them closer, he says while admitting that the search for authentic Malayali cuisine in the Capital always brought up disappointing results.

“We often wished for a good mallu place where we could have authentic home style food. We had reached a point in life where we were hitting crossroads; so either we could go on with our current jobs or maybe go back to our old idea of starting a restaurant and see if it’s viable. Then we looked around and came up with a basic model.

The dream was to open a place of our own in the future, which would not only be budget friendly but also satiate cravings for good home style Kerala cooking like our ammachis (grandmothers) would do. That dream, coupled with the entrepreneurial itch is what gave birth to Mahabelly.”

The vision was clear but the path wasn’t. With no F&B background, it was not easy to break into uncharted territory. But luckily for Zac, he had help at hand. His father owns a hotel in Kerala, one that has been running since 1978. However, family approval did not come easy.

“Oh they were not open to the idea at all. They bombarded me with questions like ‘first you studied Physics and then did Law and now you want to start a restaurant, so have you gone nuts?!’

The same was with the case with Thomas who majored in Economics and then later worked as a consultant.  The apprehensions from both families were writ large but the duo did a good job of convincing them as Zac’s father was fully on board once the project began.

“He was here for three weeks before we opened for business. Now that I am learning the ropes, I know why he was worried about letting me step into it!” chuckles Zac.

The journey

Any new project comes with its own share of challenges and for Zac; it was about the tight deadlines that were placed on him. Inexperience made the task even more arduous.

“The initial two months were mayhem with all the running around by two novices in the food industry. We had to enter into a partnership for which we needed a permanent address in Delhi which neither of us had!

Even while negotiating the deal with DLF, we had no resources to set up the place. Once we sealed the deal with DLF(the mall), we had to start operations within a month’s time. It was too short a notice!

Somehow we managed to pull through and picked up a lot of valuable lessons along the way. I think it was more of guts than anything else. That is also something which law gives you- the skill of taking the bull by its horns.”

Thomas concurs that food is just a small part of the whole thing and how there is so much else that goes behind running a restaurant.

“It can have a domino effect. If something goes wrong, then you have to go back to the drawing board and start again. Behind the curtains there is a lot of effort.

Initially we also thought it’d be a cool idea to have your own restaurant, have free food and chill around. The venture has taught us that it is not a cakewalk!  But we are enjoying every bit of it.

Apart from the mouth-watering food, what catches my fancy is the décor of the place. There are a series of posters, with caricatures that are typically Malayalee. The self-deprecating humor is an interesting way to grab eyeballs.

The idea was to do the place in an aesthetic fashion, highlight Kerala pop culture and not go for anything too jarring or over the top. We wanted to keep it simple and elegant, something which would subtly reflect the cuisine of Kerala, without going overboard.

Lawyer speak

I ask Zac whether he is an accidental lawyer and he replies in the negative.

“I have always been passionate about law. I was an in-house counsel with IFCI Ltd. and worked on areas like debt and equity financing, corporate debt restructuring etc. The experience was good and I learnt a lot on the job.

In fact, my law training has helped me in more ways than one with this venture. All the paperwork including compliances, licenses, due diligence etc is much easier because I’ve done it before.

Thomas tells me that negotiation is also more effective when people know that there is a lawyer on the other side of the table. “People don’t tend to ask too many questions or push too hard!” he laughs.

And the legal community has smiled back at them. Zac’s professional circle helped – he simply reached out to his network and received an overwhelmingly enthusiastic response. On any given Sunday, one can see a flock of lawyers’ busy digging into Appams and Malabar Parottas including the likes of Akshay Jaitly and Sitesh Mukherjee of Trilegal who are their patrons.

Zac also had the privilege of getting some sound advice from one of the best brains in the legal fraternity.

“Long before I ventured into this, I had a long discussion with senior advocate Ms. Indu Malhotra and she was highly encouraging. I got the green signal from her and that was quite inspiring.”

The road ahead

So what does this jodi have in mind for the future? My attention is piqued when Zac reveals that his love affair with law continues and how he may get back to the field that he left.

“Till date, the story which I have told my family is that I am taking a break from law and experimenting with this field! Which may also happen because my passion for law remains and I eventually want to start practicing one day. This is definitely not the end of the dream. Mahabelly is living the dream and loving it!

As I wrap up my chat, I am also interested to know on how this chapter has changed their lives. But they seem to have taken it in their stride as longer working hours don’t seem to bother them and lack of a personal space does not deter them. Zac responds first when he says,

There is a big change in working for someone else and working for yourself. I was working in a government office and timings were 9 to 5 so by 4.30, everyone is looking at their watch! But here, sometimes my day begins at 6 in the morning for instance when I have to go and procure fresh produce and could stretch on till 1-2 in the morning. When you’re working for yourself, hours don’t matter much.”

Thomas concurs,

“At the end of the day, when a customer works out happy and your food makes him feel good, your day is made. More than the money, the satisfied face is what makes you happy.”

So, are they worried about what the future holds? Not in a million years, is the unanimous verdict. It may have been a crazy ride so far, but the two would readily go through the entire journey all over again.

Says Zac,

“I think stepping out of monotony is very important. One should definitely give a shot to their dreams. [However] don’t skip out on looking at the non-glamorous side of any dream. Ultimately you learn it while you’re knee deep in your plans. But that side should not dissuade you.

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