He did a summer job there at 14, for a measly Rs 200 per month. Twenty-six years later, he went on to head the family-run restaurant chain. It's the kind of stuff that Bollywood dreams are made of. But then, for Samir Kuckreja, MD of Nirula's, life has always been about chasing that childhood dream and never looking back.
"Nirula's was established by my maternal grandfather in 1934," says Kuckreja, when I meet him at the chain's famous outlet in Connaught Place. He's dressed formally, in a striped cotton shirt and crisp grey trousers, but his manner is informal, disarmingly modest. Chatting with his employees, he seems almost too affable for his designation.
"It was a family business," he continues, "and we had too many people around to manage it. But I did dream of running it on my own some day."
Samir Kuckreja, the MD of Nirulas
Despite being related to the Nirula's family, Kuckreja chose to rough it out to reach on top. In 1989, he went to Cornell to do a hotel and restaurant management course. Then, he worked with Nirula's for nine years, looking after the business development and marketing side. Stints at Yum! India and various other restaurants in Mumbai followed. "I worked closely with Sanjay Narang, the renowned hotelier and it really helped me learn the ropes," he recalls.
But the turning point for him came in 2006, when Malaysia-based private equity fund Navis Capital acquired Nirula's and Kuckreja was appointed MD by the new management. Were there hard feelings at home? "No. It was a smooth takeover and family members thought it to be in their best interests." Soon after taking over, Kuckreja revamped the menu and opened other outlets, which expanded their business exponentially. He introduced new dishes and flavours and diversified into casual dining with outlets like Pot Pourri.
New retail formats were created in the form of Express outlets, and food courts. Under Kuckreja, Nirula's has held its own even as several international players have entered the market. "I guess the name Nirula's in Delhi conveys a sense of warmth and intimacy that's been associated with people for generations," he says.
"When they think of ice creams like the Hot Chocolate Fudge, they think Nirula's." And of course, it's his favourite ice cream as well. "Without doubt, yes. It's something that I practically grew up on," he smiles. When the city's busy sampling his desserts over the weekend, Kuckreja's taking out his family for fancy dinners to places like the 360 Degrees at the Oberoi.
"I also hang out at Chokola, the caf in Basant Lok with my twin daughters Kimaya and Nanki, aged 10. It's funny, I was a terrible eater as a kid, but I am sorted now. Must be all those years at Doon School!"
He's already spent a large part of his life away from home, but that hasn't stopped him from exploring further. "I love travelling. After my years in the US, I took a year off to do nothing but travel. I went skiing in Gulmarg with my family this year and thoroughly enjoyed it." All that sport goes on to explain his trim physique.
"That, coupled with my workouts," he adds. "I'm not into gyms. Running three times a week and playing golf and tennis over the weekend suffices for me." It's all very healthy for someone in the fast food business. I ask him if he has any of the traditional vices.
"None that I could think of," he shrugs. "I don't smoke and I only drink occasionally. My wife Tandip is the first girl I fell in love with. Perhaps, I should have loosened up a bit."
Perhaps not. His single-minded focus and determination are the virtues that made Samir Kuckreja the man he is today.
Born: Delhi, 1966
Family: Married, with two daughters
Educated: BA (Economics) from St. Stephen's, BS in Hotel Administration from Cornell University
First job: Summer job at the age of 14 with Nirula's
Favourite films: Blood Diamond, Proof of Life
Favourite destination: Bali
Would love to visit: The Great Barrier Reef
Mantra in life: Walk the talk