Mumbai: Father-son duo exchanges lessons into hospitality business
As the second generation of Mumbai's quarter bar owners steps into the hospitality business with their own ventures, we get the fathers and sons to exchange notes
Pragnesh Rai recalls the first steps he took in the hospitality industry. They were in the aisles of Mulund's Deepak Bar and Kitchen, a quarter bar owned by his father Ganesh Rai. "My brother and I had to start from scratch. We'd make the drinks for the customers, serve the tables and only much later, did we take on supervisory roles."
The 31-year-old, who runs Khar's popular pub, SamBar, in fact, still spends considerable time at his father's outpost. But, ask his father if he returns the favour, and the 64-year-old smiles sheepishly and admits, "I have been there only twice." It's very noisy, he says. "Your generation manages to speak to each other over the music, but it's too loud for me. In fact, here," he says, throwing a glance at the quarter bar, which he inherited as a rice-thali eatery from his father, "if we so much as put on some music, guests turn to us and ask us to switch it off. They prefer just engaging in talk."
Pragnesh and Ganesh Rai at Mulund's Deepak Bar and Kitchen. Ganesh, 64, says initially, when the area had mills, workers would come by in droves before and after shifts. The footfall here, says Pragnesh, is still high and around five times what he gets at Khar’s SamBar. Pic/Sneha Kharabe
Quarter of a legacy
Permit rooms, better known as quarter bars, enjoy their own place in Mumbai's nightlife history. Everyone who drinks on a regular basis has been to one and has, most likely, their own favourite watering-hole. Shatbhi Basu, an independent bar consultant, says quarter bars were mainly frequented by those who could not go to proper restaurants. "The place itself was very unpretentious, so those with meagre means, who wanted to go out drinking as opposed to buying their alcohol and drinking at home, would go there. You could get IMFL and the food was also good, reasonably priced and [came in] good portions." She adds that often those in the hotel industry would frequent quarter bars as they'd get done from work late and would catch up at a local joint afterwards. Yet, it's really the advertising industry that made quarter bars hip, says Basu. "They started hanging around at a few places, which became really popular with the younger professional crowd."
Part of the reason is, significantly, the price tag of the alcohol. Because alcohol is measured in the quarter system, i.e. 750 ml, instead of the peg system (30 ml, 60 ml), it is a more lucrative prospect. Sagar Shetty, 30, whose father Diwakar owns Divya Sagar in Andheri East, says this encouraged the rise of the pre-drinking culture in which youngsters — both college students and young professionals — would tank up at quarter bars before heading out to a "party venue". For instance, before Blue Frog in Lower Parel shut down, everyone would be at Ambience Bar & Kitchen nearby, and even today every pub crawl in Bandra actually begins at Pali Naka's Janata Bar.
Avinash Shetty with father Appanna M Shetty at Powai's Akshaya Bar & Restaurant. Shetty Senior says he opened the bar as he realised that the drinking-out concept was becoming popular. "Eating home-style local food with affordable liquor is a definite hit," he adds. Pic/Sameer Markande
From the beginning
Permit rooms began to thrive when the government started relaxing rules in the Bombay Prohibition Act of 1949. In 1972, a permit system was introduced, in which restaurants could set aside a room where alcohol is served. Then in the 1980s, a large number of permit rooms were set up by the enterprising Shetty community. Diwakar says when he opened Divya Sagar in 1989, he realised that the nightlife in the area was picking up and a place in the suburbs made for a good opportunity. Currently, the next generation is moving into the hospitality business, and it's choosing its lessons well.
Beyond tandoor and Chinese
Sitting in Powai's Mantra restaurant, Sagar, is Avinash Shetty, whose family owns the Mantra chain and whose father opened Akshay Bar and Restaurant in Powai. He is accompanied by Meghnesh Salian, who runs Khar's Three Wise Monkeys and whose father runs Meghnesh Bar and Restaurant in Lower Parel. They both sound gleeful, as now a t Global Quarter, their new Powai outlet, they can conduct all the experiments that they weren't allowed as kids.
The one advice that Diwakar N Shetty, owner of Andheri East's iconic Divya Sagar Bar and Restaurant, has for son Sagar whose new venture Global Quarter with Meghnesh and Avinash will open at Powai, is to make guests feel important. Pic/Ashish Raje
Meghnesh, 31, for instance enjoys his time in the kitchen. A hospitality graduate from Bandra's Rizvi College, he recalls working on his kitchen skills at Powai's Renaissance Hotel. He'd often ask his father if he could introduce items beyond chakli at the Lower Parel venue. The response was a thundering no. "He'd tell me, do this when you get your own place," Meghnesh laughs. There is some logic to this. As Diwakar puts it, "For our permit rooms, the key is to maintain consistency in the food and drinks. Customers want to eat the same regular items and do not wish to experiment with their drinks."
But, the experiments can continue at the new joints. While SamBar holds regular food pop-ups and, of course, has a theme that won't work at Deepak, Global Quarter sees itself as a performance venue. With beer on tap from Doolally Taproom, Kimaya Brewing Co. and the Great State Ale Works from Pune, it is already looking beyond the IMFLs that their fathers serve.
Lessons for forging ahead
The second generation is aware that running a successful business is a dish with many ingredients. Avinash says, "The one thing we have learnt is to keep the staff happy. The attrition in the hospitality sector is high, but the staff our fathers employed has been around for decades. And, this comes from giving them their salaries on time, handing them good bonuses. We also take care of their medical expenses." It works the same with the customers. They realise that good food and alcohol may keep people happy, but what gets them to return is good relations. "Customers want familiar faces. If someone knows exactly what you will order, they feel good," he smiles.
If the new learns from the old, the old can learn from the new, too. At Deepak, Pragnesh talks of bringing in Malwani food pop-ups in the hope of bringing in more clientele. But, Ganesh is a step ahead. He asks if we know someone who will handle his social media. He wants Deepak to be visible on Instagram and Facebook. It might be time for Quarter Bar V 2.0.
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