How to run and sustain a new hospitality venture in the lockdown? Hunger Inc. tells us

The lockdown has been difficult for all of us and particularly for the Indian F&B industry. And we won’t be wrong in saying that it was particularly challenging for Hunger Inc., the hospitality company that owns and runs O Pedro, The Bombay Canteen and Bombay Sweet Shop.
A few days after opening their newest venture, The Bombay Sweet Shop, Hunger Inc. lost one of its founders, Chef Floyd Cardoz, to COVID, in New York. All their outlets had to be closed in the lockdown and  Just before the lockdown in March, they opened Bombay Sweet Shop, which had to soon close operations because of the lockdown.
But now they are back and back with a bang. Sameer Seth and Yash Bhange, Partners, Hunger Inc. talk to LuxeBook about sustenance, survival, innovation and how to keep at it and answer all our webinar’s registrants’ questions.
See the video above and read the highlights below.
What were the lockdown challenges and how did you overcome them?
Sameer: If you remember, in March, there was also a lot of uncertainty whether its safe to reopen for delivery. Is corona transmitted through food? Is it not transmitted through food? Getting the right information and speaking to the right people and how you go about the whole process, a long one but eventually when we had the information, we realised that the biggest thing is to focus on the safety aspect of it. How do we make sure that we are putting protocols in place and keeping people safe? Despite all the protocols you just said, someone tested positive because of it, but we were having those cheques and balances which allowed us to figure it out, be able to take corrective action for that.
Yash: Also, losing Chef Floyd was a huge personal loss. I feel we might never recover from it. Apart from that, dealing with corona, we also need to be realistic and take a reality check. Yes, the restaurant has suffered a lot but there are also people at the frontline who are dealing with much bigger dangers like doctors and policemen who are actually dealing with the situation on a first-hand basis. So, yes, having that first positive case put us back a certain point. If you look all over the world, people are getting a bit more educated on how COVID 19 spread and what are the precautionary measures that we can take. I don’t think that it’s just our industry. It’s just us as citizens of this country that need to learn to wear a mask, maintain social distancing and wash your hands.
How do we survive during these times and despite these many challenges, how did you manage to resume operations? 
Sameer: At the base, it was always about the story we are trying to tell or what is the emotions that we are trying to tap. For all three, The Bombay Canteen, Opedro and Bombay Sweet Shop, that was the thought process that we applied.  And while delivery was always a part of what we did, it was never a big aspect of our business because we were very much focused on getting people in and enjoy the experience.
In terms of what is the experience that we are going to provide and what is it that people are looking for right now. Obviously, the delivery, historically, has always been about ‘Let’s get food quickly and cheaply to people’ but we were like, “That is not our forte, so how do we sort of relook at that piece in a way that establishes trust and is true to the brands we built.” For us, the answer was clear; We wanted to open with a balanced menu of comfort food and what had excitement. And keep changing the menu so that people always look towards us for those menu changes which allows them to try something new again. It brings a certain joy to your life. Earlier, you could go out for entertainment, for a movie or go travel. All of those things were suddenly disappearing but you could still bring in food. So, how to provide that joy through food was something we were really focused on. 
Yash: The first part of the question was how did we survive? We are still trying to learn that ourselves as well. I don’t think that we have survived it yet. One thing for every entrepreneur to realise within this time is that we are not going to make money. So let’s be honest that we’re not even going to break even. But what you can really invest in is making sure that you are in the minds and hearts of your guests. Something that we always treasure is the goodwill and the community we want to create with our guests and that’s what helped us survive this pandemic. So, if you look at the way we convey ourselves over social media, there is a certain amount of transparency. We’ll always show how the food is being made and the precautions that we are taking. If you order the food, you will see that it comes in double bags. On the bags, it will again say the precautions we are taking.
But it is also being done in a very happy and cheerful way, like when we tell people to wash their hands, we tell them to sing a song (Mumbai Meri Jaan) with it so that they remember for how many seconds they have to wash their hands for. We want people to remember happier times and not these sad times. It’s really extremely important to be transparent, same with Bombay Sweet Shop. We are a Mithai shop but at the end of the day, when do you remember the last time that any Mithai shop was showing you how the Mithais are being made like the actual premises where it is being made, the hygiene that’s been followed. And it is really important for us to have this level of transparency. Instead of thinking about how much money we are going to need to survive, we survive on thinking what is the goodwill we can create in these six months.
