Sometimes, when you set out to change your own life, your life isn’t the only one you change. Sanjay Vazirani’s force of determination is a story that changed the face of an industry. With his catering giant enterprise Foodlink, he has changed the Indian catering scene and redefined luxury dining in India and overseas. Today, the biggest celebrity weddings across the globe have experienced Sanjay’s stellar culinary offerings. ASPIRE had the opportunity to get it all from the man himself, Sanjay Vazirani, on his business, passion for food, and being the classic under- told success story.
A SQUARE PEG IN A ROUND HOLE
Sanjay’s life today is a far cry from his childhood. Born to a forest officer father who was transferred from one remote wooded location to another every two years, Sanjay’s first brush with the city happened when he came to Baroda (today Vadodara) after completing tenth grade. Working as a night receptionist in a small hotel ‘Kaviraj’, he not only made ends meet but also put himself through pre-university.
Soon after, he enrolled in the Institute of Hotel Management, Ahmedabad. Conversations with elite classmates from Delhi and Mumbai about the catering industry in those megacities and the standard of life made him restless; he was missing out. So, he put in for a transfer to Mumbai for his second year and won it on sheer merit.
Mumbai called the ‘city of dreams’ for Indian counterparts, has a different face for each of its weary, earnestly aspirational inhabitants. To Sanjay, the face was daunting and foreign. Amidst affluent peers who spoke impeccable English carrying an indomitable city aura, he felt like a fish out of water and was also inspired to better himself. With the steep rent for his room, 250 rupees being paid by his family, money was tight, and so he would wait tables at luxury hotels like the Oberoi that got him a free meal from the five-star instead of buying his own dinner.
After finishing his Diploma in Hotel Management & Catering Technology & Applied Nutrition, he received an offer by Oberoi Hotel to be their management trainee, a great opportunity for starters. This was Sanjay’s first step towards charting his course in life, but he opted for the simpler Holiday Inn Hotel. Even at the time, he knew he would want to set off on his own eventually, and so joined a place where there would be more to learn rather than be lost in the weeds in a large establishment.
His performance in the management program raised him to the position of a maître d’hôtel easily enough – but the challenge was lost to him. He didn’t want to be a manager; he wanted to create something of his own. He quit the job without an alternative, “burning the bridges,” as he puts it, to continue his quest to find his true calling.
His first solo stint was gaining professional chef experience at ‘Sampan’ in Mumbai, under the tutelage of able chef Pempa, a maestro of Chinese cuisine. As he cooked, he saw Bollywood biggies like Amitabh Bachchan, Rakesh Roshan waltz in; they were frequent guests. When tired working all day behind the big burners, he’d walk along the beach and dream. He dreamt of achieving beyond his humble beginnings. “There’s no reason I can’t have this life, just because of where I am from,” he mused. He was all of 24 years then.
The next fateful opportunity came as being the restaurant manager at Peninsula Restaurant in Sion, Mumbai. He went all out, emulating everything a five-star restaurant did, and the restaurant became an overnight success. “Suddenly everyone in the city was looking at me, the guy who had turned a humble restaurant around to a buzzing one.”
Sanjay then decided to add value to hotels that didn’t know things like kitchen design, menu design, staffing, training and pre-opening, customer satisfaction, and good food service. He made it his business to conduct operative sick restaurants by refurbishing their offerings. This consultancy business was run in the name of Hotel Aid that also got a reasonably good response.
Despite his dedication and intent, this struggle period was a rude wake-up call. “I would often get stood up by people, who would only pay me the advance and then vanish. It just seemed thankless,” he says with a tinge of pain. His biggest lessons in business were learned in this time. The biggest one – Why not do this for me, and build my own business?
“Around 1998-99, I got the first opportunity to start a restaurant called Stars Parade. It was a sick unit. The owner had a good hotel, but he didn’t know how to run it. When I asked to conduct it, he laughed at me, doubting my credibility.” After convincing him, Sanjay took over the day-to-day operations as manager cum owner, the foundation of his business career.
Without any investment and adopting a revenue-share model with the original owner, Sanjay was now the owner of his own hotel. He ran a tight ship, from changing the upholstery and sprucing it up top to bottom, course-correcting the business to the point that the failing establishment became known for its quality of food and service. “I was extremely hands-on – be it taking orders or service,” he recounts.
