Interview by Mibu Minami
Jasper Reid is a writer, broadcaster, social entrepreneur and most notably the founder of International Market Management that has brought Wendy’s and Jamie Oliver restaurant chains to India. A lover of India, he lives with his wife Megan and twin daughters in New Delhi. During the first national lockdown (2020) Jasper and Megan created a fundraiser to help migrant workers and families impacted by the pandemic.
We reached out to him to ask about his views on the recent situation and get some inspiration from the self-proclaimed Indophile.
Mangoli Mag (MM) : We met two years ago at a mutual friends’ Sunday brunch. I remember you and your family were due to go to Japan that year and we shared some info about my home country. Remembering the day, it feels like another world when we didn’t have to think twice or mask-up to enjoy a meal with friends. How are you and family doing through this second wave lockdown?
Jasper Reid (JR): We’re doing relatively really well. Frankly we’re incredibly lucky and I think that’s the way we think about all of Covid, and lockdown is. It really hurts and hammers and destroys people who don’t have much so it’s kind of an awful thing like that. I really don’t see in relative terms that it is such a dangerous thing for those who are comfortable, have houses, like us. We’ve been lucky as we sort of moved back and forth between the UK and India. We’ve been in the UK when India was very bad and visa versa. For example, I’m in the UK now and that involved a bit of cunning of staying in Greece for 10 days because I didn’t want to stay in some awful UK hotel which costs 2000 pounds. We have been really lucky, and we were also lucky to have had the chance to do lots of good especially during the first lockdown. I think you know we ran a big program feeding 35,000 people, we raised almost half a million US dollars from 35 countries and 3000 donors so that was an awesome privilege to be involved in. Our 20 restaurants were shut so we turned everything into a social enterprise. Yes, the lunch we had seems like a different world but having said that, I also see that world coming back and I’m hoping all of this will seem like a bad dream.
MM: The current lockdown is viewed differently from last year. In hindsight, it seems the first lockdown was implemented to try to avoid a catastrophe, while this time, we are in lockdown through exactly what we tried to avoid. As you and Megan provided help to many in need last year and have hands on knowledge of how the pandemic has affected people in less fortunate situations. How to you see the second wave impact on people?
JR: I guess the big point here is that the first wave, in relative terms didn’t have as severe impact as expected and that was part of the problem, it bred complacency. I was one of the majority people saying, ‘hey that was a lucky break’ and that the Indian demographic is young and maybe the immune system is better in India? Of course, we’re getting the exact opposite of all that now. I think the big thing about the 2nd wave is that it’s universal. As you say, during the first lockdown, we were out helping people who were dispossessed, who were under privileged as well as migrant workers and refugees. This second wave, it’s been, as many people say, is something that effects everybody and I wrote a piece about this in the Evening Standard in London. The point I was making generally was that it (the second wave) has left no one untouched and it’s also had a deeply shocking effect on the privileged classes who could normally buy what they need or use their contacts to get what they need. I’m sure you know that you couldn’t get anything during all of this. I was dealing with this crooked guy on the black market trying to get some Remdesivir medicine and he was asking 3 and a half Lac, almost 5000 US dollars for something that is usually 10 dollars or something.
In a way, it’s given some people some real insight into the lives of the poor. Like God is looking down on you and saying this is how it is for the other half. I hear the expression that it’s not over until it’s over for everyone or no one is safe until everyone is safe and I hope people take it to heart. I am a bit cynical and wonder if they will.
MM: The pandemic has impacted the restaurant business too. How are things and how do you see the industry recovering? What is your view on the way we dine out for the coming future?
JR: My personal view is that basically people are tribal, people are social, and people are forgetful. I’m pretty confident that give it a year or so, we’ll be back to normal. There might be that sort of thing with hand sanitizing or this and that but people just want to be with people. The idea that everything gets delivered to your home and no one goes out is complete baloney in my opinion, it goes against thousands and thousands of years of tradition, behaviour and basic habit so everything will open up like Wendy’s who cater to more of the younger boys and girls and they may not care as much. Jamie’s caters to more middle-class, so they make care a little more. But I see a whole lot of recovery and a boost to delivery. And if you are in the restaurant business as an investor like I am, it’s really shaken out the supply market, it’s really sad for the operators who have put their life savings in but there will be less competition and India is wide open. If you want to open a restaurant in Tokyo or London, it’s more fierce than a shark tank but India is like a supermarket so come to India if you want to open a restaurant.
MM: A self-proclaimed Indophile, what attracts you to India most?
JR: I love everything about India. I love more than anything the human dimension, it’s like an extraordinary celebration and explosion of human life. It’s always energizing. The people, the drama, the diversity, it’s just enlivening. I am sitting in my study in the UK and it’s in the beautiful English countryside but after a while in England I feel like it’s just too nice, too safe and it’s too comfortable and that is a high-class problem, I agree. But look, India is “A Million Mutinies” as V.S. Naipaul said (in his book), It’s a massive gift to the world in a way, and it’s true, you either love it or you hate it. I love it because it is never ever anything but extraordinary.
MM: How to you see India growing out of this pandemic? Resilience?
JR: I’m thinking a total bounce back. There is no more resilient country on Earth (than India). The is a massive shock to the economy but in a way, the country hasn’t really indebted itself in a way that many other countries have. There was so much upside to India anyway and as China matures and population ages… and frankly, where do you find a billion customers that haven’t been touched yet?
MM: When it is safer to get out there and explore the city, what would you recommend? Please share your favourite spots, areas, shops in Delhi. Any thoughts on how to enjoy and explore India or Delhi?
JR: Delhi and India, it’s like the oldest country and city on Earth and still the youngest so I would shake it up. On the one hand there’s Nizamuddin the Muslim quarter, seeing the Sufis and the Dervishes, the whole ancient tradition that comes from the Mughal Empire is pretty cool and very interesting. Then to a bit more recent in history, cruise around Lutyens’ Delhi and looking at the way people lived through the glory and splendor. The center of Delhi, Lutyens’ Delhi is one of the most beautiful urban environments you’ll see on Earth. Pick your time of year, not May or June, you’ll die from the heat!
On the young side, I am in the restaurant game, so I say get someone to take you to the new clubs, the bars and see the modern scene, mix with young Indians, soak it all up in terms of the way they hang out, the habits.
Some of our restaurants are like dating centers in disguise for the younger kids and that’s just so interesting to observe and once you get your head around the fact that young Indians are like dominating, I think around 800 or 900 million people in India are under 30 years old. So get in touch with the young scene in India.
MM: What is next for you?
JR: I’ve got lots of stuff going on. There will be more restaurants. I’ve got my own TV show now on Zee’s English language channel called “Billion Dollar Idea” and I chat with a lot of billionaires. I was running a podcast for a while called “Letter from India” and that was fun so need to get back into that. Lots of things around animals with the family. We’ve got parrots and dogs and our daughter Elsa is still feeding like a hundred street dogs.
Once again, I just love that we can do all these things where it would be difficult to do in more conventional places with too many rules. So media, restaurants, my show, animals, travel.. I mean we have been to about 7 places in India throughout the past year so the hustle and bustle never stops!
Billion Dollar Idea: https://www.youtube.com/playlist?app=desktop&list=PLmWa9ZZLlCjv9S9QmW9gs7UVj22FXsqVE
Article in the Evening Standard: https://www.standard.co.uk/insider/india-covid-crisis-black-market-oxygen-shortage-queues-b932460.html