‘Kottu’ is a beloved Sri Lankan street food made up of a type of roti, vegetables, egg and/or your choice of meat. Wikipedia even says that kottu is “considered the Sri Lankan equivalent of the hamburger, in terms of its popularity”; being Sri Lankan born myself, I guess that is true. Sri Lanka, in fact, boasts of so many establishments throughout the country that create this dish, from five-star hotels to small wayside joints from which emanates the classic “takata-takata” sound of the steel spatulas hitting the hot griddle; the distinctive sound of yet another delicious kottu dish being prepared. There is also a large collection of well-loved restaurants focusing only on ‘kottu’. One such restaurant in Colombo, Sri Lanka is KOTTULABS.
KOTTULABS began in February 2018 and was a start-up and dream come true for four friends, known as Yatta (runs the kitchen), Don (the marketer), AR (the finance guy) and Waitforit (the operations person). The four founders of KOTTULABS are themselves big fans of the dish and said they came up with the idea for KOTTULABS, when ‘pulling all-night-ers’ at work and having to rely on street food for sustenance.
All four of the founders/owners of KOTTULABS came from different working backgrounds, such as finance, marketing, education, etc. Basically deskbound, pencil-pushing jobs. One night while waiting for their kottu order to be prepared they were struck by how happy and carefree the guy making the food seemed, and they compared this to the stress and toil of working in high-pressure jobs day in and day out. Thus the idea to open up a kottu restaurant of their own was intensified – says Don, one of the partners. Little did he or any of his partners know then, that opening and running a successful eatery would be nothing but stressful, hands-on and high pressure. Don says, he was the type of person that wouldn’t have known how to prepare a meal for himself, let alone other people, but there he was thrust into a situation that required him to learn to do just that, plus at a high standard. “I never thought I could do any of this (cooking), but I’ve surprised myself, especially when it fell on me to take over the kitchen one day at the restaurant,” said Don.
“We thought it was easy and simple” running a restaurant and building a well-loved brand that keeps customers coming back, “the reality, however, was a shocker,” Don says. He tells this writer that once the idea of opening a kottu restaurant took root in their minds, KOTTULABS became a reality within just two months. “Thus was our ignorance and how simple we thought all this was going to be.” Today two years down the line, and many passionate arguments, fights and ‘walking-outs’ later KOTTULABS is still going strong and the four partners are still together, stronger than ever. Don says “all of us are different in our thinking, and when we started we had different ideas of what KOTTULABS would look like. Plus we all come from different industry backgrounds.” But it is those same differences that have helped them build the business and make it a success. To say that opening up a restaurant was and is a learning curve would be an understatement for these guys. Like all entrepreneurs, Don says that the start-up process was a “hard hustle”. Jumping through hoops, battling with bureaucracy, winning over customers and keeping them away from the competition, maintaining standards as well as staff morale, is an uphill battle. “It’s all about endurance, you will be tested like never before,” he says.
Competition in the restaurant field in Colombo, Sri Lanka is fierce, and even more so when you are focusing on one single dish that is created by what seems like a million other places. So how does KOTTULABS stay a cut above the rest I wondered? What makes KOTTULABS customers keep coming back? Don says they stand out from the crowd by never compromising on quality and quantity. “There are so many restaurants that are great with their quality and quantity of potions when they first start out, but as time goes on, the potion sizes shrink, the quality gets poorer and there is little to no value for money for the customer” Don elaborates. “We didn’t want the same thing to happen with KOTTULABS, we wanted to continuously maintain our quality, and continuously serve generous quantities.” In a sense, KOTTULABS is mostly a passion become a reality, than an entity whose bottom line is the main concern over all else. “Having said that it’s not that we don’t care about our bottom line” Don explains “after all we employ several people whose families depend on the income they earn from KOTTULABS, plus the four of us (partners) have sunk in all of our hard-earned savings into this venture, so yes we are concerned about the bottom line and it is important to us, but not above the customer” Don says. Keeping the customer happy means the customer comes back, which means repeat business which leads to a successful business. For KOTTULABS the customer is not just king, the customer is treated as God. Ensuring the customer is happy and is given a carefully and lovingly prepared dish is the ethos of this restaurant.
