Want to own a café, serve the most delectable of food, have the warmest of guests, and live in that dream where cookies, cakes, curries, smiles and a neat profit live together happily ever after? Well, in the real world, that perfect recipe isn’t that easy to cook.
What, then, does it take to be a food entrepreneur? A fancy degree, some hereditary knowledge of recipes, or years of sweat and toil? For popular restaurant owners in Chandigarh and its periphery, none of that holds singular significance. What stands out is sheer passion for food coupled with undying enthusiasm in a high-risk business.
HT Brunch brings to you stories behind some prime restaurants in the tricity and its surroundings.
PRIYA AND ABHAY JAGAT
All about ambience
Where: Whispering Willows, Zirakpur; Willow Café in Sector 10; Orchid Lounge, Sector 34; Nomad in Sector 7; and Backpackers in Sector 9 and Elante, Chandigarh
First, they got the city driving to their farmhouse outside Chandigarh, in a then-obscure little town called Zirakpur. In theory, Whispering Willows seemed far and out of the comfort zone of the easygoing people of Chandigarh. Yet, Priya and husband Abhay Jagat have scripted a success story. That, too, when their entry to the world of entrepreneurship was by chance!
After getting married in 2002, it was when they were constructing a house in Zirakpur that Abhay got the idea to convert it into a commercial countryside retreat. Priya took care of designing and other intricacies. They started the Vanity Fair in 2003 for publicity, and it took a while to make a name. “We have been part of the changes the city has gone through. Somewhere down the line, we worked around them to reach our goals,” says Priya.
Armed with faith in their ventures, they end up having midnight conversations about some dish not tasting fine, or something lacking at a wedding party organised at Whispering Willows. But no idea works overnight, says Abhay, who believes in being patient and waiting for the public to respond to new places and concepts.
Orchid Lounge, an elegant lounge-bar-restaurant with a fine pan-Asian dining menu in Sector 34, started in 2004. Backpackers in Sector 9 opened in 2006; and the one at Elante, around two years ago. Built on the lines of a European café, it was arguably the first to break into the market of theme-based gourmet cafes. And there’s Café Nomad, with Mediterranean theme. Think wood, fire and oven. It’s famous for its pita bread and hummus. Willow Cafe opened in 2010 is also a quaint little getaway from the city’s humdrum, Chandigarh’s first country-style cafe.
Success mantra: Patience and perseverance
Biggest challenge: There is one every day, they say
What’s next: chid Lounge’s new look and re-launch
Where: Monica’s Pudding and Pies, Sec 8 and 35, Chandigarh
Monica’s Kitchen & Kaffe, Elante Mall, Chandigarh
Nikhil Mittal and Nitin Mittal
Like hot cakesWhere: Nik Bakers in Sector 9 and 35, and Elante Mall, Chandigarh; also in Panchkula and Ludhiana
He began with a bang in Sector 9 of Chandigarh in August 2006, as the first European bakery in the city. But Nikhil Mittal, 34, or ‘Nik’, as he is popularly known, was daunted by the challenge of making Chandigarh residents like his type of cakes and pastries. As it turns out, it wasn’t that daunting after all.
Having returned from an education-cum-work stint in Australia, he started his second outlet (Sector 35) just a year after the debut. Such has been his success that he is already in Ludhiana, besides at Chandigarh’s Elante Mall and in Panchkula. His popularity travels much further, making him a household name in the region.
Describing himself as a “complete foodie since childhood”, Nikhil has not only made a name as a chef trained in Australia but as a food entrepreneur in his own right, in his hometown. While Nikhil gives his father, a businessman, credit for teaching him to pay attention to minute details, he actually took a bank loan for his first outlet.
He also makes special mention of his 28-year-old brother, Nitin, who looks after the administrative setup. “We feel happy about the recognition, but there are a lot of things that come with it, such as exorbitant rentals, rise in employee salaries, and taxes. Entrepreneurship has risks but I think we’ve come a long way, with a long journey ahead as well!”
Success mantra: A man once told Nik that he had proposed to his wife (then girlfriend) with brownies from Nik’s. “That makes us feel that we’re doing something right!”