How do you cut costs, motivate and train your team in these times?
Yash: That is actually a good question. We have not cut costs. I feel with the amount of precautionary measure that we will be taking, it will be increasing costs drastically. In terms of the team, we had a really big team, some of them are on leave, but what is important is to be very honest with them. I still remember I took a briefing with my team even before the lockdown because I was seeing what was happening with our friends in Hong Kong and Singapore who owned restaurants. To be honest with them and saying, “This is coming, even if you like it or not, you all will be getting paid salaries for the next month and the month after but it’s very important that you save this money because we don’t know what the next year looks like.” Being extremely transparent with them to say that this is how the business is doing right now and this is what we can afford to do. What our employees like and respect is that from day 1, even when we opened for COVID 19, both Sameer and I have been there with them, working side by side. And that is something very true to what we believe in.
If we are asking them to brave into coming to work, we should be there as well. In terms of cutting costs, obviously, rents form a very important part of any restaurant project. I think it is very important for any entrepreneur to have that relationship with their landlord and speak to them. Obviously, the landlords are also going through a difficult time when they are not getting any income for six months. But you need to have that relationship to explain to them that our survival is their survival as well. In terms of other costs, ingredients’ cost has got up drastically because good ingredients are difficult to find right now since the logistic chain has been broken down. So, costs haven’t gone down at all. One thing than the restaurants will see once we come back even in a full way is the increase in expenditure of using sanitisers, good and organic chemicals in your kitchen and restaurant. So, I don’t think that the costs are going down anytime soon
How will the new dynamics and statistics work? Will you be making any profits in the short or long run? Are you all making profits or loss or its even?
Sameer: As Yash was saying earlier, right now, the key is to survive. No restaurant or business exists in a vacuum, it exists because there is a whole village around it whether its the suppliers or guests or landlords or other partners. I think the key remains to have open and honest conversations with everyone and seeing what is possible at that time. Honestly, we are not making any money right now. There is still a lot of clarity that we are awaiting like certain cities have opened up in the country for dining while Bombay still hasn’t. When it does open up, we have no idea what the final capacity restrictions would be, etc. So, there is still a lot to be figured out but we are making sure that we are staying in touch with every important stakeholder in the business and having those conversations very regularly to make it sustainable for everyone. The key is surviving through this period and then hoping to come out to the other side and getting back some sort of normalcy.
Yash: One of the very good things that we did in the first couple of months was that we knew we didn’t need the entire team to be coming in for work and it was important to start using this time to learn new skills. So, we had a very detailed time-table which included podcasts that the teams had to listen to and there was a certain time in the week when the entire team used to meet up on a Zoom call. Also, every leader was the in-charge of taking at least 3 trainings a week and there was a google calendar which said this training is on so time and to sign up for it.
So, we used this time very well, we also reached out to liquor suppliers and beer makers to say, “Can you all do these trainings with our team over Zoom as well?”. We were able to use the 2-3 months when all weren’t back to operations, very well and it also helped us check in on how our team is doing. It was a really different time, something none of us have faced this before, so more than training, it was also important to check in on the mental state of your team like how are they dealing with it, just so they have someone to talk to as well.  Those were some of the things that we were doing in severe lockdown. 
Talking about mental health, how have you guys been taking care of yourselves?
Yash: I think my mental health went for a toss when 15 years ago I decided to join this industry. To be honest, even though it’s been a lockdown, for us, it has been four months of thinking about how to survive and keeping ourselves going. Even we are waiting for the time when we can sit out and chill a bit. We have not had the opportunity, but we do take the time to watch Netflix, always keeping good found around is a nice idea.
