When Tomáš Dudka and Tomáš Kapek left Prague for a trip to India to meditate, practice yoga and eat great food 20 years ago, they had no idea that it would lead them to opening a chain of fast-food restaurants that have popularized the food of the subcontinent in their hometown.

A passage to India

The pair’s friendship stems from attending the same yoga groups in Prague.

“We follow a particular kind of yoga, so we went to this ashram to practice yoga, to relax, to refresh away from the outside world,” says Tomáš Dudka. “And this kind of inspiration just came naturally in that environment.”

They’ve both been vegetarian for a long time, so long, in fact, that they can remember the days when the only vegetarian food you could find in their home town was in a café attached to the local Hare Krishna temple. It was here that they developed their appetite for the taste of India.

Indian ashrams – remote Hindu monasteries that serve as spiritual retreats for yoga practitioners and others – promote mental and physical health through ritual, meditation, chanting and yoga. A diet that is rich in vegetables, fruits, cereals, rice and pulses is an essential part of this. It can be summed up as food that is the most natural and simplest to purchase, prepare and digest.

 And, preferably, it should be eaten within three hours of being prepared. 

Tomáš and Tomáš were in heaven. 

“India was great, the flavors and the tastes, the food is absolutely gorgeous, masalas from the north, dhosas from the south. It was a big inspiration,” remembers Tomáš.

As well as the big flavors of rich, aromatic spices, the pair also loved the communal aspect of eating in ashrams, where attendees are required to build good karma by performing an hour of selfless service each day, such as preparing food. Everyone eats together, side by side, from metal thali trays and everyone clears up after themselves.

“We started thinking about how we could open something in Prague,” says Tomáš.

Dhaba Beas makes its debut in Prague

A couple of years later, they opened their first restaurant. It was fast food, but not as we usually know it.

Tomáš and Tomáš simply wanted to serve good-quality food at affordable prices, prepared with an ethical approach and respect for the environment. And they wanted to cater to regular diners who were interested in healthy, nutritious food rather than committed vegans and vegetarians.

“That was the idea – we didn’t want to try to persuade anyone to become a vegetarian. We didn’t say, ‘look at us, here we are being vegetarians and we want you to be like that too!’ We didn’t speak about this. Some people only realized that there was no meat in our food after a lot of visits.

“We didn’t want to be like apostles of vegetarianism,” explains Tomáš, “because we thought it might be annoying for some people.”

 Other than that, he says, they didn’t really have any plans when they started the business, but they did have a name, Dhaba Beas, an amalgam of cheap and cheerful roadside fast-food joints and a river in Punjab.

“We were just very enthusiastic,” says Tomáš. “We started going to vegetable markets with a little trolley to buy fresh stuff. We swept the floor. We served people. We helped in the kitchen.”

Having first employed an Indian chef friend of theirs as a consultant, their first chef proper was their friend’s son, who moved over from India to supervise the kitchen (and get some valuable experience in a western commercial kitchen environment).

Although they ordered in spices from India and pulses from Pakistan, more common ingredients were sourced from local wholesalers, with a preference for seasonal, organic fare direct from local Czech suppliers.

Dharba Beas also adopted the thali tray system they’d seen in ashrams, in keeping with the egalitarian ethos of its founders.

“It’s a very simple system and very common in India,” explains Tomáš. “We liked that idea. If you are able to accept those trays, it’s like you are ready to share. It’s very common in ashrams.

“And we like the idea that a doctor can sit next to someone who works in a shop. We see that all the time. People sharing tables, like a guy in an expensive suit and some hippies. We think that’s great, they’re sharing the same space, they’re sharing the same food.” 

The Dhaba Beas décor matches this philosophy, with an unfussy, plain, simple aesthetic throughout. Unlike ashrams, however, Tomáš and Tomáš do not impose silence on diners. And there’s cutlery. 

The restaurant was immediately successful.

Scaling up

A couple of years later, Tomáš and Tomáš decided to open another restaurant but this time, rather than being “hidden in the background” like their first, it would be a much bigger deal, with a spot on Belehradská “with big windows”.

It was, says Tomáš, “a bit stressful” going from their previously low profile to a much more high-profile site, particularly when they extended the range of their offer, adding first Czech classical cuisine and then Asian European fusion cuisine.

