Our bank balance is zero, say the owners of restaurants with SHI staff

Updated: Jul 06, 2020, 07:53 IST | Phorum Dalal | Mumbai

Owners of Mirchi & Mime and Madeira & Mime that employed hearing-and speech-impaired staff announce the closure of both restaurants, employees laid off in April this year

Mirchi and Mime opened in 2015
Mirchi and Mime opened in 2015

"It is difficult for a mother to kill her child. If a foster parent is going to take care of it, we are okay with that," Raja Sekhar Reddy, who co-founded Squaremeal Foods with Shishir Gorle, said after the team announced the closure of their restaurants Mirchi & Mime and Madeira & Mime since they opened in 2015 and 2017 respectively, last week.'

Both restaurants won hearts and appetites for the warm service by 50 speech-and hearing-impaired (SHI) staff in the front house and created an inclusive environment of warm hospitality and an impeccable modern-Indian menu.

Madeira and Mime opened in 2017Madeira and Mime opened in 2017

The lockdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic brought their revenue down to one-tenth and in April, they decided to vacate the Powai spaces located in Transocean House, Hiranandani Gardens.

From day one of service, the restaurants were running full. "We were making Rs 70 lakh at Mirchi and Rs 60 lakh at Madeira. In March, when our expenditure for the month was already done, we were down to Rs 7-8 lakh per outlet. Our Rs 1.5 crore revenue was down to Rs 12 lakh. We had made a loss of over Rs 1 crore that month itself," said Reddy. In April, they laid off 170 operating staff with one-month salary and severance. "People said we were taking a hasty decision then. Now, they are telling us 'acha decision liya'. For an employee, it is bad to lose a job but as an employer, this is the best we could do," said Reddy explaining the math. "Our fixed costs are viable only at 80 per cent occupancy, not to forget heavy rentals and landlords appearing reluctant to lower their guard. Wages form 30 per cent of our costs. Clearly, we would accumulate a loss of about Rs 1 crore per outlet before we break even. It didn't make sense for us and we decided to bite the humble pie," said Reddy. The team reached out to 80-odd vendors in April itself to negotiate pending payments. "Honestly, we have no future plans. Our bank balance is zero," he said.

Shishir Gorle (left) and Raja Sekhar Reddy, founders of Squaremeal Foods
Shishir Gorle (left) and Raja Sekhar Reddy, founders of Squaremeal Foods

Successful start
After a three-month special classroom training programme, when Mirchi opened in 2015 for trials, the SHI staff was jittery and nervous. They couldn't serve properly and mixed up orders. "By the end of the first week, they had picked up their duties just by observation. Our second outlet opened purely based on visual training," said Reddy.

Customer engagement drew in repeat customers. "In the beginning, people came out of curiosity but we ensured our food called them back. All of us used to play dumb charades as kids and sign language challenged the customers to interact with the staff. When they didn't know how to convey a request, they would ask standby managers to help them learn the signs."

Two years ago, the duo also founded Ekalavya Foundation, vocational training and placement set up exclusively for the SHI. "Between April and January this year, we were able to get 150 people employed with Amazon, Godrej, Grofers, Mahindra, Indian Oil, BPCL, etc. We will work on that after the lockdown," said Reddy. While the team hopes their brands will find a safe home, Reddy has not had a formal chat with anyone. "Sab ki haalat tight hai," he said.

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