A shikara in a loft atop a tiny building in Goregaon may seem odd. But it’s the centrepiece of the Kashmiri restaurant KongPoush owned by Sunil Mattoo (37).
As a steaming hot cup of Kashmiri kahwa arrives, Mattoo recounts what brought him to Mumbai.
Born and brought up in Kashmir, Sunil migrated to Delhi 14 years ago. He came to Mumbai in 1999, hoping to break into Bollywood. “I was in Juhu, and I struggled for a long time,” he said.
He skips the period in between and jumps straight to 2008, when his wife Seema, a journalist, persuaded him to open this restaurant.
Here comes trouble
Sunil and Seema opened KongPoush in June that year. “Just as we were settling down, the market crashed,” Sunil recalled. The peak season for most restaurants — October to December — was lost and Sunil felt the full brunt of it. “Being new, KongPoush was not well known. In any case, people were unwilling to spend,” he said.
The restaurant got merely 20 to 25 customers a day against the target of 60. The result: the Mattoos found themselves with piles of bills and the cash flow down to a trickle. To add to their worries, Seema was four months pregnant and wasn’t working. Pushed into a corner, Sunil had to dip into his savings to pay the restaurant bills. “I felt like I was on sick leave, but without pay. Can you imagine how we managed to pay the doctor’s fees?” he said.
Biting the bullet
Though the couple was staring at disaster, they decided not to compromise either at home or at the restaurant. “I was 100 per cent committed to my restaurant, and made sure that even if I got one or two customers, they left satisfied,” said Sunil.
The Mattoos also decided to keep their standards high by using the best ingredients and maintaining the restaurant’s ambience.
While he realised that he was over staffed, Sunil decided not to fire any staff. “What would I have achieved by firing a few people and saving Rs 10,000- 20,000? The loss was completely mine to bear,” he said.
Sunil had hoped to buy a new car and move into a home of his own, but shelved the plans.
The downturn hurt less because he did not have an extravagant lifestyle. “We never threw big parties or spent big on shopping, so there was no question of it affecting our lifestyle,” he said. “I saw it more as a reminder that I must save what I have rather than worry about what I don’t.”
“I kept telling myself this is a temporary phase and there was some comfort in the fact that I wasn’t the only one going through it,” said Sunil.
“I used to call my parents often and, given that they have gone through so much more, my problems suddenly felt small.”
Mumbai’s Kashmiri community showed its support by turning up at his restaurant to boost business. Some of them, who were working in financial institutions, offered him monetary support.
Sunil’s perseverance paid off, and his restaurant was voted the best in Mumbai on Burrp.com, a popular culinary website.
“After April, things started picking up again. Now I get at least 40 to 50 people a day,” said Sunil. As soon as things improved, Sunil announced raises for the staff, which lightened the atmosphere further. “I am so glad those dark months are over,” he sighed.
There was more good news. Sunil and Seema had a daughter in November.
“I am happy with my progress. I have a unique place, with enough support from friends and family, and I hope to move to a better locality as soon as things improve a little more,” he said.