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Raji SankarRaji Sankar is the Co-founder and CEO of Choolaah, an authentic Indian barbeque restaurant with seven locations around the United States. Although Raji has an extensive background in the tech industry, her love of food and sense of community drove her to start a business in the restaurant industry. She considers herself fortunate to have created an authentic place that prepares quality food made only with fresh ingredients and aromatic spices, bringing a timeless atmosphere to her locations.

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Here’s a Glimpse of What You’ll Hear:

  • Raji Sankar discusses how franchising helped her get into the restaurant industry
  • Raji’s tips on creating effective brand awareness with confidence
  • How to communicate brand values through service and quality
  • Raji shares the differences between being a founder vs. a franchise

In this episode…

In this episode of the SpotOn Series, Chad Franzen welcomes Raji Sankar, Co-founder and CEO of Choolaah. They discuss the intricacies of starting a restaurant and the benefits franchising can bring to your business. Raji goes on to explain creating a confident brand message that resonates with consumers, how to stay true to your company values even through challenges, and the best ways to learn from costly mistakes when starting your business.

Resources mentioned in this episode:

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Episode Transcript

Intro 0:04

Welcome to the Top Business Leaders Show. Powered by Rise 25 Media. We featured top founders, executives and business leaders from all over the world

Chad Franzen 0:20

Chad Franzen here co-host for this show where we feature top restaurant tours, investors and business leaders. This is part of our SpotOn Series. Spot on has the best in class payment platform for retail and they have a flagship solution called SpotOn Restaurant, where they combine marketing software and payments all in one. They serve everyone from larger chains like Dairy Queen and subway to small mom and pop restaurants. To learn more, go to This episode is brought to you by Rise 25. We help B2B businesses to get ROI clients referrals and strategic partnerships through done for you podcast. If you have a b2b business and want to build great relationships with clients referral partners of thought leaders in your space, there’s no better way to do it than through podcasts and content marketing. To learn more, go to or email us at support@rise Raji Sankar is Co-founder of Choolaah Indian barbecue. At Choolaah with three locations in Ohio, three in Pennsylvania and one in Virginia. Raji is committed to delivering food, people love to eat compulsively rave about and want to come back for every day. Rajae thanks so much for joining me today. How are you?

Raji Sankar 1:23

I am wonderful. Thank you so much, Chad for having me.

Chad Franzen 1:27

Yeah, hey, I appreciate you. Appreciate your time. So tell me a little bit more about Choolaah Indian Barbecue and what people can expect when they go there.

Raji Sankar 1:35

So Choolaah means oven, literally. So when you walk in, you’ll find this completely transparent kitchen. And this says that you will watch us cooking in Tandoor ovens, your bread and proteins, you will see how the food is prepared. And the idea is in the old days, they used to have community ovens where people would gather around cook bread, and cook meats and cheeses. And they would share news and enjoy their time together. So we wanted to bring that modern aspect of it. So pre-COVID, obviously, we used to have a lot of people gathering around the long tables we would have in front of these cooking ovens. And that’s what you walk into saying, okay, clean, healthy, I know what I can get, and very contemporary and beautiful place.

Chad Franzen 2:29

How did the How did the idea for this come about?

Raji Sankar 2:31

So really, the business plan was written in 2003. And my Co-founder, Randhir, and I, we are foodies, and we wanted to bring food, like the kind that we eat at home, not laden with any artificial anything, no colors, no preservatives. And there’s a lot of wonderful spice benefits to Indian cooking. When done right. And we wanted to bring that to the world and introduced that to the world. And that’s really how it started. And we wrote a business plan. And it took roots in 2012.

Chad Franzen 3:08

Okay, so you, you the business plan it took maybe took a while.

Raji Sankar 3:13

So we set it aside on the shelf, because we realized very quickly, we’re not really we weren’t from the restaurant industry to begin with our background was tech. In fact, someone coined tech to tikka is a you know, pack for me at one point in time. And we really went from, you know, we loved food, we had cooked food with our grandparents and parents, but not in a commercial setting. Right. So this was a very big lesson in terms of how do you do supply chain? How do you do real estate? How do you run an operation? And being engineers by education, we’ve always been processed, driven. And we are always energized by how could you make things better, make it easier, make it cleaner, right? That kind of stuff we had always focused on. We were very fortunate to get into the franchising world. And we’ve been very fortunate to be a part of a really great brand and learned so much along the way.

