Dubai: “Don’t even think of coming back,” exclaimed 18-year-old Jagdishbhai Thanki’s father, when he said he didn’t want to continue his job in Dubai. “If you come back, don’t come to this house.”
When Thanki arrived in Dubai in 1977, he was promised a full-time role of waiting staff in one of Dubai’s famed vegetarian restaurants. Little did he know that his dream of wearing a suit, vest and bow tie would be quickly replaced with an apron and dishwashing soap.
As crushed as his heart was, his spirit refused to follow the same path. And that very spirit was the one thing that got him here today - a proud business owner of Dubai-based restaurant, Swades, which also happens to be a franchise.
But how did he get here? Read on to find out what Jagdishbhai Thanki narrated to the Food team at Gulf News….
Arrival by sea
Born into a family of farmers in Shagpur (presently Hathiyani), Gujarat, Thanki had to drop out of school at the young age of 18 for economic reasons and was asked by his elder brother to come to Dubai in search of a job. So, as luck would have deemed fit, instead of completing his final exams, Thanki boarded a ship from Bombay (present-day Mumbai) on a ship bound for sail to the UAE. He travelled via Karachi and finally arrived at Port Rashid.
“It took at least seven days for me to come to Dubai, especially because I came here by ship … the ship’s name was Daman. I spotted whales and dolphins during my travel and it cost me Rs1,500 at the time to come to Dubai. Like me, there were at least 1,000 people in the ship to Dubai,” said Thanki.
On arrival at Port Rashid, Thanki found a job in a restaurant in Deira, where he worked as a kitchen porter for less than two years. His brother was already working in Dubai as a restaurant manager. Soon after, Thanki and his elder brother set up a joint venture under the name of Evergreen in 1978, where he worked for 10 years and then Al Astad Restaurant in 1989, which he managed for the next 20 years in Bur Dubai.
But before Thanki stepped into the city, he said that there had always been a diasporic Indian community in Dubai.
Catering to a diasporic community
“We were located in Basktakiya, which is now a heritage site, but at that time we used to cater to quite a large number of people, most of which were Indians who came into the city working a routine job.”
When Thanki ran Al Astad Restaurant, he recalls a time where a few of his customers couldn’t pay for their meals, and he used to let them eat on credit. “We used to have different types of customers – some of whom couldn’t afford a meal, some working in a construction company, and so on...,” added Thanki.
A priceless gift in itself, the reward for combining good food and kindness is loyalty, which is also the very reason for his name being known generation after generation.
“There used to be at least 3,000 expats from Gujarat living near the Old Gold Market at the time and in Meena Bazaar as well … we were quite popular, and still are, for our unlimited Thali [a plate with several small servings], which was priced at Dh5 at the time, whereas in Al Quoz, it was Dh3.50 for a thali for eight years,” recalled Thanki.
Today, that same thali costs Dh23.
Setting up Swades
20 years later, Jagdishbhai Thanki started Swades Restaurant, in 2009. Inspired by a movie of the same name, featuring popular Hindi cinema superstar Shahrukh Khan, meaning one’s own country. The name is a reminder to all that home isn’t as far as it seems when they visit the restaurant.
They say true unity is in diversity, which is also one of the unique things about this restaurant. Not only do they serve authentic Gujarati food, but they try to bring in an array of vegetarian food from other Indian regional states as well.
Apart from their food, Swades is also diverse in terms of their staff. While most of them are hired from Gujarat itself through referrals and recommendations, a few of their employees are from Ghana and Ivory Coast who had come to Dubai in search of a job. Thanki remembers a time when one employee had walked in to the restaurant and asked if he could work there. Sceptical as he felt, all it took was a small leap of faith, which turned out to be quite a blessing in disguise: “He works the hardest in the kitchen.”
Today, when one steps inside into the restaurant, you will find yourself facing a menu card with options to choose from starting from the Tamil Nadu dosa, the Gujarati thepla, the Punjabi kulcha, to Indian street food like chaat.
We shall overcome
Even as businesses across the world struggle post-Covid-19, Thanki let out a scoff when asked about struggles of their past and said: “We’ve had many, but we never gave up.”
After getting married in 1984, he became a father of two sons. As he brought his family to Dubai in 1990, they set up home in a small one-bedroom flat in Bur Dubai, which was also shared by 11 members of the same family. “The hall was divided into two sides, so we made room for each other like that.”
Being the fifth out of 11 siblings, the family owned 100 acres of land, which was equally divided among them. Thanki remembered a time where he had to sell off his share of land to help pay for his younger son’s Masters of Business Administration (MBA) degree.
As he worked at Al Astad, Thanki had dreams of branching out on his own. So he left and started Swades, which also marked the end of his struggles. Today, the restaurant has three branches in Karama, Academic City and Discovery Gardens – with Jagdish and his sons Rahul and Jay, managing each branch respectively.
Jagdishbhai Thanki’s youngest son Jay Thanki said: “Anyone commuting via the Metro can see our restaurant, and that itself draws them to try out a homely meal at the restaurant.
“We also used to cater to the Mandir and Gurudwara here in Dubai for seven years, where we sold 3 rotis (flatbreads) for a dirham. The popularity of this resulted in us having quite a number of sales during those years,” he added.
But like all other restaurants, Swades, too, was initially affected by the pandemic, although they had a contingency plan in place, which was to go digital.
“The government had eased rules on delivery, so what we had done was make our presence known across every delivery application or website there was, so that people could stay safe and eat safe without missing out on the quality of food we’ve retained throughout these years,” said Jay Thanki.
The journey so far
“Rewarding,” said Jagdishbhai Thanki. “I am so grateful to the UAE for providing us with the opportunities to grow as individuals and as a business.”
Over the past 14 years since Swades has begun, the liking for Gujarati food has grown from being just a mere liking into an elaborate choice of lifestyle. Known for its nutritious options, the Gujarati cuisine is scrumptious and fairly priced, although Thanki feels that the cuisine has gone down in terms of popularity.
When asked about how his restaurant’s brand name grew in the past years, Jay Thanki said: “It’s all word of mouth, we have never given a radio advertisement, or flyers of any kind. When we first inaugurated the restaurant, we had quite a large crowd, especially from the Gujaratis in Dubai… soon after that, news travelled and we still continue to thrive despite the challenges we have faced in the past.”
But while they have quite a fan following among several communities, the restaurant’s popular item on the menu is what’s titled as the Bombay pav. A soft, tasty and fluffy bun, this pav is best paired with a flavoursome vegetable gravy or with a potato fritter in between. Not only do they bake it every day, but Thanki mentions that this particular baked bread has been sourced out by different customers and restaurants alike.
A story to remember
Through the years, Jagdishbhai Thanki’s spirit got him to where he is today and the fact that he never gave up is what has brought him success. As he ventures further, Thanki remains grateful and content knowing where his voyage across the seas got him today….
But before this story truly ends, here's the only recipe you would ever need to make Mumbai (Bombay) Pav at home ... so delicious, you'll never want to buy packaged bread again. And to add to it, it's right out of Swades Restaurant's kitchen.
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