The city of Delhi lost a worthy son early this week. Deepak Nirula, who brought in the concept of a Quick Serving Restaurant, QSR, in Delhi much before anyone in Delhi or anywhere else in the country had heard of this term, passed away on October 4. No wonder there was this outpouring of emotional condolence messages from Dilliwalahs on Twitter and other social media platforms for this Cornell University hotel management graduate. To truly comprehend the impact that Deepak had on the way Delhi eats, one has to go back to the mid-1970s.
The seventies and eighties were a different era. Natives of the four Indian metros (Bengaluru and Hyderabad were still to make the grade then) used to often indulge in friendly banter on the supremacy of their city versus the others. Bombayites had the city’s cricket legacy and the Queen’s necklace to boast of. Folks from Madras had the Marina beach and tennis tales to establish their credentials. And Calcuttans had Tagore, music and their addas to make others feel inferior. We Dilliwalahs had the babus of whom we ourselves were not too proud of, and some monuments of historical importance. Not enough to impress one’s cousins from Bombay or friends from the other metros. All this changed post-1977 for Delhi got the Nirula’s fast food outlets! Such was the impact of this local food chain started by Deepak Nirula and family that Delhi got a major bragging point.
The original disruptor
Though the Nirulas were reasonably established in the restaurant business, it was the disruption that Deepak Nirula initiated in the mid-1970s that changed Dilliwalahs eating-out style irrevocably. Connaught Place, CP, in those days used to boast of some fine-dining places such as Embassy, United Coffee House, Ramble (wrapped up to give way to Pallika Bazaar) and the Kwality restaurant. However, the eating out wasn’t over without a post-meal stopover at Nirula’s 21 - an ice cream parlour that was so inviting that it became a ritual for Dilliwalahs to top up dinners in CP with a Nirula’s ice-cream. The parlour had an elaborate spread of twenty-one ice-cream varieties and the menu included some flavours one found nowhere else. One such delicacy was Gulabo – an ice-cream that had fresh rose-petals in it and was available only during the flowering season. Then there were the awesome Sundaes, a sumptuous Banana-split and that iconic Hot Chocolate Fudge (HCF) - which was something to die for. Deepak Nirula’s experiment to devote prime real estate to just hawking ice-creams had worked wonders.
Deepak’s foray into fast food outlets changed the way Delhi viewed food options with ‘fast-food’ soon becoming a rage. Burgers, pizzas, foot-longs and hotdogs appealed to our palates with surprising ease. Not just the food, even the way it was ordered, served and consumed were all new experiences. Arguably Nirula’s Hot Shoppe was a first of its kind all-standing fast-food joint in our part of the world. That without any specific targeting Nirula’s Hot Shoppe could attract the college-going crowd is something of a puzzle that even the savviest marketing minds of today will find difficult to decipher. Mind you there were no social networks, no influencer marketing and no Google search - yet the trend caught on. And this attraction became such a huge asset for Nirula’s, because a whole new generation grew up feeding itself and later even their kids on Nirula’s burgers, pizzas and ice-creams. Under Deepak’s stewardship, the chain expanded with Nirula’s opening up joints under the Defence Colony flyover, next to Chankaya and Priya cinema, among other places in Delhi. That Deepak was always willing to take risks and venture out is also reflected in his opening the Potpourri salad bar. Together with the ice-cream parlour, Hot Shoppe, QSR and Potpourri – Nirula’s Corner, as it came to be known then, became a landmark in CP.
Unfortunately the family had to sell the business to Malaysia-based private equity firm Navis Capital Partners in 2007 and they subsequently sold it to A2Z Excursions Pvt Ltd. Hopefully, the current owners will ensure that the Nirula’s brand stays alive for one never knows when the soul of the visionary Deepak Nirula queues up for a serving of the iconic Hot Chocolate Fudge. Delhi is after all, as William Dalrymple calls it, a city of djinns!
(The writer, who grew up in the Capital, is the founder-director of Behind the Moon brand consultancy and runs a blog called The State of Delhi)