Chad Franzen 4:22

Yeah, tell me about So you started writing the business plan in 2003. And you open Choolaah, like nine years later, basically, what did you do to kind of get your experience in the restaurant industry through franchising?

Raji Sankar 4:34

So we actually franchise Five Guys Burgers and fry. And it’s been such a great story. We were at the time one of the earliest franchisees and we watched the sheer power of when you have integrity in a system right? The integrity to quality the integrity to take Getting a hard stance on regardless of whether it is hard or not, you probably remember the great tomato scare at one point in time scarcity, really, and a lot of companies were, you know, pulling back on their tomatoes, and their sandwiches, but not at Five Guys. We have unlimited toppings, right? There’s just so much goodness, and you literally no freezers, everything made from scratch. And if you know how to look at what the food looks like, you can see it being prepared in front of you. And the commitment from the family and the leadership at Five Guys, I’m a huge fan,

Chad Franzen 5:41

is that what attracted you, I know you founded Choolaah based on a lot of kind of principles are those same principles at Five Guys.

Raji Sankar 5:49

So Five Guys was our entry into the restaurant world, if you will, right. And we learned so much along the way on how powerful it is, especially the founders passion was so powerful to watch. And the commitment to doing right by your partners was another valuable thing that we learned commitment to quality commitment to food safety and cleanliness. So I would say we went to a great school of, you know, one of the best if there is and then in 2012, is when we actually dusted off that business plan that we had. And we had an amazing opportunity where my Co-founder and Co-CEO went to India for a couple of years. And they you know, Simran, who is our head of product happens to be his better half. And they took their two young daughters spent a lot of time traveling the country, you know, same precepts of how do you make sure that the operators and the restaurants have the greatest support? Making sure that we’re very proud of what we put on, you know, the bowls for or plates for our guests. Making sure customers feel like this is something special, not just, you know, transaction. So those kinds of things.

Chad Franzen 7:14

Okay, so where was your first Five Guys location?

Raji Sankar 7:18

Our first Five Guys location? It’s in Pittsburgh, still. It’s in our, you know, oldest and you know, one of our beginning journeys. It’s in the North Hills. Are you familiar with Pittsburgh? I am not. Okay. And it’s in a place called Fox Chapel.

Chad Franzen 7:38

Okay. And then what did you learn kind of in those first few days that really kind of helped carry you over? You know, from what I understand, I’m not in the restaurant industry, what I understand it’s, you kind of have to be pretty gritty, to be in the restaurant industry. What did you kind of learn from from that, that may have been eye-opening that you didn’t expect? So when we opened,

Raji Sankar 7:59

not many people knew what Five Guys was. Right? And so the brand awareness was not there. So the opening sales were not that great, right? So we were we had to canal kind of had to figure out how do we build this. And the best way to build in Five Guys is through the four walls, right? We knew watching people eat their first burger, we always used to watch that they would come back two days later, or the next day with their family and friends. And so it was very important that every experience, be that right. And then also being able to connect through the people who came in to help spread the word. And so that was our biggest thing is that it’s important when you are behind the product, and you have confidence, you know, just stay with it. Don’t give up

Chad Franzen 8:58

how many locations of Five Guys had you had when you opened your first true location.

Raji Sankar 9:05

So we had a dozen, Five Guys at the time. We are very blessed, Chad. Our team is extraordinary. We have a lot of leaders that grew from within. And we have many people in our you know, the senior management that are 10 plus years. And so that is what creates that culture. They drive us to be better people better leaders. And we’ve been very fortunate in our system that way. And that’s important to us that our vision is to transform the quality of lives of everyone we touch and that’s something we coined many years ago, over 12 years ago now and that was something that needed to live and breathe and I think we are not you know anybody unless you have an amazing team behind you.

Chad Franzen 10:00

So you started with the business plan for Choolaah in 2003. You, you kicked off your first Choolaah location in 2012. And in between that time, you accumulated 12, five, Five Guys locations, and take me through the opening kind of a process for opening to live in.

