Big Dreams, Baby Steps: Lessons from Sanjay Vazirani

Sanjay Vazirani, the CEO of Foodlink, takes us through his unrelenting and passionate journey in the F&B Industry, and shares with us many things he learnt on the way…

Words by
Sanjay Vazirani


Reading Time
12 min read

The beginning (Until 2000)
  • I distinctly remember the day I came to Mumbai - I took a transfer in the second year from Ahmedabad to Bombay catering college. Ahmedabad, at the time, didn’t have a 5-star hotel to learn from. I had limited funds, big dreams, substantial liabilities and a strong will. I didn’t know how to speak English. Coming from a small town, it took me a while to settle into the culturally different Mumbai. I was always anxious meeting affluent people who were culturally more evolved.

    I wasn’t the brightest kid in college, either. But a few incidents in college taught me that fear and escapism wouldn't take me too far. Choosing the easy route doesn’t lead to growth. So, early on, I cultivated the habit of “making things happen rather than escaping difficulties.”
  • In my third year, out of my passion to learn in a more hands-on environment, I started waiting tables. Out of 178 working days, I would work about 110. I would go to college in the morning and spend my evenings waiting at the Taj, Oberoi or the Turf Club. I was paid ₹40 or 50 per day, in addition to a free meal which was a bonus. That’s where the journey started.

    After college, I got selected into the Oberoi, but instead chose to work at the Holiday Inn at a stipend of ₹1,300 so I could learn more. I had a secondhand motorbike on which I used to move around with the dream of making it happen. In 2 years, I was promoted to a maître d' / room service manager’s position at a salary of ₹1,800. Had I stayed there for 15-odd years, I would have become the GM of the hotel, and with that realization, I quit because I was itching to do something bigger. I had no understanding of running a business or any plan then. One of my catering college professors introduced me to an upcoming restaurant in Sion called Peninsula. This is where I learnt the business in a more focused way. 

    Then an opportunity to revive a sick restaurant knocked, I took it. I was a restaurant manager at first. When I told the owner that I wanted to start my own business, he offered me a partnership in the restaurant. The owner asked me for a deposit, but I had no money. He was a kind man, so he agreed to take the deposit later. I started managing Stars Parade as my own venture on a revenue share format. It was the beginning of my journey in business. We focussed on providing excellent food, and it was noticed. A lot of my hotelier friends and ex-batchmates would come and visit (by then, they had also grown in their careers at Taj & Oberoi), and praise the restaurant for some of the best food they’d ever eaten, indicating that it had tremendous potential in SOBO.

    I realised “Food is the Hero”. I didn’t have the funds to start a restaurant in South Bombay. The only way was to take the food to where the people were. This is how the idea of starting a catering facility was born. I decided to pursue this, and built a team of 10-12 people. Subramaniyam, Timanna, Bhuvam, Dhanpal and Priya were a part of this team, and are still with Foodlink. Today, we’re a 1,000 people family.
Pre-Investment Era (2000-2017)
  1. They say, “Believe you deserve it, and the universe will serve it.” We had a garage behind Stars Parade with a tin sheet roof from where we started. We had no other material other than that, but hands-on knowledge and determination. We went all out and grabbed every opportunity, put our best foot forward with our delivery, and followed a few simple rules:
    1. Guest is God
    2. Food is the Hero
    3. Brilliance in Basics
    4. Support each other
    5. Accountability at all levels