Sameer: To add to what Yash is saying, it is a constant thing that you need to keep looking after yourself. In the beginning, it was really hard because everyone was missing the human connection and now you are going back to having some of that around but I still remember the first couple of weeks when we came back to the restaurant, how odd it was to just be around people after being cooped up at home all day.  Fundamentally, this period is changing behaviours for all of us, whether it’s just the simple act of being more careful or changing the way you interact with your partners when stepping out, etc.  I think over the next few months, you are going to see a lot more of mental issues come up, we all have to be more aware of it and have the ability to take care of ourselves. It happens. You have to build a support structure around you and we’re fortunate to have that. Yash and I live about two blocks away from each other so we end up meeting each other. Just having that human connection in your life is so important.
What is your business plan for 5 years from now?
Sameer: Honestly, we are taking it month-on-month right now. Whatever plans we had at the beginning of the year have gone out. What we thought in March-April has also not come through. We thought that by September-October you will see some semblance of return but clearly that has bot happened in Bombay so far. We are a business that exists in a public space like our entire business is based on people enjoying themselves in close proximity. That’s the kind of behaviour I was talking about earlier. People are going to be fearful like if you have parents at home or there is someone vulnerable, you are going to be very cautious even with the delivery. A lot of people have only now started to order because there is a comfort that has built over time. So, it will play itself out over the next few months. We are literally taking it month-on-month, just talking to everyone and making sure that we are all on the same page.  5 years from now, who knows, hopefully, we are back to where we are used to seeing this business. 
Yash:One thing we did really well when it started was that we created this 3-paged document on what we are going to do for the next 8 months and it basically spoke about pessimistic and optimistic scenarios but it didn’t speak about ‘this is the amount of money that I want to make.’ We took our entire team and asked them to come up with ideas, what can we do with the team we have, what are the spends we have, what do our guests expect from us. And we broke down the document to say that this is what we want to achieve in the next 3 months. Over the 3 months, we have been able to take off everything on that page.  To be honest, a lot of that didn’t work, but this is also a great time to experiment as you will never get so much visibility from your guests in terms of social media and consumers paying attention to what you’re doing. This is the best time to be experimenting, to see in terms of food, what people and price elasticity, does that work? Use that in these six months to experiment and don’t think about if the business going to come back. If you are a good product, a good experience, you will do well in the near future. We just need to survive first.
What are the essentials of brand building right now and how to increase sales?
Sameer: As Yash was saying, the key in this period is experimentation. Whatever playbook we were used to as restaurants or businesses is literally not applicable right now. I think we would have not thought that doing classes over Zoom and making sure we that we are sending ingredients to people before classes would have been popular but as everyone has time on their hands and are working from home, everyone is looking to do something else. And cooking is one of those skills, for which a lot of people just didn’t have time earlier. So, clearly there is a lot of interest. The first couple of classes thought us that and we were fortunate to have partners in the form of an insider who put it all in terms of logistics and we have to then start thinking how to make it more and more interesting. Similarly, we had to go back to things, like we have a tradition each year called Independence Day Dawaat which is a fundraiser for us. We had it last week but we had to complete reimagine to be able to deliver it, to talk about it and it was a great process where you stay true to what the brand is about but you’re adapting to the new behaviour. The other thing that we are realising is that how different it is since we as restaurants are so used to our locations doing a lot of the work for us. Our locations at BKC, Lower Parel and Byculla would draw in a certain amount of people every week, every month. It used to be new customers as well. We suddenly don’t have that so you have to change tactics. How to market it better and how to tell stories better digitally, we are learning it on our own. It’s a huge learning for us as well but you have to be very open. Say, if you didn’t do Ads on social media before, doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t do it now. So, those are the things but you should still remain true to who you are and your ethos.
Yash: If you are thinking about brand building, be literally very genuine to your brand, to who you are and try to portray it this time. Also, remember that you’re going to be shouting out in a crowd of people. There are lots of trends happening but just because you are jumping on the trend, doesn’t mean that you are going to get popular or you’re going to get sales.
Is scaling up gradually a plan or an eventuality? And does scaling up and taking in investors as a food venture means that one looses their creative control?
