Pulse: Chatter: Let Them Eat Korma

How restaurant revolutionary Munish Narula sparked Philly's Indian explosion

Eons ago, it was Georges Perrier. Then Neil Stein, then Starr, then Garces. Right now, the mantle of Philadelphia’s most up-and-coming restaurateur seems to have fallen to Munish Narula, a soft-spoken New Delhi native with a master’s degree from Johnson & Wales, an MBA from Wharton, C.V. mentions of Wall Street and Denny’s—and a three-and-a-half-year-old operation called Tiffin, where entrées average $10 and usually come in plastic tubs.

Six years ago, Narula left his job in corporate development at Bala Cynwyd broadcasting giant Entercom to open Karma restaurant in Old City with some pals. With its dark decor and lunchtime buffet, Karma was nice … but predictable. Narula longed for a more modern approach. His partners didn’t. So they bought him out, and Narula created Tiffin, a Web business named after and inspired by Mumbai’s famously efficient meal-delivery service. His plan: Customers would order from a menu on Tiffin.com; his kitchen on Girard Avenue would fill the orders; a tie-wearing courier would deliver them. Narula—along with the Wharton professors he consulted—predicted a slow build of customers of Southeast Asian origin. They were wrong.

From day one, Tiffin’s clients were 95 percent non-Indian. They were also demanding: e-mailing and banging on the door to request farther deliveries, phone ordering, eating in. Narula adapted quickly. Within days, he found himself running Philly’s first—by all accounts, the country’s first—multi-platform restaurant. He didn’t always get it right—he’s still disconsolate about a lamb saag paneer delivered to a vegetarian—but he kept at it. “Our projections went out the window,” he says. His new model was a hit.

It wasn’t long before others clued in. Two summers ago, as Narula was opening a Mount Airy Tiffin, his former chef Raju Bhattarai unveiled Ekta, a takeout/delivery spot—not Web-based—a few blocks from the first Tiffin. Soon thereafter, two more former employees separately opened modern Indian concepts of their own: IndeBlue in Collingswood, and Saffron Indian Kitchen in Bala Cynwyd.

If Narula’s rankled over his -employees-turned-competitors, he doesn’t say so. (As Tiffin-like websites popped up in New York, Boston and Bangalore, he barely batted an eye.) Still, map every Indian place that’s opened since his—-Narula counts at least 14—and the vindaloo boom is remarkable. He attributes the success to setting up shop near affluent, young, liberal-leaning, globally-aware customer bases. Last fall, Tiffin the third came to Elkins Park. Then, a second Saffron in Ambler. Bryn Mawr got an Ekta deux in February; in April, Tiffin IV broke opening sales records in Wynnewood. This month, a fifth Tiffin debuts in Bryn Mawr, two blocks from Ekta Two.

Meanwhile, Tiffin the Brand is on fire. In 2008, Narula introduced a line of spices, then added catering, then debuted “a tiffin and a movie,” delivering Bollywood flicks along with his samosas. He’s just announced plans for a high-concept eatery serving traditional grilled Indian food and tapas. Projected revenue for 2010: $4.35 million. After that, it’ll be another Tiffin or two, maybe an Indo-Chinese or an Indo-Latin restaurant. Sound out-there? Not to Narula. “At some point, that’s gonna happen in the city,” he says, “whether we do it or not.”