    Our work eventually started getting noticed by high-profile individuals and their families and circle of influence. We hustled and grew organically through word-of-mouth marketing by simply exceeding expectations of food quality and customer service.
  • Catering was a very unstructured domain. As we grew, I tried to bring structure and processes to operations, to deliver consistently. In 2007, we did our first international destination wedding catering in Thailand. Today, we have done over 100 grand destination events in over 20 countries.  As per the market analysis, the destination wedding market has generated revenue surpassing US$ 21.5 Bn in 2021. By 2031, the market is forecast to cross US$ 290 Bn. Food service activities remain important and accounted for approximately 39% of the value share in 2021. The luxury and HNI wedding industry, along with global events, deserves credit for giving the Indian food catering industry a chance to shine internationally and catapult it on the global food map.
Series A Funding (2017) Learning to maximise
  1. We were keen to learn and we worked hard but barely understood the economic logic of running a large enterprise. That changed around five years ago when my mentor, Darshan Patel bhai, Founder and Managing Director of Vini Cosmetics Pvt Ltd, goaded me into organizing the business, making it an institution beyond just a catering company - to transform Foodlink into a multi-city, multi-country operation. It was the push I needed to verticalise the business. I was very fortunate to meet the right people who guided and supported me. The vision got bigger, but the means were still limited. I didn’t have enough financial acumen to scale further. So, I started investing my time in learning. I was on pins and needles until we first got funded. Privilege comes with responsibility. Having someone fund your dream is having someone trust you. I had to be very mindful of our investors’ expectations of Foodlink and me. I pushed myself to unlearn habits that didn’t help and learnt some new ones, including, most of all, financial discipline.
  • We all need to learn to invest in tools and techniques to maximise. Learn to stand out in our domains and accelerate brand equity. Today, Foodlink operates in 4 distinct verticals — Luxury Catering, Banquets, Restaurants, and Cloud Kitchens spanning across Mumbai, Ahmedabad, Chandigarh, Bangalore, Chennai, Delhi, Turkey, Dubai, Europe and beyond.
Covid (2020)
  1. Just when we thought we would start demonstrating great numbers, we had another roadblock — the Covid-19 Pandemic. No one knew how grave it was and how long it would last. Those were the longest days I have lived. I didn’t want to see faces crumble up. My anxiety kept peaking. I had a responsibility towards not just one, but hundreds of families. That struggle was an eye-opener in a whole lot of ways. It made me reevaluate my life, thoughts, priorities and most importantly, attitude. I lost some friends and realised that as long as I’m alive and healthy, I should be grateful and purposeful. But the struggle ends when gratitude begins. I started thinking of solutions. India was at a standstill, and so that’s when the seed for Foodlink UAE expansion was sown. Today, Dubai contributes 25% of the overall revenue of Foodlink and has also proven to be a very important step towards fortifying our global presence.
The Future
  1. There are 5 fundamental qualities that make a team great.
    1. Clear Communication
    2. Mutual Trust
    3. Taking Collective Responsibility
    4. Supporting Each Other
    5. Pride In Doing Our Best

    These are like individual fingers on the fist. Each one individually is important. But all of them together are unbeatable. What we have built together as a team is remarkable. With luxury event catering, we plan to moderately grow into new geographies and sustain, as it’s a personalized business that is not easy to scale.

    With our banquets vertical - Jade Luxury Banquets, we are on the lookout for the best opportunities across India and beyond to collaborate with real estate owners to operate ‘built to suite’ capex light models. With restaurants and a cloud kitchen vertical, we have aggressive plans to templatize and scale in newer geographies.
  • We took our first step, crawled, started walking with the support of our well-wishers and clients, and saw the dream of VISION 300 which is now a reality as we cross the benchmark this financial year. We are ready to run now, staring into the future to chase our dream of VISION 700 - this new milestone we are set to pursue and accomplish. It won’t be easy. We will sometimes falter. But as long as we get up, dust ourselves off and keep moving forward, we will get there. Crossing this milestone is our collective dream and I trust that if we work towards it earnestly, there is no force that can stop us. Foodlink 10 years ago was just Sanjay Vazirani. Foodlink today is 1,000 Foodlinkers who are taking on this collective responsibility. We are proud of what we are building, where we are heading, and what we are becoming.  We have set out to actualize “One Team-One Dream”. We have set out to actualize our VISION 700.

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