It is some time before 4 pm when 62-year-old Urmila Vinayak Padwal walks into the tiny, smoke-filled kitchen of her eatery, Gharoba, on Dr SS Rao Road, Parel. She observes closely as her staff conduct the afternoon’s chores.
Lunchtime at Gharoba sees a flood of diners, especially office-goers from Parel, who make a dash to the eatery for its veg and non-veg thalis. Pics/Pradeep Dhivar
One woman is busy stirring the ladle into a pot of chicken curry — its pungent, coastal aroma wafting through the room — while another is feverishly scrubbing empty vessels. Padwal doles out a few instructions in Marathi, and then heads to the garment shop, next to her eating joint. Here, she makes a quick note of the number of outfits stitched, before returning to the empty eatery to chat with us. Thanks to the mid-afternoon lull, Padwal can spare a little time.
A veg thali at Gharoba includes rice, roti, dal, two side dishes and pickle. It costs Rs 60
Until an hour ago, she and her team of 10 middle-aged women had their hands full, serving their famed veg Kohlapuri, Malwani sol kadhi, and surmai fry (among other things). “Around 100 people have eaten here since morning,” she says, after crosschecking the figure with Ranjana Kate (46), who handles the accounts. “Same story, Sunday to Sunday,” Kate adds in Hindi.
The Stri Hitwardhini Audhyogic Sahkari Sanstha, popularly known as Gharoba, still runs the garment business — stitching and selling gowns that women lounge in at home — that began under social worker Kamala Vichare (84) in 1966, as a platform to provide employment opportunities for women.
But, in its 50th year, the business has taken an interesting turn. Padwal, who started the eatery near the garment shop in 2007, has just opened another food joint at Kamgar Stadium in Elphinstone Road. Today, the women’s establishment has become synonymous with home-cooked food. Gharoba’s kothimbir vadi, modaks, puran polis and Malwani meals draw people in hoards, as much as its taak (buttermilk), amla juice and kairi panna drink.
But, even as the association marks its golden jubilee, Padwal, who took over from Vichare in 1992, points out that this success story could have gone another way. “The place where the eatery now stands was given on lease to Sahakari Bhandar in the mid 1990s for 10 years after we consulted our former head (Vichare). At the time, we only had the garment shop,” recalls Padwal.
“What I realised was that while we had started Gharoba to provide a means of livelihood to women, not everyone had the skill to stitch or sell dresses. But, almost all women, who came to me for a job, knew how to cook. So, I thought, why not start a food business?”
Unfortunately, she says, Sahakari Bhandar wasn’t obliging and refused to vacate their property. “My workers and I went on a three-day-long strike, sitting outside the store until they finally agreed to give back what was ours. It was just a handful of women fighting against an entire conglomerate, but we won the battle.”
In December 2007, when Padwal first opened Gharoba’s eatery, they introduced it as a healthy snacking joint. “Since I was young, I’ve enjoyed making new dishes. So, I decided to bring some of my kitchen experiments to the new business. We started as a dosa joint, selling moong, beetroot and carrot dosas and idlis. That went on well for five to six months. But, we soon figured that people enjoyed vada pav and samosas more,” says Padwal.
Meanwhile, Gharoba landed a tiffin deal with a major pharmaceutical company in Mumbai Central, and began supplying lunch to its employees. Within the next few years, its meals won over a large tribe of office-goers in Parel, and Gharoba began to serve lunch and dinner.
Today, work at Gharoba begins by 5 am in the morning, with the cooks — brothers Indal and Promod Jaiswal — and the handful of women, slogging it out in the kitchen making the dals, sabjis, chicken and fish curries, for which orders begin to pour in from as early as 11 am, says Kate, who has been with the establishment since 1996. All the cooks were first trained under Padwal.
The veg thali at Gharoba costs R60, and the non-veg thali (fish or chicken) is priced at R90. “We aren’t here to make profits, but provide women employment opportunities,” says Padwal, while explaining why her meals aren’t overpriced. And while the eatery has barely 10 tables, the steady flow of customers, keeps it going. “But, we take a lot of home delivery orders daily, and that’s more than the number of visitors we get here,” says Padwal.
"On an average, around 1,400 rotis are parcelled from here every day," adds Kate. And her co-worker Sheetal Gangan (55) alone supplies 400 rotis, religiously making them from home every day, before reporting to work at noon. Padwal allows this leeway for her female staffers. "I don’t want to burden my staff. They already many responsibilities at home, which they cannot ignore."
Yet, she continues to work till 10.30 pm every day. "This is my home, this is my kitchen, and this is our food. It’s homemade, which is why everyone loves it."