Tasting a lesson from failure

Updated: Oct 13, 2019, 10:29 IST | Krutika Behrawala | Mumbai

While NY grapples with a minimum wage hike, city restaurants are struggling with GST and changing tastes. Two serial restaurateurs, far from giving up, conduct a post-mortem on their shuttered businesses

In 2017, when this writer had met chef Floyd Cardoz in Mumbai, he said, "Today, restaurants are not only about serving great food but also making the entire experience fun and accessible. The reason many Americans don't go to Indian restaurants is because they don't want to look stupid asking for terms they don't understand. They need a connection and you have to find that."

Cardoz had been able to build this connect in the heart of Soho, New York, with bacon-cheddar kulcha, pork vindaloo and riffs on Indian street eats. However, the success was shortlived with news coming in that the Cardoz-led The Bombay Bread Bar (TBBB) would shutter. Cardoz replaced Paowalla with TBBB in early 2018. Designed by director Wes Anderson's set decorator Kris Moran, the restaurant was envisioned as casual, fun and vibrant avatar of its predecessor, which opened in 2016 and heralded the chef's return to cooking Indian food in New York following the success of Tabla (1998-2010).

TBBB, however, failed to combat the current challenges that NYC restaurateurs face, including a crippling hike in minimum wages. In an interview with Grub Street, the chef, now Vice President—Culinary for Estiatorio Milos chain of Greek seafood restaurants, said, "I still love the cuisine, I still love everything about it, but if it was just going to limp along, what's the point?"

Closer home, Mumbai's F&B scene is facing its own challenges, hit by the impact of GST, a growing disconnect with millennials and the constant desire to eat "something new". Successful restaurateurs and familiar faces on Mumbai's F&B scene, AD Singh and Abhayraj Kohli gather the courage to discuss lessons from failure.

'Millenial idea of Goa is pulsating party, but I was thinking relaxed hippie'

AD Singh
Lady Baga, beach shack-themed restaurant, Lower Parel Opened: December 2017; Shuttered: February 2019

Lady Baga was supposed to offer the classic beach shack experience. A Delhi import from restaurateur AD Singh's Olive Group stable, it moved into Kamala Mills in Lower Parel. Singh chose the location for its large walk-ins. He roped in chef Aloysius D'Silva of Villa Vandre fame to rustle up Goan fare. The bar featured chorizo-infused vodka and other innovations. "It seemed like we had all the right pieces," Singh tells mid-day.

Four days after Lady Baga got its liquor licence, a fire broke out at Kamala Mills, claiming 14 lives, and leaving most businesses in the compound crippled. "It was the biggest tragedy I had seen in 30 years. The aftermath was horrible. There was a backlash from the authorities, the media was frenzied and there was a general scare among the public. The footfalls crashed." Singh hoped for business to pick up but learnt gradually that it was tough to change perceptions in the wake of a tragedy. "After the fire, Kamala Mills carried the least risk in terms of fire, because of stringent and regular checks that were being conducted. But walk-ins remained weak through that year," he says.

While the fire proved a dampener, the resto-bar's susegaad vibe with cane chairs, '80s pop music and kitschy signs didn't entice today's diners. "The Goan beach shacks of my time were different from what they are today. I wanted to portray the hippie culture of the '60s, and all it stood for—liberty, equality and peace. But, millennials, who are a large part of walk-ins at Kamala Mills, see Goa as a place to party. They didn't connect with my vision," he admits.

So, when a Swedish furniture giant looking to open in the space offered a buyout, Singh took it. "Working with a sinking restaurant helps you assess the industry and business deeply. Usually, when you shut a restaurant, you get nothing. This offer helped cut our losses." Lady Baga's second outing in Mumbai is still on the cards. "It will be a different location. This time, I will also take a harder look at the vibe and make it more of a party place," Singh hopes.

Notes from a debacle

  • Eye on millennials
  • Vibe is critical

Abhayraj Kohli

'Mumbai is accustomed to Malvani, not authentic Goan'

Abhayraj Kohli
House of Lloyd, Goan-restaurant, Juhu Opened: June 2018; Shuttered: August 2019

When Abhayraj Kohli decided to replace the short-lived Porto & Poie in Juhu with another Goan restaurant that he called House of Lloyd, he was facing no apprehension. "We had barely tested the waters," says the restaurant partner. Helmed by chef Lloyd Braganza and wife Nerissa, owners of the original brand in Goa, the restaurant sourced its masalas, fresh poee and seafood from the sunshine state to offer an authentic experience.

Though celebrated when launched, over the month, House of Lloyd struggled to stay afloat. "Stereotypes about regional cuisine still exist. We had an interesting vegetarian menu but we lost out on non-meat eaters because everyone associates Goan food with fish and pork. Several non-vegetarian diners stay away from seafood in the rains, so the seasonal slump affected us, too," he says.

The withdrawal of input tax credit under GST for restaurants increased the restaurant's costs by eight per cent. On the contrary, the niche offering failed to rope in repeat diners unlike Grandmama's Café, a cafe chain Kohli owns and runs. "A multi-cuisine restaurant offers more variety. It's tough to find repeat clientele for a regional restaurant. The palate of today's diners seems more used to Malvani food rather than authentic Goan. We also realised they preferred small plates over full portions of curries and rice."

Kohli tried to reinvent the menu by including modern Goan fare but the closure of Juhu Tara Road bridge in June this year was the final nail in the coffin. "The numbers dipped by 40 per cent. There was little point in keeping it going."

Kohli doesn't dismiss the idea of opening another regional restaurant in future, but "only when the market is ripe. It will take a couple of years before Mumbai is ready to regularly frequent a specialty regional cuisine eatery than think it's a fad." For now, he is planning a VFM restobar with Lebanese, Asian and Indian fare in the same space where House of Lloyd stood. "We'll probably add herbal sheesha to the menu if we manage the permissions." Meanwhile, those who enpoyed Lloyd's eats, can lookout for a few specials on Grandmama's Café's menu, that Kohli has added.

Notes from a debacle

  • Serve small plates
  • Approach niche cuisine with care

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