Rude Food by Vir Sanghvi: The Bombay Boys
The founders of Mumbai’s The Bombay Canteen group have faced adversity squarely in the face and won during the pandemic
Last March, I went to the newly opened Bombay Sweet Shop to meet the men behind it. I’d known Sameer Seth from before his first restaurant opened and liked him. He was suave and good-looking and had run restaurants in New York. I liked his partner Yash Bhanage too. There was something passionate and real about his no-bullshit attitude which had appealed to me right from the first time I met him at The Bombay Canteen, the restaurant that launched their group.
The third partner was a chef I had admired from afar for decades. Floyd Cardoz took Indian food to America when everyone said it couldn’t be done. Trained in the techniques of French cuisine, he made Americans see that Indian food was as worthy of respect as anything that came out of Europe.
Ever since Floyd, Yash and Sameer had opened The Bombay Canteen, they had become Mumbai’s golden boys. The spectacular success of the Canteen had been followed by acclaim for their second restaurant O Pedro (where the food was actually better than the Canteen). And now, their third operation, the Bombay Sweet Shop, was the talk of the town.
None of us knew it then but in less than a fortnight nearly everything would change.
The first shock came in the form of a phone call from Sameer. I was back in Delhi when he called to tell me that Floyd had contracted Covid and had been admitted to a hospital in New York. He believed that Floyd had picked up the infection on the flight to New York so we were all in no danger. Even so, self-isolation might be a good idea.
So, I began to isolate myself for a fortnight when Sameer called again. He was sorry to have to tell me this, he said, his voice dulled by grief and anxiety, but Floyd had died.
What followed was, as Yash recalls, surreal. Sameer and Yash attended Floyd’s funeral on Zoom (which in itself was a novelty back then). But even as they grieved, the whispers on social media started. Shouldn’t Sameer and Yash have been more open about Floyd’s condition? Why had they kept it quiet? Had they endangered the lives of their customers?
The partners tried protesting that they had told everyone who came into contact with Floyd about his condition but their detractors would not listen. As the whispers grew louder, Yash now remembers, “We were just so stunned and surprised that we were not even in a fit state of mind to be there for Barkha, Floyd’s wife.”
Things did not improve. Nobody really understood Covid in those days or knew how it spread. (It does not make food infectious, for example!) So a pall of gloom hung over the restaurant industry.
Sameer and Yash took the drastic decision to close their restaurants. There was no shortage of customers but they just felt, Sameer told me, that it was wrong to force their staff to take local trains and buses to come to work and risk infection.
It was a wise decision. A few days later, the Prime Minister went on TV and announced an immediate lockdown. By then, those of The Bombay Canteen’s employees who had wanted to leave Bombay and go to their homes had already left. “We will see you when we re-open in 45 days,” Sameer told them hopefully.
We sometimes forget how dark the early days of the national lockdown were. We could not leave our homes. Home delivery of food was not allowed. Migrants crowded the streets, trying to walk home, left with no other means of transport.
Sameer and Yash contemplated the future gloomily. They had gone from being the golden boys of the restaurant scene to becoming two restaurant orphans, bereft without their mentor, stuck with unfounded allegations around their names, left with shuttered-up restaurants and with no prospect of any kind of recovery as the lockdown stretched on.
A ray of hope appeared when delivery was allowed. They had to now persuade enough of their chefs to come back to make this work: they needed some revenue. Enough of the staff did come back for them to open one kitchen (O Pedro) for delivery. There were many takers but Yash and Sameer were still unhappy.
“We made many mistakes during that period,” Yash says now. “We tried serving a delivery menu of the most popular dishes from The Bombay Canteen and O Pedro. It was popular enough but many of the dishes did not travel well. We needed a fresh look at our food for delivery. And we didn’t communicate enough with our team.”
All restaurateurs make mistakes. But only the good ones know how to recover. The uplifting story of The Bombay Canteen group is how they pulled it all back and turned it around.
For a start, they changed the way they saw their operations. They had always looked at the Bombay Sweet Shop as a Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory kind of fantasy store. Now, they abandoned that idea and saw it as an upmarket and modern mithaiwalla supplying sweets to the city. They realised that if the group was going to make it through the crisis, they had to find a way of re-establishing the warm and witty ethos that defined their group and communicating it to their customers through delivery. They created a bot on WhatsApp to answer questions about the Bombay Sweet Shop and found ways, even in joyless times, of trying to radiate joy.
They began to add joy to their delivery food. Every week or so, there would be a new menu based on some fun idea: a funky sandwich range, the star of which was a pastrami sandwich; a menu of Indian-Chinese favourites; a variety of pita pockets. Complicated dishes (a whole duck, for instance) were made available on pre-order.
They saw the need to bring their staff together so they created WhatsApp groups, had weekly virtual townhalls with their team, and arranged for podcasts and discussions (over WhatsApp again) to keep staff engaged.
They also re-thought their product offering. Just as the delivery product was different from the restaurant product, they ventured into retail, selling sauces, butters and breads. They collaborated with Stranger and Sons to do a Bombay Canteen-branded guava gin.
Most difficult of all, they tried to organise their own delivery through a fleet of 18 bikes and delivery vehicles. A lot of effort went into working out the best routes for the delivery riders, many of whom had more than one delivery to execute. At Diwali, orders at The Bombay Sweet Shop crossed two thousand a day. But somehow, they managed to cope.
There were problems along the way. At one stage, a chef in the cold kitchen tested Covid positive. They closed all operations for five days, sanitised the operation, sent other chefs into isolation and were upfront with their customers.
In December, Thomas Zacharias, the very gifted chef who had been part of the original Bombay Canteen team, left to pursue other interests. Sameer and Yash promoted Hussain Shahzad, who ran O Pedro, to take his place and the cuisine has more than held up.
As of this writing, the restaurants are closed again as Mumbai has locked down to fight the second wave. Perhaps they will be open again by the time you read this. But, Sameer and Yash say they have learned how to cope. They have come through the darkest period in their lives and discovered that they can handle adversity.
I haven’t met them since that meeting at the Bombay Sweet Shop. But now, I have a new respect for them because of the way in which they bounced back from death and despair; without ever losing their edge.
The views expressed by the columnist are personal
From HT Brunch, June 6, 2021
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