Dilawer Singh

Image caption: Dilawer Singh

Credit: Will Kirk / Johns Hopkins University

The right combination

In August 2017, Dilawer Singh, Engr '17 (MS), was hosting yet another cookout when his friends made an intriguing suggestion. Knowing firsthand how delicious his Punjabi dishes were, Singh's buddies spontaneously encouraged him to start a food delivery service. Within hours, the group helped him conceptualize Dil's Kitchen, a food delivery business that would use a Facebook page to market Singh's tandoori steak kabobs and chana masala to Indian students on Hopkins' Homewood campus.

Friends and family play a major role in Singh's culinary success story, which began with that cookout brainstorm and evolved into a pop-up restaurant in Baltimore's R. House food hall (his friends chopping onions and Singh's mother, Baldish, serving as head chef) before his business evolved into its current incarnation: Dil's Punjabi Masala, a signature spice blend available online and in grocery stores from Baltimore to Seattle to San Antonio. Made in collaboration with his mom, a professional chef in her native India and later the cook at the Singh family's Arkansas burger joint, the spice blend was a pandemic pivot that paused his search for a permanent restaurant location.

Right away, Singh saw an opportunity: "It was obvious people were going to have to start cooking at home." In March 2020, Singh established the spice business as an LLC, and the company officially became a family affair—exactly as Singh had first envisioned it.

"I never started this for myself," he says. "My mission is to bring my mother's recipes to the world."

From weekly deliveries to a pop-up to an almost-restaurant to mail-order spices—how did you balance staying flexible while also giving each iteration 100%?

My main goal for Dil's was to bring my mom's recipes to the public with minimal thought on scaling at the time. I believe it was relatively easy for me to pivot because I had complete control over Dil's. I did the cooking when I was delivering; I orchestrated the pop-up as well as the mail-order spices. I started the business as one person, so my goals were automatically boiled down to simply what was possible. We have now scaled up to a family business, but the goal-oriented approach has kept the business nimble with as little overhead as possible.

What is the best part about working with your family? What is the most challenging?

The best part is that I love my family to pieces, so I think being able to achieve something together brings me the most joy. My parents immigrated to the U.S. without any knowledge of how to start a business, but they did it and were successful. Of course, there was a lot of trial and error, mistakes, and recalibration. Now they can help direct Dil's to avoid those same things. It's so comforting to be able to call them up and get their perspective. The most challenging part is that many years in the food business can occasionally narrow those perspectives. Dil's necessitates different ideas and approaches that don't always align with what my family has experienced with their business. Finding a balance between what has worked and what might work can be difficult at times.

At first your intention was to sell your spice blend online, but you soon pivoted to getting your product in stores. Can you explain that decision?

I noticed that my website wasn't getting enough traffic to build a brand. I took a step back and tried looking at the website through a customer's eyes. I asked myself: "Would I buy this product online?" I wouldn't have—largely because, with only one product for sale, Dil's wasn't inspiring brand confidence. I realized I was asking people to blindly trust this brand, which isn't how the world works. So I thought while we build the brand through social media, website promotions, and online recipes, why not bring the masala blend directly in front of the customer by having it in grocery stores as well? It was a logical step to build confidence in our brand while also driving more traffic to our website (the website, dilskitchen.com, is written on the labels of our spice bottles).

You have another job, at a medical supply startup. What's your strategy to avoid burnout?

Oof! This is a tough question. Honestly, I do get burned out, and only recently have I found something that seems to at least minimize that. I try to maintain a daily schedule so that I get into a routine. I plan out my day so that I don't have to think about what I need to do for this job or that job. It removes that feeling of, "I have a billion things to get done by the end of the day and it's already 3 p.m. and I'm sleepy." That's what causes burnout for me: always playing catch-up. A routine keeps me grounded and focused.

If you could go back and do Dil's Kitchen all over, what would you do differently?

I would start selling spices along with delivering meals. I was taking orders and delivering food to strangers who said they enjoyed the food. This was a great opportunity to show them that they could cook similar meals in their own kitchen with our masala blend and recipes.

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