Some things didn’t work out. They tried to introduce the delicious south Indian dhosa rice pancakes, and also let people create their own signature burgers but neither really took off. However, their Thai and Vietnamese food has proved to be a lot more popular.

Tomáš estimates that as many as 90% of Dhaba Beas customers are regulars, locals who work in the area around the restaurants, while around 10% of their customers, particularly in branches in the city centre, are tourists.

Eventually, by the time they had 10 restaurants up and running across Prague, they realized that they would have to use a central kitchen if they were to maintain the quality. They opened a 1,500m2 kitchen in Prague in 2017.

However, in keeping with the ashram ethos, anything that could be damaged in distribution was (and still is) prepared “on the spot” in each restaurant. 

“We cook fresh stuff every morning, at midday and in the afternoon again, so basically we have fresh food prepared three times each day,” says Tomáš.

Waste is reduced even further when, an hour before the restaurants close each evening, any remaining food is sold at a hefty 40% discount.

 “It’s very popular among students and people who are on a budget,” explains Tomáš. “So each morning, from the very beginning, we start from scratch.”

Perhaps surprisingly, Tomáš says that he and his business partner have had to make very few compromises as they have scaled up the business.

“We are firmly anchored with our ethical beliefs,” he says. “We believe in what we are doing – and that what we are doing is right. And we look at everything from that perspective. I think it’s actually really easy, if you believe in something, to avoid compromise.”

Their standalone sprout business, Happy Eat, which supplies Dhaba Beas with fresh mung bean, radish, broccoli, alfalfa and arugula sprouts, is a case in point.

“We were just searching for the freshest stuff we can get,” remembers Tomáš. “And we came to the conclusion that it could be sprouts, because we read about them somewhere. We started experimenting with them at home – and we love when your alfalfa grows and then you just eat it. You eat something really fresh and juicy. It’s really gorgeous and it’s something I want to introduce to others.”

At the time in the Czech Republic, he says, sprouts were mainly imported from Holland.

“There was nothing locally, and transporting it that distance means that it’s just not fresh. If you harvest it today, it’s good to eat for two or three days, maximum. If you consider all the logistics around that 1,000km journey to us in Prague, you’re eating stuff that is really at the end of its shelf life.”

After investing in sprout-cultivation technology from the US, Happy Eat began production and recently got organic certification from the European Union. The company now supplies no less than 23 Dhaba Beas restaurants, with an aspiration to supply other suppliers and wholesalers in the Czech Republic in due course.

While the pair claim that they don’t do plans, they are clearly doing something right.

Tomáš compares the business to a sailing boat: 

“I am the sail and Tomáš is the wheel. And maybe sometimes the anchor, stabilizing us. So I’m all about where the company is going in the future and he stabilizes us and makes sure we don’t capsize.”

Dhaba Beas recently opened their fifth restaurant outside Prague.

“We always said we would never go out of Prague because of issues with delivery, and controlling quality,” says Tomáš.

The five Dhaba Beas outside of Prague include one in Ostrava, in the northeast part of the Czech republic close to the Slovak and Polish border. Despite Ostrava being very remote from Prague, says Tomáš, “we can manage.”

Would the Dhaba Beas concept work outside of the Czech Republic?

“We don’t know what is in the future, we really don’t have plans,” replies Tomáš, perhaps inevitably.

“We are the stage where it is really important to spend time with our families – we are getting older after 20 years, and we do not want to do business every day,” he adds with a laugh. “But never say never. And we still like the job!”

The secret of our success

“I think people can see the honesty and the quality of what we do. People appreciate that we don’t compromise with the quality, we buy very high quality vegetables from local farmers during the season.

“We are really trying to do it like home-made food and I think people can see it and they appreciate it. We go for good quality – even if it is more expensive.

“You can get cherry tomatoes for £5 and you can get them for £2 – but the cheaper tomatoes don’t taste of anything. So there might be zero money in that but we get our money back with carrots or potatoes. So that’s what we do.”

Advice for other socially impactful businesses

“Don’t do it for money. Money counts, afterwards. Do it from your heart, because you really want to do it. 

Be ready to work hard. You have to be mad about it, you really have to want to do it. When you leave the office each day, you’re thinking about how you can improve the business and I think you have to think like that. It’s like having another baby.”