W Power 2024

Daryaganj Vs Moti Mahal: Amit Bagga's unique journey to redemption

A failed restaurateur was hunting for his moment of redemption, and a doting grandson was yearning to pay rich tribute to his grandfather. The result is Daryaganj, a north Indian cuisine brand, which is in the midst of a bone-rattling legal fight with Moti Mahal

Rajiv Singh
Published: Mar 27, 2024 05:04:38 PM IST
Updated: Mar 28, 2024 09:06:06 AM IST

Daryaganj Vs Moti Mahal: Amit Bagga's unique journey to redemptionAmit Bagga,Co Founder & CEO, Daryaganj Restaurant

2019, New Delhi. “So, this will be yet another butter chicken brand,” mocked a veteran analyst when he got to know that restaurateur Amit Bagga had teamed up with Raghav Jaggi to start Daryaganj, a north Indian cuisine brand (which has now dragged competitors Moti Mahal to the Delhi High Court over alleged defamatory remarks). “Every non-vegetarian outlet in Delhi serves butter chicken, and everybody has dal makhani. So, how will you guys be different?” wondered a food critic, who was amused with the move to start a new brand in the heart of the butter chicken capital of India. The fact that Jaggi happened to be the grandson of Kundan Lal Jaggi, who along with his partners, invented butter chicken and dal makhani in the 40s when they opened the first outlet in Old Delhi after relocating from Peshawar, didn’t mean much to the industry observers.

What, however, caught ample attention was the disastrous track record of Bagga, who was ‘certified’ a failed restaurateur by 2018. “After a string of back-to-back failures, everybody had written me off,” recalls Bagga, whose grandfather migrated from Lahore to Karol Bagh in Delhi after the partition in 1947. “He started from scratch and, in the 50s, ventured into the business of automobiles,” recalls Bagga, who joined the flourishing family business of automobiles and petrol pumps in 1999, and gradually learned and imbibed the art of being perpetually obsessed with customer service and satisfaction. “The family business taught me the futility of chasing money and the magic of chasing customer happiness,” he recalls.
Ironically, the family business also taught him self-discovery. It took Bagga close to a decade to realise that he couldn’t continue with a life where his heart and mind were perpetually in conflict. He always aspired to carve an independent identity, and, in 2008, took the entrepreneurial plunge by starting a travel company. Two years later, came another realisation: His mind and heart were still at loggerheads.
“I was a foodie and always wanted to start a food business,” says Bagga, who eventually yielded to his passion and started a bar and café brand Boombox in 2010. Over the next few years, the business boomed, Bagga rolled out a slew of food brands, and warmly embraced and entertained an illusionary thought that he might be the one blessed with a Midas touch. Every bar started churning money, and profit. “There was heady success and fame,” he recounts. “Everything seemed magical,” he adds.

Daryaganj Vs Moti Mahal: Amit Bagga's unique journey to redemption
A few years down the line, the magic waned, and Bagga ran out of beginner’s luck. “I forgot that you can’t buy customer loyalty in a bar business. It’s a commodity business,” he rues. What also hit him hard was the folly of opening too many bars in one locality: Hauz Khas. As the market started creaking under infrastructure issues, and bar owners stared at a hard time with a tough licence regime, Bagga’s fairytale castle started caving in at an alarming speed.

By 2016, he had either closed or exited from most of his ventures. “After all these years, I had no business,” he recalls. “The next two years were a period of crazy struggle,” says Bagga. From freelancing projects to part-time consultancy, Bagga did everything to make money. Sadly, nothing came remotely close to the heady days of bars and restaurants. The dejected founder was left with a tattered self-belief. “There is one out of a hundred chances of him succeeding,” was the unanimous verdict of observers, relatives, not-so-friendly friends, and industry experts. “I had developed a heavy appetite for taunts and jibes,” he says.

