Bert Mueller might seem like an unlikely candidate to start and run a Mexican restaurant chain in India, but it doesn't take long to see why he's perfect for the job.
Who would have thought that someone from around Washington D.C., who went to Catholic school and composed music for a bunch of movies and TV shows would end up building a restaurant business in Bengaluru? But Mueller says he’s always had an Indian connection.
"My family always loved Indian food," he says, adding that his love for food began at an early age with his grandmother, who often prepared Indian dishes. "So, I think there was always some positive branding that had happened in my young adult life in favour of India."
Bringing Mexico To The Indian Plate
He says that when he came to study in Jaipur in 2010, he was impressed by the "energy and the growth" he saw in the country. But he also saw a connection that many may have missed: the uncanny similarity between Mexican and Indian food. Though Indian people may have been unfamiliar with Mexican food, Mueller says that when they tasted it, they usually ended up liking it.
Mueller had earlier worked at US-based casual restaurant franchise chain Moe's and instinctively latched on to the business model's potential in India.
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He was so taken by the idea that he decided on an "impulse" to take business classes in India, despite not having much of a background in the field. In 2012, he opened up the first California Burrito restaurant at the Embassy Golf Links Tech Park in Bengaluru with two of his friends and a chef from San Francisco.
Mueller was betting on the cosmopolitan crowd at tech parks to help his business grow—a strategy that continues to pay off. Today the chain has 50 outlets across Bengaluru, Delhi, Hyderabad and Chennai.
India Favours The Patient
"I honestly never thought about [having 50 outlets]," Mueller says. He hopes to grow that number to 100 restaurants soon. However, he's clear that he wants to focus on deepening the company's presence in the existing cities before looking to expand to newer ones.
Mueller says the business is going strong – the firm earned a revenue of around ₹110 crore last year. He adds that the company's bottom line is also healthy and the firm isn't burning cash.
"People often say it's hard doing business in India, but I've never done business anywhere else… so I have nothing to compare it to," Mueller quips. He says that there are pros and cons of being a foreigner doing business in India, but it's not something he actively thinks about. "Maybe I'm a little different, but ultimately, we're here for work and we do things together—and that's the common glue."
“I think that India is a very people-oriented place… learning how to keep people and their feelings and thoughts at the centre of what you’re doing is important. It’s also not a place where you can force things… I think you kind of have to go with the flow here to a large degree. I would say India favours the patient.”
Bouncing Back From The Pandemic
What sets California Burrito apart is Mueller's hands-on approach and his emphasis on giving Indians an authentic taste of Mexican food. Mueller often answers the company's customer service calls, which he says keeps him grounded and informed about what people want. Mueller says customer feedback also helps solve problems during the Covid-19 pandemic, when people were mostly ordering through delivery apps.
"One of the insights we got was that people were not adding toppings from the customisable queue because they were used to seeing everything on it," he recalls. The company quickly made changes to its online menu to have all toppings included as the default option and users could deselect toppings they didn't want.
"The pandemic was pretty horrible," Mueller says, adding that it was the most difficult time for the company by far. "Everything that came before seems like child’s play now."
The COVID-19 pandemic was an especially big blow to California Burrito since around 55% of its restaurants were located in business parks, which all but shut down while social distancing measures were in place. The company made quick adjustments and leaned heavily into delivery to recover lost revenue.
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"I think we had to reinvent the wheel in some sense," Mueller says. The business has since bounced back, with deliveries still holding strong and dining seeing a recovery. The team stuck together to make it through the pandemic, Mueller says.
Investing In Authenticity
Mueller has also made a number of offbeat investments in order to ensure that what's being served on the plate at his restaurants is as close to the real thing as possible. In 2019, he had a number of Hass avocado trees imported to the country and planted on farms in southern India. Through contracts with local farmers, the company now has a fresh supply of the fruit, a crucial ingredient in several Mexican dishes.
"I think the feeling is that you have to do it right," Mueller says, though he admits it's a big investment. He says that the specialty ingredients do give the company a competitive edge and make its business model harder to replicate. The company also now grows its own tomatillos and cuisine-specific chillies.
He says he's been handling the business on his own since his co-founder left the business a few years ago, but Mueller is optimistic about the future. "I've been kind of flying solo since 2020," he laughs. "But I really enjoy being ultimately responsible for the business."
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