Sameer: It’s a great question. It’s something that we constantly talk about. First, you have to decide what do you want to do as a business, right? Scaling up as well as taking in investors needs to be, as Yash pointed out, something which you genuinely want to do, I think we live in a time and age where raising funds in the new measure of success. It’s like you raised money and therefore, you’ve made it. But the reality is that money wants to make more money. So, you better be willing to do that. We were really thoughtful about it. For the first 24 months, we were very clear, we wanted to build The Bombay Canteen to run on its own. If we had tried to go out there, take on more properties and just kept building more and more, it won’t have made sense. In fact, those two years made us realise that we don’t want to make The Bombay Canteen scale as a brand, just another one 10 km away. It had become an experience and taking an experience a few km away doesn’t mean that it’s going to be successful. What was going to be successful is the ethos of really providing their hospitality in a genuine way. That’s what came in the form of Opedro. Similarly, as we have been evaluating what we want to do and scale for us is a function of our own aspirations, right? We very consciously spoke about it that we want to do it. But as we were seeing the ecosystem two years ago in India, Delhi versus Bombay versus Bangalore were almost 3 different countries. You cannot just plant the same restaurant and expect it to do well. Two people have very different tastes. the real estate piece is one aspect of it and the taste of it varies. So, you almost have to build a new business from scratch every time. The reality is that if you start taking on venture capital funds and other financial investors, they will expect you to go at a certain pace which is not viable sometimes. This is why we thought of Bombay Sweet Shop, where the idea of delving people into Indian food and traditions is the same but looking at it from the point of view of a product.
Yash: If you go back to the early 90s, there were certain aspirations when we used to go with our parents to buy a Dairy Milk chocolate and we used to treasure that chocolate. Now, years later, if it was Diwali and someone gifted you a Ferrero Rocher box, it seemed like that person liked you. It was extremely aspirational but if you go 20 years back, it used to be Mithai which were Indian sweets. I was travelling through Turkey once and at the airport, I saw a man selling their local sweet which was a Turkish delight. And he was doing it with such pride because you could see that there is something more to Turkey itself. There were so many people lining up to buy it and I was like, “Why are we not doing this with Indian sweets? Why are we not proud of it? Why are we not talking about it? Why is it not aspirational enough?” That is just a summary of how Bombay Sweet Shop came about. It was to take the whole Indian sweets process and to show it to people, show it creatively and create a brand out of that. Scale doesn’t mean that we need to have 40 Bombay Sweet Shops over India. It can mean that over the next couple of years, we are able to deliver that product to people at different parts of India but done in a well executional way. Now, to answer Amit’s question of losing creative control when you get more investors and investor money, we wouldn’t be the right people to answer that because we are still a small start-up. I guess, it also depends on the kind of money that you are getting in and it’s also about having that conversation because if some is investing X amount of money, you need to be able to ask them,” Why are you doing it?”. So, it depends from investor to investor.
Sameer: To add to this, you have to make it clear early on that this is the way I wish to run my business and if someone is not agreeing to that way, you need to take another route then. We have had investors and we have had honest and clear conversations with them at every stage about what that creativity means to us and how do we want to run it. This has been the key to retaining that creative control. As you scale, it does get harder, there’s no doubt about it, but hopefully, we will learn how to deal with it as we move.
What are the top three factors that make you stand out of the crowd?
Yash: I don’t think that we are still standing out from the crowd. All of us, I count all four founders, Sameer, Thomas, Floyd, who is not there and I, have substantial experience fo working in every field of restaurants. So, we are not just owners, we are people who can get our hands-on and understand every bit of operations which I feel is really important.  feel it is important for every founder to get his hands dirty, may it be a tech founder, you need to understand the inside out of what you’re trying to do. So, that is one thing and what helped us with that is it takes a certain amount of humility within us as founders. To be honest, the restaurant industry is not the most respected industry in India and I hope that changes over time. What that humility lets us do is build an amazing team around us, a team that is supremely talented but also wants to go the extra mile not just because we tell them to but because they want to, themselves.