Daryaganj Vs Moti Mahal: Amit Bagga's unique journey to redemption
Failures, though, failed to snuff out the fire of entrepreneurship, and his love for food. Armed with his learnings, Bagga again wanted to get back into the restaurant business. “It has to be a family restaurant and the outlets wouldn’t be obscene in size,” he prepared his new blueprint. But there was one small problem. He didn’t have money to start a new innings, nobody was keen to bet on a failed founder, and at least 99 funders declined to back the project. “All declined except Raghav Jaggi,” he says. “Remember 1 in a 100 chance. Jaggi was that chance.”
It was 2018. Jaggi was looking for ideas to pay tribute to his grandfather, and Bagga was looking for his redemption. Now here’s how serendipity crept in. School buddies, Jaggi and Bagga had known each other for 38 years, and now the friends were becoming business partners. “When Kundan Lal Jaggi migrated from Pakistan, he started from scratch. I was also starting from zero,” says Bagga, who points out another uncanny similarity. “His grandfather was helped by his friends who pumped in money. In 2019, I was being backed by Jaggi, who was bankrolling the project,” smiles Bagga.
In April 2019, the friends rolled out the first restaurant, and by February 2020, there were three outlets across Delhi, and the business was booming. “There were long queues at each outlet,” he recalls, adding that his belief in the fact there was a huge white space in the food market when it came to serving authentic North Indian cuisine was validated. “We were making an honest attempt to revive old-world, classic, and authentic flavours, with closely-guarded secret recipes,” he says. Finally, it seemed that the restaurateur was back in the game.

Also read: Bone of contention: Utterly butterly useless fight
The euphoria, though, was shortlived. Covid gate-crashed the chicken party, the restaurants were shut, and the uncertainty was the new name of the business. “I thought this was another sequel of ‘Snakes & Ladder’ game,” recalls Bagga, who was devastated. Seven months after the national lockdown, Bagga mustered the courage to open the fourth outlet at Ambience Mall in Gurugram. “We have never looked back since then,” he beams, stressing that Daryaganj has never deceived or confused consumers. “We don’t have any Moti Mahal name, connection or reference in communication, branding or menu,” he says.
The brand, underlines Bagga, is a tribute to Kundan Lal Jaggi, and Daryaganj is trying to maintain a fine blend of retro and contemporary to suit the palate of consumers. “We are authentic and special,” he says, declining to comment on Moti Mahal, the competitor brand against whom it has filed a defamation suit in a battle that started when, in January, the fight between the two over the claim of the ‘inventor’ of butter chicken and dal makhani reached the Delhi High Court.

Daryaganj Vs Moti Mahal: Amit Bagga's unique journey to redemptionTo understand the bitter fight, one must go back to 1947 when Moti Mahal was founded by Kundan Lal Jaggi, Kundan Lal Gujaral, and a third partner. Before Partition, Jaggi and Gujaral worked at a restaurant in Peshawar, which was owned by Mokha Singh. Both came to India as Partition refugees, and started Moti Mahal at Daryaganj in 1947.
“In the early 90s, Jaggi ended his ties with Moti Mahal, and, in 2019, we started Daryaganj as a tribute to him,” claims Bagga, who, since inception, has been using the tagline—by the inventors of butter chicken and dal makhani. Moti Mahal—which is now run by the founder’s grandson Monish Gujral—has filed a trademark violation suit against Daryaganj.
“Raghav Jaggi is the owner of the registered trademark “Daryaganj: by the Inventors of Butter Chicken & Dal Makhani. This trademark was applied for on March 14, 2018, and registered unopposed,” claims Bagga. “This suit is misconceived and baseless. We have filed our reply.”
Meanwhile, marketing and branding experts reckon that irrespective of the claims made by the warring parties, Daryaganj has been playing a different game in terms of culinary delight and visual relief. “If the walls are plastered with history, the retro music-sung by new-age artists, wafting inside the outlet, woos both the young and the old,” says Ashita Aggarwal, professor of marketing at SP Jain Institute of Management and Research. The brand, she underlines, has taken a refreshing approach in serving one of the most popular non-vegetarian cuisines: Butter chicken. “I don’t think people hanker for the ‘original’ or the ‘inventor’ tag,” she says. “All they want is high-quality food, and how the food and service are garnished inside the restaurant.”

Daryaganj Vs Moti Mahal: Amit Bagga's unique journey to redemption
Food experts too don’t give much value to the ‘inventor’ tag. “In India, there are a million ways in which a dish can be churned out by chefs,” reckons KS Narayanan. As far as Indian cuisine is concerned, he adds, it is not dependent on formal processes or established techniques as is the case, let’s say, with French cuisine. “Indian cuisine is more of a combination of art, craft, and science in equal measure,” he reckons.
Bagga, meanwhile, tells us that he would stick to his DNA of being daring and unique. “I don’t have a formal education in hospitality,” he says. “And this has done good for me because it helps me not to play by the book,” he says, adding the food business is not meant for the chicken-hearted. “There will be insane lows. It’s guaranteed. But what will help you stand the heat is your equally insane passion for food,” he smiles.

Post Your Comment
Required, will not be published
All comments are moderated