Biggest challenge: Procurement of raw material from across the world
What’s next: Outlets in Jalandhar and Patiala
S SUNDARAM AND UMA MAHESHWARI
true to roots
Where: Sundaram’s in Sector 26, 35, Aroma-22 in Chandigarh and Phase 3B2, SAS Nagar
Here, tastes don’t converge. Sundaram’s is about authenticity. Named after founder S Sundaram, this chain is dedicated to real South Indian taste.
S Sundaram’s journey from Tamil Nadu to Chandigarh is an inspiration. He came to the city in 1977 for a job, and joined English daily Indian Express as an administrative employee. His wife Uma Maheshwari’s culinary skills made them start an outdoor catering service in 2001. Such was the response that S Sundaram quit his job and opened a restaurant in Sector 35 in 2002. For the capital, they borrowed money, sold their house and jewellery, put in his gratuity and provident fund. It totaled to “about Rs 45 lakh”.
Now, they have three more, and counting.
But there’s nothing fancy about it. “We don’t have an official manager. My wife sits at the counter in Sector 35 while my 28-year-old son takes care of the outlet at Aroma. I go to each outlet to keep a check,” he says.
He narrates struggles, yet believes God has been kind. “We had no option but to make this venture successful as we had sold our jewellery and house for it. It is our life now.”
Success mantra: Dedication
Biggest challenge: No previous experience in food trade; apprehension that South Indian fare won’t do well in Chandigarh
What next: Expanding to J&K and Himachal
Ragini and Amber Mehrotra
Where: Whistling Duck, Sector 26, Chandigarh"
The quintessential cafe with a courtyard, sans any frills — the oddly-named Whistling Duck is a basic idea done exceptionally well.
From the open area that will make you nostalgic about grandma’s ‘angan’, to the 24-foot-long table at the centre, each design element has a story. “It’s rooted in our culture yet has an international appeal,” says owner Amber Mehrotra, 39. And the eclectic menu draws inspiration from even Korea and South America.
A strong urge to return to their roots made the couple move from Dubai to India in 2011. “We wanted our kids to be close to the hills,” says Amber, who was a brand consultant, while wife Ragini was a banker. With a six-month sabbatical as the first step, never did they think the plan to open a small cafe would result in a full-fledged restaurant. “Although my wife loves to host people and she is a foodie herself, we never had a game-plan. We simply wanted to create a Sunday brunch space, kind of,” says Amber, whose father is an educationist from Shimla and has no business background. Savings held the key as they opened in September 2013.
What makes this couple stand apart also is the desire to contribute to culture. “We’re working on creating a platform for independent music, films, art, comedy, design. We’ve already had a ‘meet the author’ event and an independent music album launch,” informs Ragini.
Success mantra: Amber’s experience as brand consultant helped hire top professionals
Biggest challenge: Zero background in hospitality industry
What’s next: Taking Whistling Duck to more cities, not just in India
ZORAWAR AND GURFATEH SINGH SURI
Where: Bistro Flamme Bois, Sector 7, Chandigarh; and Basil & Bean in Dharampur (HP), on Shimla highway
Famous for its thin-crust pizzas, char-grilled burgers and, of course, the delicious Brit fish, Bistro Flamme Bois in Sector 7 hardly needs an introduction. The brainchild of businessman Karandeep Singh Suri, who opened the first outlet in Sector 35, it’s the personal attention given by his sons Zorawar Singh Suri, 22, and Gurfateh Singh Suri, 21, that has made Flamme Bois one of the most reliably good restaurants to visit.
The zeal and enthusiasm are palpable. While Zorawar is the one always seen in the restaurant to give personal attention to each guest, Gurfateh works silently on the administrative side. “While I try and keep a check on the quality of food being served on each table and ensure that no guest leaves unhappy, Gurfateh takes care of the finances, procurement of raw material; he starts his day way before I do,” says Zorawar.
Describing it as their love for the city that they’ve grown up in, the brothers don’t consider it hardcore business, and believe their USP lies in the personal interest they take — from Gurfateh having most of his meals at the restaurant to Zorawar using his engineering skills to ensure the tables are close to each other to represent a close-knit community.
Success mantra: Personal involvement and freshness of the food
Biggest challenge: Taking criticism constructively
What’s next: Hotels (they already have an inn with the Dharampur restaurant) and a place in Goa