Sameer: And I think what is really important to remember is that restaurant is a “cool” plan to own. You walk into a restaurant, you have a drink and some food and think that this is amazing and you want to open up a restaurant. There is a certain social currency that comes with owning a restaurant for you with your friends but what is forgotten is that 90-95% of the times, it is the rubbish work that takes up your day like when you have to figure out where the garbage is going or how it is going or when you have to deal with authorities. But you have to start building the business in a way that it is consistent. A restaurant is like a theatre, everyday people are coming in for a show and you have to consistently perform. You are only as good as the last plate of food, or the last drink for the last service that you provide. Otherwise, no one is going to come back to you. Having worked in the industry for long enough, we knew that it is the consistency that we have to build to be able to be successful and that is what makes us stand out. 
Which amongst the 3 of your enterprises have managed the transition to the delivery market more easily and why? 
Yash: I don’t think that the delivery market is easy in any shape or form.  Managing delivery logistics in our country is supremely difficult. We never wanted to deliver for Bombay Sweet Shop from Day 1. We wanted it to be a place where people come in and buy the products. And to have to set that up from  0 to 100 during a pandemic is challenging but it was a lot of fun. We made a lot of mistakes, it has not been easier but it got us more success. With regards to the restaurants, we always had delivery, so we knew what the processes were. However, the challenge with restaurants is that the food is hot, so it needs to reach people within 35-40 mins. Whereas we made our sweets fresh every day but we can club in the orders and send them across the city in a better way as long as we have a car that’s delivering. So, I feel that Bombay Sweet Shop has been easier as it is better equipped to handle emergencies.
Sameer: And also because of the nature of the product, itself. Mithai goes in a box and naturally, that’s how we are used to consuming it. Versus the food which you eat within 5-10 minutes of it being made. That is the difference that we are learning. Both have there own set of challenges. With everything we do, we are learning to get better at it.
What mistakes did you make and what did you learn from them?
Yash: You expect the consumers to behave very similar to the way they behaved before the pandemic. Earlier, if my delivery bag’s value used to be Rs.1000/-, now it is Rs.3000/- because people have their entire family stuck at home and they are ordering more but they are only ordering once in weeks. So, it was one person having one bag to carry but now it is four bags. The kind of delivery vehicle that is needs is different. Things we never thought of from a restaurant point of view, having the right kind point of sales which takes orders, making orders more accessible like the option of ordering from WhatsApp but then also having the backend technology for being able to absorb those orders. So, I don’t think that we were ready on a technological front, I don’t think that we are there yet. That is something we should have invested in, a few years back, as a business. This pandemic made us realise that. We are bearing fruits of that mistake right now. Also, in terms of our menu mix, what we thought will sell, which we have been putting out has not done so well for various reasons but it has been quite the learning.
Sameer: We also realised that during major festivals, delivery riders disappear very fast. So, last few weeks, we have ourselves been going for delivering food across Bombay to make sure that it reaches in time. It has been really interesting, going through the process of actually doing the deliveries. You realise the main points that are involved like going into a building, singing up on security, every building has its own rules, etc. You understand the main points involved, the final touchpoint with the guests. Hopefully, we can take some of those learnings and make it a better experience over a period of time.
Which is your hottest selling home delivery item?
Sameer: We keep changing our menus every three weeks. As Yash mentioned earlier, people want to order from us to feel good but they will order every two weeks. And after that, they don’t want to order that same thing again. For example, we’re just finishing our Monsoon street food-inspired menu and next week onwards, we are going to be doing an Onam Sadhya for Onam on Monday which is very interesting. We just launched it today and people are already signing up for it. It will lead to a different menu for the next month. So, I think that is what people look forward to. Cocktails also do very well. So we make sure that people can make those cocktails at home. 
Read: Good food for a good cause: The Bombay Canteen’s Independence Day Daawat is back
How will you create a buzz in your restaurants given that social distancing norms will reduce the number of pax?
Sameer: Looking at Europe and East Asia where actual opening up has happened, it has been interesting to see that restaurants have figured out a way in which people can be let in but again it’s going to take time in India, as the market here usually behaves quite differently. It’s a hard one to answer just yet on how it will play out. As we have done with experimentation so far, we will just continue to experiment.
Yash: I guess this question is more about what we miss about restaurants, the vibe. Historically, Indians have been extremely loud people so even if the occupancy is at 30%, the restaurant still seems busy.

 

 

 

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