Raji Sankar 10:17

So, for Choolaah, we spent two years in our r&d and concept development. And we had a location on in Cleveland, this time, our footprint for our Five Guys world was Pittsburgh and Cleveland, Northeast Ohio, mainly. And so the Cleveland market is where we opened our first Choolaah. It was a Saturn dealership. And so we repurposed that we were very fortunate to have an amazing leader who joined us even before we opened our first location. He’s our chief creative officer. And our his desire was that it looks like a Museum of Contemporary Art. And that’s exactly what it would look like when you walk in. My Co-CEO created the entire kitchen open kitchen format. And we’ve been very fortunate to have our leaders in the culinary world as well as supply chain. So we have many CEOs is how I look at it in our company.

Chad Franzen 11:25

So where was your your first location in Portola was in Cleveland?

Raji Sankar 11:30

Beachwood. Ohio was Northeast Ohio, and it’s in the east side?

Chad Franzen 11:36

What were the early days like for that? And was it different than you know, opening a burger? burger restaurant? Like, how was the introduction to the to the public?

Raji Sankar 11:45

Such a great question, because Indian food is not quite mainstream yet. In the United States, especially if you’re not in New York, and LA or any of the major metropolitan cities, right. So we didn’t know what to expect. We didn’t know where it would be. So for about six months, we had these fabulous window coverings, saying, you know, Don’t peek. Your stomach is growling, that kind of stuff, and then a little peek into what our food would be. And we were actually very surprised. We opened the doors on Black Friday of 2014 thinking, we don’t know if anyone will be here. And we were so pleasantly surprised. And we had people from all walks of life. It didn’t matter what ethnic background or age demographics, it was such a joy to see. You would sometimes see a construction gentleman, you would see a professional in a suit. And you would see these high school kids and college kids, these moms with their strollers. It was just super exciting to watch them adapt and embrace the cuisine. And it has continued to skyrocket. Wow,

Chad Franzen 13:09

what what do you think? Is it that causes that has caused so much popularity, given that Indian food isn’t quite mainstream yet?

Raji Sankar 13:17

And so we do have a very controversial name right to the Indian barbecue. So when you come in either you might expect like, Wow, is this regular barbecue, this is not like your other barbecue, right? But reality is every community or ethnicity or a nation has some kind of barbecue. Often it’s a hole in the ground with some, you know, wood, wood or charcoal and then meats are skewered. And they are cooked. Right. So tender is a great Indian barbecue. And so it was kind of fun to have that. And I also I think the way the building looked, was another interesting thing when they walked in the experience that they had, and they went and told their friends. That was it was all word of mouth. And then we were very fortunate to have some great press as well. And we’re very fortunate on that level. So I think it was literally converting one guest at a time

Chad Franzen 14:16

in the course of your journey with both Five Guys and now with Choolaah. Has there been any you know, you talked about how you didn’t have a background in the restaurant industry? Was there any kind of like mistake opening any of these restaurants where your that ended up being a you know, a valuable learning experience? Looking back on it?

Raji Sankar 14:34

Oh, we have had so many lessons Chad and I’m sure the lessons will continue right. But what is amazing is you know, we had missteps in how to hire missteps on where to put our restaurants, Miss missteps on you know the timing of certain things afraid of pricing, right? And then supply chain issues. It has been a series of very interesting things. We had another concept we had franchised, I didn’t share much on it at the same time as Five Guys that did not go as well. And within a year, we had to basically read the tea leaves and say this is not going anywhere. And the reason on that franchise was their supply chain didn’t hold up. Their menu wasn’t in Five Guys there, the brand knows who they are, right? There was not, I was not changing menus constantly, or identity of who you are at any given point in time. That particular brand did not have that. And so we learned so much of it was great. From a financial perspective, it was like getting a second MBA a very expensive one. From a as I look back, and that took a lot out of us, because we are first time restaurant owners trying to do that. And experiencing that was not easy. Our families were saying go back to what you’re good at. Don’t do this, right. So there were some amazingly crazy times. But we just believed in the concept of, hey, if you put something good out there and do it with your heart, people will come. And that’s exactly what happened with our Five Guys experience, right? Because the fundamentals were so strong. So we learned that the fundamentals are very important. You need to have a product that people crave. You need to know who you are, and not constantly be somebody different every other day, we learned that, you know, supply chain is critical. You can’t tell a guest you don’t have half your products. It’s very demoralizing for the crew, as well, it’s very important to pay team members really well. If you want the best of them, we actually love that aspect of wanting people. And obviously you need to run very good businesses to make that happen. Right? You can’t help anyone if you’re out of business, that means you need to have efficiency and productivity in a way that it’s not harder for the team. It needs to be easier for the team every time, things like that. So there were so many lessons learned. In our first flaming failure, shall we call that? Yeah, it was incredible.

