The queues started snaking down London’s Frith Street in September 2015. They would often stretch 500 meters long. Sometimes people would wait outside longer than they’d be inside eating. The small dining room — just 40 seats — was packed out every night. This was the scene at Hoppers, JKS Restaurants’ first foray into the cuisine of Sri Lanka.
In those early days, Director Karan Gokani chose to be on the front lines every night. “I was at the door for two years because I thought it was important to do that job, to make that impression,” he says. For the Mumbai-born chef-restaurateur, this spirit of hospitality comes naturally. The industry permeates even his personal life, having married into a family that looks after one of the city’s most successful groups. (His wife Sue is the “S” in JKS.)
The interesting thing is that he also has a background in derivatives law, so is as well-versed in the science — specifically, the math — of running a successful restaurant as he in the art. “There’s a limit to what we can charge,” he tells me. “It’s street food!” But of course they still have to fairly compensate their staff, pay their bills, and so on. Accordingly, they decided that a no reservations, walk-in only policy was the best move.
This keeps things democratic, and nearly eliminates no-shows — often the bane of those running smaller, more inexpensive restaurants. “We aren’t a nightclub,” Karan explains. “We are not pushing people out to be cool. There is full transparency.” Even critics are made to wait their turn like everyone else.
From his perspective, there are two scales by which a given restaurant’s service can be measured: the spectrum from Casual to Formal and that from Unprofessional to Professional. One can choose to exist anywhere they want along the former, and indeed, JKS restaurants run the gamut. But from Karan’s point of view, the Professional bit — meaning you are doing your job proudly, and are trained to do it — is a non-negotiable for his staff.
After the immediate success of Hoppers, one restaurant begat a second, on a busy pedestrian shopping street in Marylebone. “The site is much bigger, so for us it was a huge step. You can’t do the same thing, it just won’t work.” Accordingly, although they still keep plenty of space for walk-ins, they decided to accept bookings in the newer location.
Meanwhile, they recalibrated in other ways. With 110 seats at their disposal in the second space, there was now a different party size capacity. There were shifts in personnel and management as the team stretched to 70 people among the two restaurants. With a different clientele came minor changes to the menu. A third location in King’s Cross is even in the works.
“It’s like parenting,” says Karan, himself a proud father. “You allow each restaurant to take shape in its own way. You look at all of them very proudly.” Looking at Hoppers — inHouse London partners since day one — we’re proud, too.