When his peers, now head chefs in 7-stars like Taj and the Oberoi came down to his restaurant, the food knocked their socks off. One such friend was Rakesh Joshi, who was a chef at Tanjore in South Mumbai. “This is fantastic food. Not even five stars can manage this.” They convinced him to move from Chembur to the South Mumbai circuit, the land of the rich and glamorous. Since he didn’t have the means yet to set up there, he needed a workaround to still take his food and service to those people. This simple brainwave kickstarted the catering business.
GUNNING FOR THE BIG LEAGUE
Shortly after, they got an opportunity for their first event at the Radio Club to serve North Indian food for the club guests and its events from a support kitchen. Despite minor hiccups, it turned out to be an instant success, and it put them on the map for bigger things. “People usually take 7-10 years to graduate to a place like Turf Club, Mumbai; for us, it took less than two years.”
Telling us more of his idea, Sanjay adds, “I observed the enormous vacuum in hygiene standards and presentation in the catering business at the time. Coming from an organized hotel management background, I instantly saw how plugging that gap could work for us, and it did become our distinguishing factor.”
After years of chasing the big league, the big league was now seeking him out. Stalwarts like Tina Ambani, Jaya Bachchan came rolling in to hire them for their events, all owing to the excellent word-of-mouth review of their service. “We started with social events, then moved to family weddings and private parties. This brought in the spotlight on us. There was no looking back after this,” beams an ecstatic Sanjay.
CREATING THE RIGHT LINKS
Foodlink is an indelible brand today, but how did the name come about? “We link the right people to the right event for the best-in-class experience. We have invited chefs from Agra to create their signature chaat or Amritsar cooks for the perfect chole-kulcha. We would get people to Bombay for events and weddings. We’d also hire clubs on contract for their kitchen space and then transfer this food to large events.”
Sanjay was fastidious about quality. “I still remember that I bought a bike around 1999, and I used to follow the trucks carrying our crockery and cutlery, so they didn’t get stolen or replaced on the way. I was not sure how things would unfold, but I was clear that I would go to any extent to not compromise on the quality of our services. To be honest, I also made losses in all the initial projects, in the quest to deliver quality beyond client’s expectation and beyond our promised scope.”
Catering is a territorial gig, Sanjay explains to us. All the big cities have catering stars – Delhi, Jaipur, Ahmedabad; you name it. Early in their journey though, Foodlink broke borders and went cross-territory. “Darshan Patel, founder and managing director of Vini Cosmetics which makes FOGG deodorants, brought me an opportunity to cater in Ahmedabad. We carted cutlery, crockery, equipment to the city, executing it flawlessly. It was a phenomenal experience; we became the talk of the town and left a mark on the city. It opened our minds. We thought – Why can’t we move to Bangalore, or Hyderabad, or even Thailand?”
That was an idea. Today that idea is executed by a flawless logistical team – refrigerated vans, entire transport system, temperature-controlled vans, and everything that one would need.
LOCAL TO GLOBAL
Foodlink has unmatched expertise in managing global events now. They flew a crew of 60 for the wedding of a diamond merchant’s son at a Thailand 5-star hotel, chaat walas and chai walas included. It’s not uncommon for them to transport the team internationally – and have 80 people flown to Europe and 240 people to another destination wedding in a feat of its own.
“I’m fairly blessed with the team I have. When doing these high-profile events, there is a positive pressure, but never hopelessness.” To them, challenges are just opportunities to prove themselves. They have catered on a cruise with no fuel or coal allowed, only electrical equipment. So, they created special gadgets for the events to make kebabs and curries on the deck.
For an event in Switzerland, they pulled off the near impossible – for an event in a picturesque setting on a frozen lake, they created a whole kitchen atop the frozen lake. On the last day, the team sensed the ice getting weaker and moved the gadgets and equipment back to safety on land just in time. When they moved the last piece of the equipment, the ice cracked through, becoming water where minutes ago, their entire setup had been.
Quickly, they went from desi local collaborations with chefs and creators in India to international ones. Ladurée, the world-famous pastry house from France, has an exclusive tie-up with them via which they have been introduced to India. They also have premium contracts with Potel et Chabot, Bubble Foods in London, luxury giants Pinch from New York; it’s a storm of high-end caterers, and Foodlink is at its epicenter.
Their talent pool boasts of celeb chefs from Japan, Peru, Italy, and of course, India – part of their covetous inner circle. No matter the cuisine, there is an in-house chef in Foodlink who is the best in the trade for that cuisine.