KOTTULABS customers are able to custom design their meal; they can choose from up to 66 different build your own, and 9 signature dishes. Customers follow three simple steps:
- Select a Carb (Rotti, Chickpea, Pasta, String Hopper, Pittu)
- Choose four veggies (Carrot, Leek, Bell Pepper, Capsicum, etc.)
- Pick a Protein/Proteins (Chicken, Beef, Mutton, Sausage, Fish, Crab, etc.)
KOTTULABS does not have a target customer. After all, Kottu is a national favourite. A food that is so versatile, it is present at any gathering or party, available from street ventures and restaurants alike any day of the week, and at any time of day or night. Therefore KOTTULABS caters to everyone, by giving the customer the choice to custom build their dish.
Being in a highly competitive market makes it a daunting task. However, also like all successful entrepreneurs, Don says it’s one’s passion and drive, and how much you want it that makes you keep hustling and keeps you pushing forward. “There are days when it’s hard to keep going, it’s hard to remember why we started this business,” Don says. Dealing with negativity, especially on social media, nitpickers, complainers for the sake of complaining, etc. are some of the things that are demoralizing and sometimes spirit-crushing, Don says. But in the midst of all that “we also get amazing customers who are positive, appreciative, or even if they have a criticism would pass it on with the best of intentions, which are encouraging and greatly appreciated and helps lift our spirits” he says with a smile. Don says that for him and the other partners at KOTTULABS the company is their baby. A baby that they brought into the world, nurtured, protected, and established, and are continuously watching over with the all-seeing eyes of a parent; keeping everything on track and inline.
KOTTULABS is slowly but surely also becoming environmentally friendly. They have moved into biodegradable boxes and paper bags to package the food, and customers can request for wooden folks if they absolutely need it. However, it’s hard with having to maintain food safety and standards. “For example, the inside of the box is coated in a food-grade wax, which some have pointed out as not being environmentally friendly,” Don says. “Plus not everyone is prepared to pay for the cost of environmentally friendly packaging,” he says. To help KOTTULABS steer themselves down the correct path they are taking it to the people, by way of a poll on their social media pages. They will be asking the customer what and how they want their food packaged to help keep costs down and look after the environment at the same time. KOTTULABS is also in the process of applying for the HACCP certificate, which is the highest food safety standard in Sri Lanka.
Don also says that they are planning on opening up a branch of KOTTULABS in Los Angeles. He says the idea first started when he was approached by Vision Christian Fellowship church to prepare kottu for 250 people at a fellowship lunch, on one of his visits to LA. At that point never having single headedly run the show, with limited kitchen staff to prepare a meal for 250 people; he was worried, to say the least. But Don took up the challenge, with the rest of the team in Sri Lanka giving him pointers and instruction on what to do over several phone calls. Don together with some of his relations in LA got the kottu prepared to feed the crowd. The result was positive, with both Sri Lankans and non-Sri Lankans coming up to him and commending him on the kottu. Having jumped that hurdle successfully the idea to open KOTTULABS LA took root and is slowly becoming a reality. Don says when they do start, the kottu will be made out of Tortillas rather than the traditional roti; however, since the two are quite similar in taste and texture it would not “mess with the integrity of the dish” he says. Plus the secret to every kottu is the curry that goes into it. At KOTTULABS, Don says, the curry is slow-cooked over two hours, and the same will be done at KOTTULABS LA. When they do start in LA however it would initially be in the form of pop-up stands at events and a food truck. Don says with all that he and the other partners learned through KOTTULABS Sri Lanka, taking it slow and steady is key in LA.
Don says that at KOTTULABS they believe in family and the give and take love and support of a family environment. He says they could not have made KOTTULABS a success without the support of their families and friends. Coming from such supportive homes, the team at KOTTULABS indubitably is a family too – from the four partners to the staff to the customers.
What a journey KOTTULABS and its four founders have been on, and it’s been just two years since the beginning. I personally have tasted some of their dishes on my last visit to Sri Lanka and can personally vouch for it being absolutely delicious. We wish KOTTULABS, Yatta, AR, Don, and Waitforit all the very best with all their future plans and eagerly look forward to whatever they have planned next.