Chad Franzen 17:32

In terms of knowing who you are. You said that a couple times. Is that kind of the key in terms when you now that you’ve expanded joola to multiple locations? Is that kind of the key to making sure that you kind of stay on brand in terms of service and quality and culture?

Raji Sankar 17:47

Yeah, I think authenticity. People smell from a distance right? If you’re authentic or not as a brand. And I think it’s an the brand and translates into the food that translates into how you look and I in within the store. That is what does the store look like? It translates into how the teams feel in their relation to the brand. So absolutely, I think the authenticity part of it is very powerful. We in Choolaah, it’s, you know, authentic and approachable. And those were our cornerstones.

Chad Franzen 18:21

How has COVID impacted the way either one of your, either your franchises or Choolaah operates.

Raji Sankar 18:30

So COVID, my God, March, and April, they were crazy. Our senior leadership team, we used to talk, have long phone calls daily, trying to figure out what this was, it was scary. There was huge amount of fear. We didn’t know, it took so long to create this amazing team and now being faced with something that when it comes to health, it’s a very scary thing, right? And people’s wellness. It’s a very scary thing. And we didn’t know how and what we could do. And one of the most things, the biggest things I’m very proud of our team is that we decided that that’s no way to live. Fear is a horrible way to show up every day. So we chose offense as our theme in May. And we said okay, we’re gonna choose faith over fear. And we made a conscious decision to do that. And the moment we did that, it opened up so much for us, Chad, we used to be very large spaces in Choolaah we actually brought it down to footprint that now we can. It’s a very viable, sustainable model, right? Because then we up graded our technology. A lot of great technologies out there in the restaurant world. Thanks to some great tech companies and innovations. We focused on how could we serve the guests better? We upgraded our guests listening systems. So we use this as a platform I mean time to reinvent what the guests needs in the new world

Chad Franzen 20:07

is there a difference for you in terms of being a founder versus a franchisee?

Raji Sankar 20:12

So what what’s really cool is as a franchisee, you still have to run your business in the sense of you have to find the sides. You still have to get your people and your team trained and all of those things. The benefits are you have an amazing team behind on the franchisor side that can help you and that can guide you. Food safety was extraordinary throughout our you know, from the pandemic times at Five Guys, so we had so much that we could be grateful for from support perspective, Choolaah, we have to kind of create everything, right. So it’s like a baby, an infant literally that needs to be fed, and to be created in a way the atmosphere needs to be created. So that was a different lesson for us. That component of it right, executing the restaurants is one thing and then actually creating the organization behind it and the support behind it was another thing. So that was a new world for us.

Chad Franzen 21:18

I just have one more question for you. But first, how can people find out more about Choolaah and about your your Five Guys locations?

Raji Sankar 21:25

So Five Guys is And they’ll be able to find all the locations and they can search on their welcome to visit us in Pennsylvania and in Ohio. In all over the world, actually, now and Choolaah It’s two O’s and two A’s. And our handle on social media is ChoolaahYum. And hopefully, you know you’ll get a preview into what the food looks like when you walk you know, join our newsletters or if you come into our loyalty program or if you look at our website

Chad Franzen 22:07

if you were to go to my final question if you were to go to Choolaah for a meal what would be your kind of go to dish

Raji Sankar 22:13

my go to dish would be a dish called the perfect balance and the perfect balance has these wonderful roasted vegetables. Marinated and spice just perfectly and then I would do paneer I love Indian cheese paneer and I would do brown rice. As for my half rice and for my half masala I would do a yellow lentil and we have many different variations. We have chickpeas we have Tikka Masala, we have black lentil and we have salmon for those who like salmon. lamb meatballs and chicken is always a popular thing. So tofu for the vegans.

Chad Franzen 22:54

Okay, sounds good. I went about Five Guys, different worlds.

Raji Sankar 22:57

And then Five Guys. I have had every combination. But I do love our grilled cheese. I’m so partial to that. And Cajun fries.

Chad Franzen 23:10

Okay, perfect. Hey, Raji. It’s been great talking to you today. Thank you so much for your time. It’s been very informative and very interesting.

Raji Sankar 23:17

Thank you so much, Chad.

Chad Franzen 23:19

So long, everybody.

Outro 23:20

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