For Adel Sajan’s wedding, which has still mesmerized the elite across UAE, Sanjay was swayed by his father Rizwan Sajan’s passion and vision for the wedding. He vowed to deliver more than they had dreamt of. “The wedding took place on a cruise, which was sort of the toughest assignment, but we planned it so well that it turned out to be the easiest one,” he says, the pride quite apparent as he speaks.
“In this work, there is just word-of-mouth; no other publicity helps. It’s all about delivery, delivery, and delivery,” says the master caterer.
SPREADING THE TABLE
“When we were just starting out, we were happy just working hard at all the mahurats and weddings. We got recognized. We had passion, but barely any economic logic.” That changed around four years ago when once again, his friend Darshanbhai Patel goaded him into organizing the business, making it an institution beyond a catering company – a multi-city, multi-country operation. It was the push they needed to verticalize the business.
Today, Foodlink operates in 4 distinct verticals across Mumbai, Ahmedabad, Chandigarh, Bangalore, Chennai, Turkey, Dubai, Delhi, and beyond.
They operate in four main verticals – Luxury and Institutional Catering, which is challenging but sort of Foodlink’s strong suit, their earliest foray and conquest. There is Luxury Banquets, with a vision to exceed the standards of fine dining – sort of the Marriot of indoor banquets. And finally, there are Restaurants and Cloud Kitchens, flagged off with their premium offering ‘Art of Dum’, India Bistro, China Bistro (a homage to his long love affair with Chinese cuisine), and Glocal Junction, a 24-hour diner that transforms between brunch, barista, dinner and a high-energy bar with complete ease.
In response to how does he manage or out-creates competition in the catering space, he puts it across quite simply as “I don’t think there’s a lot of competition. We have created enough differentiators to keep us unique. You differentiate, or you die.”
“Be it China Bistro, or Art of Dum, the way it is packaged, the kind of treatment, even catering, our presentation, our bending-backward service, exhibitional cooking and its styling – I don’t know too many who meet the benchmark. We are constantly evolving. I travel a lot, so I come across a lot of new ideas, which I curate in my mind and take back to my talent pool to brainstorm on what’s next. We have been first movers for a lot – the ‘chocolate fountain’ in India, which we brought from the USA, first ones to do exhibitional cooking, first ones to give high-end cutlery – we have been pioneers in a lot of ways.”
What keeps them ahead is their desire to create an unforgettable experience for their clients. “During Deepika and Ranveer’s wedding, we created the perfect Sindhi food for Ranveer and organized a South-Indian style sit-down meal for Deepika all the way in Lake Como, Italy. When it comes to important events, people are nostalgic; they like to go back to basics. And we like to deliver it for them,” says the cuisinier knowing the tastes of his clients all too well.
THE BOSS EVERYONE LOVES
From an early stage, Sanjay was fortunate to have the knack of putting together a dependable team he could trust. “To identify who I want in my team, first and foremost, I look for qualities of a good human being. Skillsets are easy to learn, but when you have good people around you, things tend to go well. If I feel a person will add value or be a long-term association, I go for it.” Such are his people skills, and he is the kind of boss that everyone would love to work with.
His earliest associations have also proved his longest. “The first 12 people who joined me, me being the 13th, are all still with me after two decades. I maybe have a natural tact to take care of my people, give them credit for the good they do, take ownership of the discredit in my own stride.” Both CEOs who run his operations in India and the Middle East are stalwarts in their own right, having built multi-hundred crores’ conglomerates before having come on board with Sanjay Vazirani. The smoothness of his operation tells him that when it comes to his team, he’s made the right calls. During the pandemic, he had the opportunity to honor his commitment to his team when he made sure each of his nearly 1000-member strong team was paid on time without any cuts and any layoffs. He may just be one of the fewest business owners across the world to do so.
On the personal front, Sanjay’s wife is very encouraging of his passion. While his father passed at a young age, his mother was around to see his meteoric rise to success. He recalls them both fondly, but private as he is, does not mention much about them. “It is my parents’ blessings that have brought me so far.” He has two children whom he adores – a 12-year-old daughter and a 5-year-old son.
From having waited tables for 35 rupees to having catered for the weddings of some of the biggest names in the world, Sanjay Vazirani’s life story is a testament that when opportunity meets preparedness, you have the perfect recipe to cook up your own delicious good fortune. Wonder what’s cooking next?