From channa bhatura to ice cream

In the ever-changing city of Mumbai, there are few things as constant as the line of patrons outside Cream Centre, Chowpatty. Drive past the iconic restaurant during weekends and you will be greeted by a queue of hungry people waiting to try the legendary Channa Bhatura and some innovative new dishes.

Ice Cream Works at Cream Centre, High Street Phoenix Mills, Lower Parel. Pic/Pradeep Dhivar

Initially the owner of an ice cream parlour called Cream Centre at another location in Chowpatty, Ramesh Chona came to Mumbai from Karachi and laid the foundation stone for Cream Centre at Chowpatty in 1958. Since it’s located in a building inhabited by Jains, the food had to be vegetarian. When Chona passed away in 1976, his 18 year-old son Sanjiv took over, and for the past 36 years, has been running one of Mumbai’s most loved restaurants.

Today, at 54, Sanjiv, who started out by opening the restaurant New Yorker at Chowpatty, has established Cream Centre in 13 Indian cities and is soon going international with a branch in Dubai. Sanjiv says, “I don’t think people of my father’s generation really thought about brand names. The name Cream Centre really has no story behind it. I think my father must have just liked the name. We Chonas are instrumental in launching ice creams in India.

Inside the Cream Centre kitchen at Chowpatty. Pic/Atul Kamble

When my father was starting out, ice creams were different. They were mass-marketed and there was nothing artisanal about them. Now consumers have become aware of what good quality ice cream tastes and looks like. Most Marwaris used to place orders with us for their weddings.”

But it all started with a humble Channa Bhatura. Touted as the city’s best spot to have this spicy, sinfully yummy concoction, Cream Centre made a name for itself as one of the best vegetarian places in the city. Over the years, it moved from making the best bhatura to serving the World’s Best Nachos, a trademarked dish of freshly-made chips and a secret sauce that took Sanjiv nearly a month to develop. Nearly seven years ago, despite many advising him against it, Chona renovated Cream Centre and updated its menu.

Cream Centre at Chowpatty. Pic/atul Kamble

The result? A 40 per cent increase in sales. It went from being a place that was frequented by the area’s diamond merchants to being a hangout for white collar job holders and college students who pigged out on nachos and pizzas. Counting Dhirubhai, Mukesh and Anil Ambani as his patrons, Sanjiv recalls how the renovated Cream Centre was appreciated for its “chic and international ambience.”

The original Cream Centre along with its branches in Mumbai and other cities are designed in collaboration with a firm in Singapore and executed by Indian architects.  He adds, “We offer five cuisines — Indian, Mexican, Italian, sizzlers and chats — and employ around 20 chefs dedicated to each cuisine. Our staff consists of people who have been with us for 30 years.”

Ice Cream Works at Lower Parel. Pic/Pradeep Dhivar

Sanjiv, a tall, confident man who refuses to be photographed, proudly states that he was the first to serve Mexican food and pizzas in India. He says, “I wanted to get into restaurants. At 18, it was a huge learning experience. Our dishes were not authentic but they created a standard. I then imported the best dishes from New Yorker to Cream Centre.”

He missed out on a chance to study at Cornell University due to his father’s demise, but says passion drives him. “I stand for the best in what I do. There’s no competition when you are the best.”  The restaurant, he claims, serves food that uses the highest quality ingredients. Cream Centre imports tomatoes from Italy, and their paneer comes only from Punjab Sindh Dairy. Their motto, that’s helped them last all these years, is ‘best quality at value-for-money prices.’

After 36 years, Sanjiv has now passed Cream Centre’s legacy on to his son and daughter who work with him. His 25 year-old daughter Alisha is director at the parent company Prince Cuisines and CEO of Ice Cream Works, a newly launched ice cream brand at High Street Phoenix, Chowpatty and Shivaji Park. Alisha says, “My grandfather started with ice-creams, so we decided to come full circle.

From my father I’ve learnt that quality must be of the highest standards. Our raw materials and machinery is imported, yet our prices are affordable.” At Rs 38 a scoop, we would agree. They also have high-end ice creams, such as the deliciously named kids special Curious Caterpillar (Rs 228) that looks so attractive, some children refuse to eat it. While growing up, Alisha dropped by at Cream Centre often with her friends to gorge on her favourite Cheese Corn Balls.

Three generations of Chonas have given Mumbai three different but extremely pleasurable dining experiences. Their contribution is best summed up by Sanjiv’s friend BS Nagesh, vice chairman, Shopper’s Stop, who once told Chona that their brand makes India proud.
We’ll eat to that.

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