Coronavirus effect: Pooja Dhingra's Le 15 Cafe in Colaba shuts down
Pooja Dhingra's chic Colaba cafe becomes the first major victim of the impact that the novel Coronavirus pandemic has had on the jittery F&B industry in the city
We remember walking into Le 15 Café in Colaba on a late evening craving a gooey chocolate brownie. They had run out by then but a familiar voice from behind the counter told us if we weren't in a hurry, she'd bake a fresh batch. That was Pooja Dhingra, in her black and pink uniform and contagious smile, even at the fag end of a tiring service day.
Lodged opposite Ling's Pavilion, patrons to the Parisian café had many such stories to share, as seen with the thank you notes left on tissue paper. In 2015, Dhingra coaxed chef Pablo Naranjo Agular into moving to Mumbai from Colombia to create the savoury menu for the café. Their social media posts of sunny-side ups, waffles and tartine were drool-worthy enough to make followers land up for a meal.
The lockdown and subsequent slump in business has pushed Dhingra to take the tough call of shuttering the café for good. "These are uncertain times and everyone has to look at the vision of their companies to decide the road ahead. Unfortunately for us, that meant to cut down our overheads to ensure we can keep the dessert business going. The challenges we predicted were low walk-ins, high rentals and the onset of the monsoon and a general slow-down of business," said Dhingra.
The café has been profitable for three years while the company has been profitable for six months. "We are operating from a central kitchen and servicing outlets. With a predicted decrease in revenue, it wouldn't make sense to keep this space going," reasoned Dhingra. For her, it's all guesswork about how long until the economy picks up. "What will change is how people dine out, and the emergence of social distancing that means reducing covers and higher deliveries," she said. Le15 at Lower Parel and Bandra will function as usual when the lockdown ends.
'A live organism'
When we call Naranjo in his home in Colombia, he is baking bread. His voice gives away the mood. Kneading dough might possibly help deal with the news. "A restaurant is a live organism that needs to feed, enjoy, rest, sleep and start all over again the next day. If you are not nourishing it, it suffers a lot. Coronavirus is showing us that reality," sighs Naranjo. "The time at the café was everything. I poured my heart and soul into it. I remember the times when Pooja would ask me to take a day off. But I would still show up on my off day. When I saw her love towards the business, it worked the same way for me. It's how we managed what we built together," he reminisces.
Dhingra is working on absorbing some of her staff. "We are working on an e-cookbook to raise funds for the team," she shares, signing off, "I dreamt of having a café since I was 16. I built it piece by piece with all my savings. Every memory will stay with me for life."
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