GEORGE TOWN, Jan 18 ― Punjabi restaurant Sardaarji, which was awarded Bib Gourmand status by the Michelin Guide last December, has only been around since June 2019.
It really just started out as a way for retiree Ranjit Singh to pass the time.
The former civil servant ventured into the food and beverage industry almost by accident when he helped his nephew start a chapati stall back in 2018.
The chef at Sardaarji making the naan in a charcoal tandoori oven.
“From there, I was thinking of starting a brand, a restaurant to sell Punjabi and North Indian food and so Sardaarji was born,” he said.
The 67-year-old, together with his brother Sarjit Singh and children Ranmeet Singh and Sangeetha Kaur, teamed up and started Sardaarji in 2019.
Though none of them are trained cooks or chefs, they made sure to hire experienced chefs direct from Pakistan and India.
“We selected popular North Indian and Punjabi dishes and even though we can’t cook, we made sure to check the quality of our ingredients and the dishes produced by our chefs,” said Ranmeet.
Being the only Punjabi restaurant in Penang, the eatery quickly gained popularity but it hit a snag when Covid-19 pandemic hit in 2020.
“It was eight months after we opened and due to the lockdown, we had to close the shop,” Ranjit said.
He said the business came to a standstill and at some point, he was considering dismissing their workers and shutter the business completely.
“That was when an opportunity arose, we were asked to supply set meals to the frontliners at the Penang General Hospital,” he said.
Cheese naan baking in the charcoal tandoori oven.
From there, they started promoting takeaway meals on their social media along with signing up for Grab and this received good responses from their customers.
He said they started out with three orders per day and grew to about 20.
“We survived the lockdowns because of our customers who supported us and some have even begged us to try to pull through as there are no other Punjabi restaurants in Penang,” he said.
Throughout the pandemic, they also worked with non-governmental organisations to prepare 100 to 150 meals to be delivered to Covid-19 red zones where people were quarantined.
He said even their landlord agreed to reduce their rental during the pandemic and this helped them stay afloat till the reopening of all economic sectors early last year.
Ranjit Singh and son Ranmeet at Sardaarji.
On being awarded the Michelin Bib Gourmand, Ranjit said they did not know that Michelin judges had visited their restaurant in the months leading to the award ceremony last month.
“We did not know anything about it, even when we received an email inviting us to the award ceremony… we did not know that we would be getting the award,” he said.
He said it came as a surprise that they were awarded the Bib Gourmand so the rumours that they had “bought” the award were simply not true.
“We are honoured to receive the award, this shows that our strict quality control with regards to ingredients and flavours have paid off,” he said.
Ranmeet said they were in charge of purchasing all ingredients for the restaurant and they made sure each dish is cooked on order instead of being prepared ahead.
“This made sure the quality of our food remained high and even when we were struggling through the lockdowns, we never tried to cut costs by getting cheaper or lower grade ingredients,” he said.
Ranjit said that while the Bib Gourmand award is considered an honour in the culinary world, nothing can be compared to the honour their regular customers bestowed on them through their steadfast support.
“I wish to say that this Bib Gourmand award belongs to our customers who have supported us and helped us through the challenging times of the pandemic,” he said.
He stressed that their prices will remain the same despite being awarded the Bib Gourmand.
“We will not increase our prices unless it is due to the increase in costs of raw ingredients,” he added.
Sardaarji, located on 6, China Street in George Town, is open from 12pm to 10pm daily and closed on Tuesdays.